Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Grand Poo-bah

Lee Anne takes on the comfort food challenge.

I was thrilled to hear that Alfred Portale would be our guest judge for the episode. He is not only a New York legend, but also known worldwide for what I can call truly American cuisine. I have never had a mediocre meal at Gotham Bar and Grill and if you haven't dined there yet, you should. Eloquent, knowledgeable and to the point, he was the perfect judge for this episode.

I sourced the live shellfish from all over the country, but the real gem of the fish tank was the live conch, supplied by one of the only (and best) conch suppliers in the country, Whitewater Clams, located in South Florida. I had only ever worked with frozen conch meat before so it took a few tries with the conch remover to get it out of its shell. The reward was something so sublime, sweet and delicious that I instantly became a fan of fresh conch. (All of the leftover seafood went into making a very expensive seafood and coconut ceviche when Shannon and I cooked an Easter feast for the production crew, one of our rare days off).

I tasted most of the Quickfire dishes and Brian's was indeed spot on with very simple and classic flavors that let the fresh seafood sing. While I did enjoy CJ's and I thought it was beautiful, I felt that the ham, cauliflower, and other stuff overwhelmed the clams he used, of which there were only a few pieces on the plate. In some strange way it reminded me of Stephen's dish from the Quickfire we did with Ted Allen.

We had scouted the Miami Elks lodge a week before the challenge. That may have been the swankiest Elks lodge in America, complete with a bar room, swimming pool, pool tables, and the sexiest shuffle board table I have ever seen (much to Shannon's and my delight, as we are enthusiastic shuffle board players here in NYC). It was bit of debate coming up with a list of dishes for "family favorites". I am positive we all have our own stories...

Wednesday was "Prince Spaghetti Day" when I was a kid. We wanted to give them dishes that were relatively well known and see if they could put their creative twist on it. Shannon and I had a ball making the dishes for display, equally fascinated and yet somehow disgusted by the loads of cream of mushroom soup that we went through. For the record, canned tuna fish is one of the five foods I refuse to eat. I will not consume it in any way, shape, or form. Bad childhood experience, I'll leave it at that. It pained me to make the tuna casserole.

Now I loooove macaroni and cheese, but to be honest I eat tofu more often than digging into a hot gooey bowl of mac. I was surprised that not a single contestant chose to use any soy or wheat based proteins as a meat substitute. Thinking about it now, in terms of fine dining, there are usually vegetarian options on every menu but rarely does tofu make an appearance unless it is an Asian fine dining restaurant. In any case Brian would've been much better off stuffing the cabbage with tofu or ground turkey, rather than his blatant disregard of the challenge parameters (we had hung a poster in the pantry listing high cholesterol foods to avoid).

Many of the contestants took a literal approach, like Camille's remake of tacos. It would have been nice to see CJ somehow use a piece of rare seared tuna or even some sort of tuna tartar. I found Dale's dish to be a creative and innovative take on chicken and dumplings, which is one of my favorite things to make. Dumplings are normally a doughy batter that steams on top of the stew while it cooks. He made actual potato dumplings, and stuffed them with chicken. Brilliant. While not a fan of buying pre-made foods for the challenges, his choice to use instant mashed potatoes was a smart one. Reminds me of Cake-gate.

Howie's pork chop and fennel apple salad was porktastically delicious. All of you who were screaming for Howie's head last week should try making the recipe, which you can see on this week's webisode. Howie, in my opinion, is a big softie on the inside. He takes the competition seriously, and while he's not necessarily there to make friends, I found his ethics in the kitchen and at judges table to be admirable -- a stand up guy who needs a hug really. I was happy to see him win this one.

Just so you know, they each only had to make 5 dishes in total, so the time limit should not be an excuse why one would not make their own sausage (I made my sausage in less than 45 minutes). Lia's an incredibly capable chef, but her dish was uninspired. While she still should've checked the oven settings, Sara Mair's raw chicken may have been due to Hung's lack of consideration for the rest of his fellow contestants.

Whenever there is a challenge, I turn on all of the ovens and deep fryers to preheat an hour ahead of time so everything is ready to go when the contestants get in the kitchen. For Hung to turn off the only convection oven in the kitchen, after he was done using it, shows either complete apathy or a moment of stupidity. Sara's dish was still not even close to chicken ala king, but I wanted to comment on the whole oven turned off situation because it could have affected many more chefs in the kitchen had Sara not been the first to suffer. (Note: when the convection oven is on cool down, there is still a considerable amount of heat being circulated on the inside and the fan is still blowing, so when you open the door it is easy to think the oven is still on.)

Micah's not un-American at all. She just never had meatloaf as a kid. While her references to what we as Americans like to eat could have been misconstrued as derogatory, it's just because she honestly is not familiar with the food that was on the table. Her dish was terrible, more like an odd meat terrine in a ring mold than a meat loaf. The flavors were off and the texture was dry and mealy.

I have no doubt that she is a good chef, just not this time. What you don't see is her role early on as the house mom, cooking for the other contestants in the penthouse. She cooks out of love, and because she enjoys it, and maybe was not cut out for the competitive nature of Top Chef. Her experiences as a world traveler makes her cuisine compelling and interesting and I am sure she has a bright future with her catering company and her daughter by her side -- all the best Micah. The Miami Elks lodge rocked. I would've liked to see Tom in a giant buffalo hat with horns, like Fred Flintstone. But for today, Howie is the Grand Puba.

Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Hugh Acheson weighs in on the finale showdown between Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet.

