Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Anthony Bourdain: Chef Is A Four-letter Word

Bourdain on Rocco DiSpirito, bad rice, and why you gotta love Howie.

This week, Chef Anthony Bourdain continues his guest-blogging stint, filling in for Chef Colicchio:

What is a "chef"? A chef is a cook who leads. A chef is someone who knows how to cook and who can also run a kitchen. Leadership skills are required. Management skills. The ability to execute a vision with consistency. Doing these things means that you are constantly making decisions large and small. The ability to make a brilliant, creatively-dazzling and delicious plate of food is near worthless if you can't do it again and again--exactly the same way--at high speed, under the gun, hung over, after a night of fierce Negroni drinking...while listening to Mexican thrash metal. And you can't do it alone.
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So this week's challenges were illustrative of not just the real strengths--and serious weaknesses--of the contestants, but of the general principles of good decision making--the ability to make mistakes, learn from them, and make corrections.

Lia, last week's winner and a very strong cook from a great restaurant, showed us the terrible potential cost of a bad decision. The challenge was to cook for the cast of the Latino soap, "Dame Chocolate". Latinos, many of whom, presumably, have been working far from home for some time. The implied challenge was to cook food that would bring them right BACK home. Authentic flavors and ingredients, or at least flavors and ingredients that would evoke home, connect them in a powerful way with their culture and their culinary history. This was not a challenge. This was an OPPORTUNITY. There are few weapons more powerful in the chef's armory than the ability to make people homesick in wonderful ways. NOTHING brings people back to their childhood, to their family, to earlier, happier, simpler times than the senses of smell and taste (other than music).

One need only see the "Anton Ego-Ratatouille Epiphany" in Ratatouille to understand (as all good chefs do) how happy you can make people with a few simple, familiar flavors. An animated rat got this. Lia, temporarily, forgot. This was no time to start getting too creative, adding one's own spin, or dicking around with trout and polenta.
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When looking for examples of GOOD decision making, one need look no further than at the resurgent tag team of Howie and Joey. In a shocking reversal of fortune, the much-maligned (by me) Joey stepped up and got it just right. Like a boxer, waking from too many punch-drunk early rounds, he finally saw his opportunity, identified his target, and executed flawlessly. I suspect I have underestimated the man. And may I say that he was much more likable in this episode. There is -- I think--plenty of good reason for Joey and Howie to get along--this act has legs. They're freakin' adorable together--an even more dysfunctional Martin and Lewis. They play their cards right, there's a long television career in keeping this double act together.
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Who, of all people, AGAIN demonstrated the finest in chiefly qualities? What unlikely journeyman once again stepped up and out of his weight class to show the more gifted (but less mature) how it's done? What's REALLY important? Tenacious Bulldog Howie!

You GOT to love this guy. He repeatedly has time issues. He's clearly no bundle of fun. He's as serious as a bad chest X-ray. He looks like a fireplug. But I gotta tell you, when he cracked a big, much-deserved grin in the winner's circle, I smiled along with him and might have even pumped a fist in the air and shouted "YES!" Alone among the contestants, Howie shows extraordinary analytical prowess. He has the ability see things as they are and to accept the reality of the situation. He owns his mistakes. He learns from them. In this Elimination Challenge, he analyzed the situation and his audience, and made some basic decisions. When his prep time was cut drastically, he made a VERY hard choice (to stick with his original decision), stayed the course – while making minor adjustments – and executed. More impressive, he recognized what was great about Joey's dish. He may not like his frequent adversary. He may be in competition with him. But these factors did not prevent him from seeing things as they were--that Joey's was the better dish – and saying so.
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A realistic assessment of the situation is exactly what Howie's good at--and what talented but increasingly delusional Hung seems utterly incapable of. When a pastry chef of MANY more years experience practicing their trade than you've got out of diapers tells you your chocolate mousse is crap? It's crap. When you've got to resort to the transparently desperate measure of lining your saggy-ass wedge of chocolate tart with strawberry slices (to keep it from leaking all over the table like baby puke)? It doesn't MATTER if you think "the flavors are there". "Flavor" counts for very little in a competition for "Top Chef" if your dish looks like something you'd find circling the bowl after a whiskey binge. Hung's look of utter incredulity and contempt when being advised of his deficiencies, his seeming total inability to receive or accept or understand criticism is dismaying. It seems almost...pathological.

