Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Timber!

Lee Anne Wong remembers her high-flying production adventure.

 

I'm actually on a Continental flight right now headed out to LA to do final casting for Season 4. (I seem to write many of these blogs on a plane lately). BUT I was so excited to watch this episode because the production company put so much work into the next two episodes when we made the move to New York. When I had first heard about the move, the first words that came to mind were "crazy", "good God", and "seriously?". Moving an entire production to a different city in the thick of it is no small feat, but the Elves [Top Chef's amazing production team] and everyone involved do what they do, which is why they are "Magical".

I actually left to come to New York/Newark directly after the yacht challenge. Watching this episode was a particularly joy for me because I wanted to see the great work that Shannon had done in setting up the Quickfire in my absence, and I have to say he did a spectacular job. I was also pleased to see the comedy that happened at the wake-up/Quickfire. I live alone, so the only thing that wakes me up is the not-so-glorious sound of my alarm clock. Had Padma walked into my room, who knows, but I thought all of the chefs handled the situation with grace and a good bit of humor.

Blenders are a staple of a chef's equipment repertoire. Considering the abrupt wake-up call, I thought all six did an amazing job. Ladies who love crepes, Mr. Jacobson would be happy to prepare these for you at all hours of the morning after... And yes, Padma does look entirely phenomenal at 7 a.m. with no makeup and no skimpy wardrobe.

Hung has become a bit of an anomaly for me. Denial is the first, second, and last stage for him apparently, and the camera doesn't lie. I recall a time I busted a bag of ice everywhere in the middle of a Quickfire, and I made a good attempt to clean it up so that no one would hurt themselves (I think it was even caught on camera). Kitchen safety with Hung has been one of the main concerns for his fellow contestants, and while it was a timed competition, any responsible chef would take care of a precarious situation such as oil and broken glass on the floor.

It was great to see the excitement for all of the contestants when they received their plane tickets. Unlike the previous two seasons, there were no New York chefs still in the running. The Continental Airlines challenge was, well, challenging. This was one of their most difficult tests by far, and I had been working with the Continental staff for weeks in evaluating the rules, equipment, and standardized practices in preparing and serving airline food. We all have our horror stories with airline food, but that's why this was such a great challenge, and even through some failure, I thought all six of the contestants did a great job in trying to adapt to these circumstances in little to no time. From fitting the food into separate, height-restricted containers, to a required heating time of at least 10 minutes at 350°F in an unfamiliar heating vessel, it was a risky challenge.

Before I go any further, I would like to thank everyone at Continental Airlines, for doing what you do, with special thanks to Danny Cuellar, Chef Robin, Chef Gerry, and Chef Jimmy. I learned so much about airplane cuisine in a matter of days from working with them, and now have a hope and a dream to work with an airline someday in continuing to feed quality food to the masses at 35,000 feet. To see the Chelsea Food Services/Continental Catering Kitchen in action is a sight to behold. As a chef I now have a true understanding of what it takes to even serve snacks to customers on the thousands of flights that take place daily around the world (a whole lot of organization and coordination,,,). There are food safety regulations, in addition to the marketing/appeal considerations of dishes and menus. Is it healthy? Does it taste good? Is it the quality it should be?

I prepped the plane (which was awesome to stand next to, by the way) and sat on it the entire time the challenge was going on, clearing plates between courses. One rule that you all should know is that the contestants were not allowed to bring knives on the plane. Their entire meal had to be prepped to the point of heat, plate, and serve. They had to consider heating (with a 10 minute minimum), portion control (which Dale fell short on, and Brian may have had too much of), and ease of plating (each was allowed to choose a fellow contestant to help them plate 18 portions). Keep in mind that the galley spaces were extremely small. They were each given a standardized size of entree plate and side dish, which is probably why Brian's 12-ounce steaks seemed extremely generous.

I am glad the contestants understood the basics of the challenge when they chose their proteins, in going for higher fat contents and business/first class quality dishes. I tasted most of their dishes (with the exception of Dale's, which I had to recreate from memory for camera the next day due to his shortage.) Hung's dish was great; the fish was moist and had the added savory tang of the tomato ragout and the classic turned veggies. Casey's dish was delicious; the veal was tender with a lightly sweet compliment added by the apples and the creamy cheesiness of the cauliflower (I LOVE cauliflower and the gratin style was a nice choice, perfectly adapted for the rules and conditions of the challenge).

With the bottom three, not so great. Brian is such a talented chef, with this bigger than life personality/showmanship attached. I think at times he suffers from trying to overdo it. I boil/steam lobsters WHOLE for seven minutes to achieve a just-cooked doneness. I could not imagine precooking it and then sticking it in an oven for at least another 10 minutes (chopped up) -- it'd be rubber. In other words, leave the seafood alone, for once. Sara's couscous WAS an afterthought, admittedly. And yes, overcooked salmon is akin to cat food, and also the reason why I don't eat canned tuna fish.

Poor, poor CJ. It was funny because I had heard from field producers ahead of time how psyched he was to come to NY and then the sheer frustration and disappointment/hope of just wanting to get a NY slice of pizza. I think the first thing I asked him the next time I saw him after he was eliminated was if he ever got that slice (he did). Unfortunately, his mint sauce was yogurt-based and broke (fat separated from water leaving a not-so-appealing result) due to the 10-minute heat time, not to mention that the mint turned army green/brown in color. The broccolini was crispy like shoe leather indeed. Put Tom and Tony Bourdain in a room together with that broccolini...yikes.

So the big tree and his testicle fell down in the Top Chef forest with a hard thump (did anyone hear a sound?). I know many of you have responded somewhat negatively to CJ in the past few episodes, but don't forget $100,000 and much more is on the line. I am quite fond of CJ and his witty/smart-ass nature. Everyone's gotta throw someone under the bus at some point, and when it's down to less than half it becomes a difficult reality. At the end of the day, CJ's still got the skills, talent, and charm -- which is why we had originally cast him. (And he and Tre have that trip to Italy, so don't feel TOO bad for them).

I'm SO excited for next week's episode. Get ready for a stupid long blog.

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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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