There is always a Top Chef winner but obviously some seasons have a less experienced assemblage of chefs, while others have veritable US Olympic-caliber culinary practitioners. (Congrats to Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or competition by the way! Silver! Silver!)

This particular season of Top Chef could have been a contest of mediocrity, but it bloomed into something very skilled and mature, which is good for judging, but makes writing a blog with poop jokes and rap humor very difficult. I have to say, I was a little worried at the beginning that the whole chef squadron was a little shaky. But early retreats by chefs with bigger egos than culinary skillsets allowed the true talent to rise without being malevolent fools. And that talent really was there. By mid season we were eating their visions on the plate, while watching them battle it out over the food and just the food.

The two most successful chefs of the season made it to the end, and they are ready to rumble in the most respective way they know how. One will plate most of their food on the side of the plate, incorporating Korean flavors and modern technique into the vittles, while the other will weave a more classic story and put food more in the center of the plate like regular people. Should be a good show no matter what, because at the end of the day, it’s just hard not to be really enamored with both of them. They are good people.

Gregory and Mei start out on a hot air balloon ride, because that’s how I like to start every day in Mexico. The country looks beautiful to me even if you are in a basket hoisted hundreds of feet into the air by hot air. The hotel I stayed in was the Casa di Sierra Nevada, which was AWESOME, so if you are looking for a vacation, go there. It's no party town, but it is plenty fun. Great food scene. And to put safety into perspective, I felt safer wandering around St. Miguel than I do my hometown. Anyway, the balloon ride looks like fun and allows for that finale moment of almost tearful reminiscence and contemplation.

So their balloon ride lands in a vineyard, and Tom and Padma are waiting to put a halt to this sentimentality. The task is put forward and the challenge, this final culinary joust, is to create a meal that is the meal of their lives. They pick their two sous chefs per person; Gregory picks Doug and George, while Mei picks Melissa and Rebecca.

They prep their menus after a good night’s sleep. The prep I will not talk about too much, but suffice it to say that each team seems very pro and super on top of things.

Traci des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, Gavin Kaysen, and Donnie Masterton are dining with us, all of them amazing chefs. Like amazing amazing. The kid’s table, at which I am the head, is made up of Sean, Traci, Gavin, and Gail. It is a super table. At the table I decide to hold true to the tourist warning of not drinking the water. I thus only drink wine and the phenomenal beauty of Casa Dragones tequila, a concoction that will make me sleep soundly (but probably by dessert) on the table.

Mei hits us with an octopus that I really, really like. It resounds with flavors of coconut, avocado, and fish sauce. It is deep. The only flaw is that maybe it is a bit over done. The over cooking made it kind of crunchy and she could easily have been cooking it to that point on purpose. Second course from her is a congee, with peanuts, carnitas, egg yolk, and hot sauce. It is so f----ing delicious. Like stylized comfort food that you just want to eat all the time. Comfort food, when perfect, is perhaps the hardest food to cook, because it is by definition food you are very familiar with, resulting in people having a lot of preconceived notions about it. This congee would have silenced all critics on congee. It was that good.

Mei is gliding through this meal. She has palpable confidence, but is still a nicely soft-spoken leader. In my years of watching people lead kitchens, I have always been more taken with the allegiance that soft-spoken leaders cultivate in their staffs. Her third course is a duck course, and like the congee, she has cooked duck at least twice this season, but in entirely different ways. This duck has kimchi, braised lettuce, and huitlacoche on the plate. Huitlacoche is corn smut, a term I just yelled in a coffee shop, making everyone uncomfortable. It is a good plate, but my refrain about duck skin continues. It was a bit chewy. All in all, the dish just was texturally challenged. It needed a crunchy texture. But it was good still. Her last is her version of yogurt dippin’ dots with strawberry-lime curd, milk crumble, and stuff. It was blow-you-away amazing. Very complex, but very successful. Tom says it is the best dessert on Top Chef he has ever had, and I definitely concur, though he has tasted many more than I have. The toasted yogurt base was amazing.

Gregory steps up with a brothy octopus with cashew milk, fresh prickly pear, and also xoconostle, which is the dried version of prickly pear, kind of like a prickly pear fruit roll up. It is a strong dish, and may be the winner in the Octopus Olympiad. His second was a strange soup that was redolent with flavor until you choked with a shrimp head lodged in your gullet. Strange and a little unrefined for me, and pretty much everyone else. It was a wanted textural element, but made a rustic soup weird. The whole dish needs to be compared to the comfort food of Mei’s congee, and in that context it is no contest.

Third course from Gregory is a bass with carrot sauce, tomatillo, vegetables, and pineapple. It is a strange dish. I am worried for Gregory at this point. It is not like the dish was bad, but the dish was just not a winner winner. Well, let’s not rest on that notion, because his next and final course is a stone cold stunner. Simple short ribs in mole with sweet potato. It is purity on the plate and equal to the idea of Mei’s congee in nailing comfort food. Kudos. He’s back on track. This is a close contest.

Judges' Table comes and we deliberate. I am not going to mince words and hold off on this: It is really close, but this season’s winner is definitely Mei. Well deserved. Gregory is the consummate pro in placing second and is going to be a force to be reckoned with in this restaurant world. His win versus addiction and his success in cooking shows one tough person with oodles of talent.

Mei. Mei. You rock. You are a chef’s chef. You make food that excites and makes us ponder. You are a leader and a super cool person. You are the winner and will always be a winner. Onwards.

Until next season. I loved this season. Thanks BOSTON. And thanks San Miguel di Allende. You are awesome places to work.

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