His racing around the kitchen like a methedrine-jacked lab rat (for Arroz Con Pollo, no less!), knife out, is the sort of thing a first-year culinary student does. His dishes are often inspired, his skills unquestionably there in abundance, but he seems incapable of the economy of movement that all professionals learn EARLY, and which even Martha Stewart has in spades. And when the majority of your Latino guests, all the judges, and Tom Colicchio in particular agree that your RICE blows? That's not anybody's "personal opinion". It's a fact.


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As a final tip, I'd advise Hung in particular to be cautious next week. Do NOT underestimate guest judge Rocco DiSpirito. It's easy to be dismissive of Rocco's limelight-loving ways, or to have been appalled (as I was) by the horrifying circus of bathos that was his reality series. And he DOES have that curious Nicole Kidman "shock and awe" expression on his face these days; but Rocco--when he wanted to-- could COOK. Brilliantly. Even his detractors (like me) know that. He's a truly gifted cook with a great palate. In a head-to-head competition with Hung? (Similar cooking styles.) He could cook him under the table with one hand tied--on roller skates. If HE tells you your Arroz Con Pollo sucks? It's time to take a long look into that cold, cruel merciless mirror.

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Gail dishes on Doug Adams' flawless return to the competition and why Melissa King's dish failed to hit the right artistic note.

Bravotv.com: This week we had the Last Chance Kitchen finale between George and Doug, and Doug ended up returning to the competition.

Gail Simmons: It looked like a really close battle -- Tom was really happy with both of their dishes. I will say if I had to put money on it, I would have guessed it would be between George and Doug at the end. They really are two of our stronger competitors. Obviously George was just coming off of his elimination, and it didn't surprise me that Doug stayed at the top of Last Chance Kitchen since being eliminated. I was thrilled to see him in Mexico with us.

Bravotv.com: Great! So he comes back, he wins and then onto the Quickfire Challenge. Any thoughts on this part of the competition?

GS: I'll just say that I’m a big, big fan of Chef Olvera, and I’m so glad we were able to get him on the show. His main restaurant, Pujol, is in Mexico City, but he has Moxi at the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel, where we were  lucky enough to eat the night that I landed, and a new restaurant here in New York that I am really excited about called Cosme. His food is very much rooted in Mexican ingredients and Mexican cooking, but his food is so modern. He really is one of the most talented chefs in the world at this moment, and I’m glad he judged the prickly pear Quickfire. They filmed it right in the center square of San Miguel; it is an amazingly gorgeous place. It was a really great setting for our first challenge in Mexico.

Bravotv.com: Then we have the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a dish inspired by an artist's piece of work, and Doug won with his brisket.

GS:  This challenge is interesting, because San Miguel is such a mecca for artists; it’s an artist colony that has produced incredible work for years. The city itself is so visually inspiring, as are the artists that work there. Their work is so varied, so vast. What was unique in this challenge was that it forced the chefs to take inspiration from an unusual source and think about their dish in a different way. All of the artists are very different, from a graffiti artist to someone who does more abstract landscapes. It was truly exciting to see what the artists did with the canvases they were given and what they shared with the chefs.

I tasted Doug’s dish first and understood it in an instant; it needed no explanation. But when he did talk about it, I realized it had so much depth not only in flavor, but in its purpose. He had an immediate connection with the artist he was paired with -- they were both from Texas and she reminded him a lot of his mother. There was a deep sense of home and comfort between them, which I think allowed him to cook so purely, so simply. The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not "chef it up" too much, he kept it pure. He modeled the presentation of the dish exactly off of the painting itself with those colors from the Mexican landscape -- the deep reds of the earth, those dark greens and browns -- which made perfect sense. His brisket obviously tasted like Texas, but it definitely had an air of Mexico. It had the tomatillo, the masa, and even the red brisket itself was reminiscent of Mexican flavors, since Mexican cuisine has had such an influence on Texas to begin with. The dish was about his roots on a lot of levels. I devoured all of it, it was so hardy and comforting, but it had an elegance and finesse to it in the plating -- the ingredients he chose to put side by side as opposed to stewing them together -- made it special.

