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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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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