Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Teams' Work

Gin is one of my favorite drinks. I got thoroughly excited when I saw the bottles... it's one of those challenge I would've enjoyed being a part of. For a while, I was a die-hard Rum and Coke fan, but I drank too much of it. All that sugar? I was putting on tons of weight. I said to myself: I need a new drink... something that's going to be refreshing in the summertime. And someone handed me a gin and tonic, and I was like, oh. That's good. And slowly but surely, I found the gin I like, and Bombay Sapphire in that pretty blue bottle: this is what I'm talking about. Some people, when they're drinking gin, get nasty. I get quite giddy.

I thought it was a great quickfire challenge. I thought that some of the chefs had better drinks selected for them than others. A lot of the drinks were dessert-oriented, because of all the fruit in the cocktails. I thought Dale had a tough one, and I felt he really hit it on the nose. If you have a sherry-and-gin based drink, that's screaming foie gras. I thought his dish was really well orchestrated. I was kind of surprised by Hung's dish. I thought that it might have worked well, too. Because of how fatty salmon is, I really appreciated it. I'm not a big salmon guy. I really liked the salmon skin idea, though. I thought that was a sharp move because it cut the sweetness of the drink. Conceptually, it made a ton of sense to me.

I was also surprised by Tre's dish. There was the gin, and then halibut with a lot of fruit in between, and for me, it was a little weird. I wouldn't have been able to taste the fish. The halibut couldn't stand up to all the flavors. Halibut is more of a neutral fish, more of a textural type of fish that gives you get really nice juicy flakes, and I don't know how halibut could've measured up to all the flavors.

And then you have Casey's dish. She didn't have to stretch very much. She had a sweet flavored fish and some foie gras and some sweet accoutrements, and you really can't go wrong with that. I was surprised that so many people went with the scallops. I thought that was telling. In general, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they have an experienced, talented chef doing culinary producing for the show now, and they are giving the chefs a lot of great food to work with. Not to take anything away from the old producers, but they weren't chefs. And for my season I loved the producers on the show but I just wasn't very impressed with what we had to work with; it was pretty bare bones. I never went into the freezer and saw foie gras, fresh olives, fresh scallops, fresh tuna: tons of stuff to work with. It wasn't like that during the first season at all. This season, it certainly is fun to watch. Lee Ann is a badass cook, and incredibly talented. I love eating her food, and watching her cook. You can see that she loves it, so it's a lot of fun to watch her work.

From a challenge standpoint, I thought this was a great show. The chefs haven't been asked to do anything really crazy yet. There's been no Venetian action; there hasn't been anything really daring. I thought last week came the closest so far, with them being asked to do an interpretation of an American classic. I would have been a little cranky doing that. I thought this challenge was great. You have all these ingredients to work with paired with gin, and a lot of chefs drink gin, so I didn't think that was surprising. And then, in the elimination challenge: come up with a trio. I thought to myself: this is another great one.

I really felt for the chefs who did the dessert. It's one of those things, a double-edged sword: you draw the fourth course and you don't put out a dessert? The judges are going to call you out on that. You're creating a tasting menu for these people, and you don't do dessert? You have to. I didn't agree when the judge told them they didn't have to do dessert. It's one of those things, it's like, "yeah, we did have to do that, because if we had pulled out a cheese course at the end, you would've crucified us." So, they went with pineapple, something indigenous to Miami, and I thought that was smart. But pastry is such a science. If I had to go through the whole show again, I would totally position myself to have a half dozen desserts that I could pull out of my sleeve at the drop of a hat, because you know if you get to the finale, you are going to have to do dessert, so you'd better figure something out.

Pineapple was a smart choice, since grocery stores usually don't have great chocolate for cooking. It's usually pretty low quality, so they really had no choice. I thought the shrimp dishes were coming from incredibly talented chefs. You have Brian, who works for a fish restaurant, Hung who has a great pedigree, and has also worked in great restaurants. I thought they really nailed it. And I thought all the beef dishes looked really nice, too. I thought they did a really strong job with that. Tuna is one of those things: to the general public, they love it, but then there are foodies who are say to themselves: "been there, done that". They want to see something a little more than a seared piece of tuna or tuna tartar. If you're going to do tuna, you've got to really bring it.