The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not 'chef it up' too much, he kept it pure.

Gail Simmons

Bravotv.com: And then we had Gregory's grilled strip loin with ancho chile, beets, cilantro puree, and valencia orange sauce.

GS: Gregory’s dish was excellent too. He did a perfectly grilled strip loin. He was worried about it before we tasted it, but it came out perfectly. He made three incredible sauces to go with it, which drew a lot of inspiration from his artist's painting. The first was this ancho chile sauce and then this beautiful green cilantro puree. The ancho chiles were reminiscent of the peasant farming, the green cilantro tying into the earth. Then there was the orange sauce, which completely changed the dish. When you first tasted it, the dish was earthy, it was deep and complex, it had the Mexican chiles that really shone through with the beef. Then you got a splash of that orange sauce, and it balanced everything out in a way that surprised us. It was so inspired, you could tell that it echoed the sunshine in the painting. It conveyed the artist’s vision of this peasant toiling in the soil through this glorious sunshine, and that’s exactly how the dish tasted.

It was a really close battle between Gregory and Doug in this challenge; both of them did such a great job. Ultimately we chose Doug, because we thought there was an unmistakable depth to his food and it was completely flawless.

Bravotv.com: Let's move on to Mei, who had the snapper and bass crudo with chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles.

GS: In true Mei fashion, her dish was completed beautifully and precise. It was very tightly conceptualized -- every drizzle, every piece of fish, every garnish was perfectly placed, and it was a gorgeous plate of food. I loved her relationship with the artist she worked with, Bea. They had a lovely conversation, which was great to see, and the dish clearly reflected Bea’s work. The chicken skin, the fish, the splashes of color were all inspirations from the painting. Every bite of Mei's dish had a little surprise; there was a little spice, a tiny bit of salt, and a beautiful splash of sweetness, which made it so fun and so playful.

My only criticism of Mei’s food comes from a presentation standpoint. Because Bea’s art was so outrageous and so loud and loose and free in a way, we had hoped that Mei’s food would’ve reflected that. We thought it would have allowed her to loosen up her presentation a little bit. Of course, I respect that she stayed true to who she is and how she presents her food. It was a dish that took a lot of technical skill and was really enjoyable when we ate it, we had just hoped to see more playfulness.

Bravotv.com: And then we had Melissa's smoked eggplant ravioli with shrimp, chorizo, and cotija.

GS: Melissa’s dish was absolutely decadent, delicious, delightful. We all agreed that her smoked eggplant ravioli was perfectly made -- it was smoky, very rich, and the pasta was well cooked. That alone was as good as anything else we had eaten that day. Where we thought she fell short, relative to the other dishes, was that there definitely was less cohesion between the artist's work and her dish. Shrimp, chorizo, cotija cheese, and eggplant can go together, but in the way she plated them, they weren’t really talking -- the shrimp was over here, the sauce was somewhere else, then there was the eggplant ravioli. There didn’t seem to be a line that connected them all. And when she described it in relation to the artwork, we really weren’t sure it conveyed that dramatic splash from the graffiti art. We needed more from her. There was such a direct conversation between Doug and his artist, and it really felt like they were working on the same piece of artwork together. Melissa’s dish, although tasty and very pretty, did not have that same depth. I’m not just talking about flavor; it’s really about the inspiration and the connection, not only between the ingredients on the plate, but between the chef and the artist. His work was really beautiful (and watching the show I regret not buying a piece from him at the time). But it can be hard to translate art, because it’s something so personal. In the end between the four of us we decided that on that day it was Melissa’s dish that did not measure up in terms of the inspiration and connection like the other dishes did. So she was eliminated.

Bravotv.com: It seemed like one of the tougher eliminations this season.

GS: Yes, it was. It always is at this stage of the season. But it was a really great challenge too. I think regardless of winning or losing, Melissa really loved the process and that was so great to see. It was an intellectual challenge that was hard to interpret, and I think they all did an incredible job. I’m really going to miss Melissa. I honestly think she is a huge talent, and I know she is going to do well wherever she goes next.
 

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