I was a little surprised at Casey. She goes out there and does a booming foie gras dish, and then she follows up with a tuna tartar? Just because you have immunity, it doesn't mean that the judges won't remember a couple episodes down that you had them eating tartar. They are going to remember it. You can say you were safe for that specific challenge, you can say that it's just challenge-to-challenge, but I don't see free passes being given. I could not stop laughing when I saw those people sitting around the dinner table with their medals on. They never went into what the medals were for. It's this exclusive club, but we never heard why. What are these people doing with medals? Vietnam veterans can wear metals. What do these people get metals for? Because they have a ton of money? We're giving out medals for that now? I was cracking up. 'What do they get the medals for,' I kept wondering. I want to know how it works. What, are they celebrating the fact that they have a ton of money? I wasn't really familiar with the guest judge, but I thought he had some interesting things to say. You all know who I prefer to be a guest judge. I like the chef's chef, I like the guys who are teachers, who are old school, who are humble. The ones that don't need to ridicule the contestants. Until next week...

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

Richard Blais explains why Mei Lin won, and why we'll definitely be hearing from Gregory Gourdet soon.

The finale of Top Chef is the one absolute every season. Make the best meal of your life, in a multi-course tasting format for a room of the "who's who" in the culinary industry.

If you get to the finals, it's the type of thing you can prepare for. Every finalist should have a few four to five course menus floating around their heads, including a dessert, and all complete with options and Plan B's transcribed to their moleskins. And although the knowledge of what's coming is helpful, the format does not play to every chef's strengths.

There aren't too many restaurants committed to such meal services. Which means less chefs experienced with how to "write" and execute them. A progressive meal has to have a certain flow about it. And even the stereotypical versions of the "menu degustation" could force a contestant into cooking a dish that's not in their wheelhouse, for instance a straight forward fish course because "it belongs there."

Tonight, Mei Lin has a slight advantage. She cooks in a restaurant every day that showcases a tasting menu. Her food has been the epitome of a modern tasting menu all season. Many previous times, to a fault. Mei's food is small and precise. Beautiful to look at, and intellectually stimulating to discuss. Cold sometimes, every once in a while a shaved radish plated with tweezers heavy. It's not for everyone. It's not for everyday. But it's the type of food that when done well, can win Top Chef. Win James Beard Award noms. Win Best New Chef honors. Win Michelin stars.

Her future could indeed be bright.

What struck me most about Mei's food tonight however, wasn't technique. Technique and presentation often can get in the way of flavor. But tonight Mei delivered a few courses that were deeply satisfying. Soulful, delicious food that also was presented at a high level and cooked with surgeon's precision. That congee though...combined with a simple dessert that took yogurt and granola to another planet, won her the day. Her other two courses were fine, but suffered from the strains of modernity. Overly plated (the duck) and technically overwrought (the fried octopus).

Gregory on the other hand, it's just not his finest work. You can hear it in his voice as he's explaining his food. He's cooking improv, an ode to Mexico. The problem is, this isn't a jam session at a local cantina. This is a studio session where the chefs should be cooking practiced and refined pieces.

His octopus was a highlight and featured the unusual combination of passion fruit and avocado. It was an explosive start. The following two courses unraveled a bit, with the soup being good, but way too unrefined for the moment and technically problematic (the crispy shrimp heads), and the fish course bordering on dessert with the sugary carrot purée.

The mole was authentic and delicious, the rib cooked perfectly, but the dish felt a little incomplete. I believe Gregory had the better ideas, but just needed to think them through a bit more.

His sadness after the fact, I can attest, is profound. Tearful. Absolute emptiness. Close to the feeling of the sudden loss of a loved one. This may shock some of you, because it is indeed just a game. The mere thought of feeling that way over such silliness is well, silly. But not for us. This isn't the Super Bowl where an athlete loses and they can shake it off. Jump in their Bentley and start thinking about next season. There is no next season. There is no guaranteed pay day for the runner-up. The ten wins you had before don't matter. It just ends. Suddenly. And it's rather sad.

The good thing is, this is certainly, 100%, not the last time you will hear from Gregory. I waxed last week about Doug's professionalism, all of which is very true. But Gregory... Gregory is a special talent. His food (and I can say HIS type of food, because it's unique to him), is a study in refined, exotic comfort. What the man can do with a one-pot meal of braised anything, some chilies, sugar, vinegar, herbs, and spices is beyond impressive. Rarely do I taste food that makes me jealous as a cook. Rarely do I taste food that makes me start thinking about a new restaurant concept. The word inspiring in cooking competitions is sort of like the word "love," when it gets used too much, it loses it luster. Gregory's food however. I love it. It is inspiring.

Congrats to Mei and Gregory! Tom was right, I can't wait to one day say I saw you two way back when, in Mexico, in a little kitchen, before the bright lights, fancy kitchens, and big stages that lay ahead for both of you.

See you next season. I hope!

Richard Blais
@RichardBlais - Twitter and Instagram

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