Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Anthony Bourdain: Guest Blogger

Anthony Bourdain on Hung's talent, Camille's exit, and why foam is dead.

As an occasional guest judge, I should remind readers up front that when judging, we don't get to see the backstage drama. We don't know the back-stories and personal histories and are unaware of any personality conflicts -- until we see them on the finished, edited show. The day of competition, the contestants could be giving each other long, lingering back rubs, huddling together devoutly in joint prayer -- or they could be back there menacing each other with jailhouse shanks -- and I wouldn't know it until I saw it on TV, like everybody else.

So I thought it wisest and best, given the privilege of filling in for my honorable colleague Tom Colicchio, that I give you my take on the latest episode of "Top Chef," not as a judge...but as a regular viewer, as a fan, and as someone who was a chef and employer of cooks for nearly three decades; from the point of view of someone who has had to run a working kitchen, maintain standards and consistency, keep customers happy -- as well as keep a crew of usually marginal personalities from becoming a danger to themselves or others -- and as someone who sat down on their couch Wednesday night, cracked open a beer and watched the show like everybody else; this is what this week's episode looked like to me:
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First off: Kudos to the Shrimp Team, Brian, Lia and Hung. Shrimp: Great choice of ingredient. It's local. It's indigenous to the South Florida area -- most importantly? It's not freaking FILET MIGNON for Chrissakes! Few pieces of meat are easier to cook, have less flavor or textural features or are less interesting to chefs than filet mignon. It's a lazy, safe and not very creative choice. If you're hoping only to dodge the bullet (or fly beneath the radar) it's a smart move but you ain't dazzling Colicchio (of a little operation called Craft STEAK) by managing to properly sear filet. Tom could train a chimp to do that -- and likely has. Many times.

And TUNA. Is there a menu anywhere in America that DOESN'T feature "tuna tartare"? The words "Seared" and "Tuna" -- if googled -- likely pop up as frequently as "Paris" and Hilton." Another lazy and pedestrian choice. In retrospect, the team should have stuck with Howie's suggestion of duck -- a relatively inexpensive, amazingly versatile ingredient made for a three-way challenge. Tuna, on the other hand, almost invariably inspires "M.E.G.O. Syndrome" (My Eyes Glaze Over). Now, I would have understood if Casey (having immunity from the Quickfire) deliberately went in the tank with a truly appalling looking tartare as a strategic move; expecting (not unreasonably) that at least one of her teammates, the Brothers Blockhead, would crash, burn or shove the other into a Frialator, but apparently not. I do admire that she stood up in front of the judges and offered to take the hit.
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Speaking of the Brothers Blockhead: I have a grudging respect for Howie. I truly enjoyed how -- when I was a judge -- he threw my own words back at me, taking responsibility for his own actions, but standing on principle. He's a tough, obstinate little bastard. He takes his beatings like a man, without passing the buck or making excuses, but seems not to play well with others. Not that ANYONE could play with Joey. Joey comes off like a walking laundry list of "Things Chefs Don't Want In An Employee." Whiner. Crybaby. Blames Others. Persecution Complex. Confrontational. What Bill Buford, in his excellent book, "Heat" came to recognize as a "dickhead". It's a good thing the judges don't see the backstage melodrama. Most chefs I know get wood from kicking guys like that to the curb.
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Poor Dale. The SAS motto is "He Who Dares Wins." Well...not in this case. It was a bold move, picking dessert. He took a chance...and got burned. Or rather Camille did. Her "pineapple upside down cake" being the worst of a bad lot, she got the chop. Still, you've got to admire Dale (or I do anyway) for a) taking a chance, thereby erring on the side of creativity and b) taking responsibility: assuming guilt when a teammate took it in the neck as a result. These are good qualities in a chef. You take responsibility for a bad decision. You learn from it. Then you move on. Best of all -- you manage to survive.
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Hung, Hung, Hung. Clearly one of the most talented, fearless and creative of the lot. Shrimp was a wise, ballsy choice of ingredient -- and his team worked the way a kitchen should. I just don't understand why he feels compelled to play the bad guy. He need only look at his buddy Astro Boy from Season Two to see that talent is often not enough. Survival requires a measure of WISDOM. For a guy with technique as good as his -- as fast on his feet, as versatile and creative as he is -- he's not winning these challenges as often as he should. A little humility; a willingness to accommodate what people are likely to enjoy and appreciate, instead of pursuing that which honors only his own perceived genius, would be a good adjustment. It may have been good foam. But it was still foam. Get over it. Chances are, any experienced judge on "Top Chef" has been awash in foam, drowned in it and become bored by it for years. It's OVER. It's become a bad joke. A trope. A cliche. And it's very appearance on a dish, at this point, is likely to count as a point against when facing such jaded palates.
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Hung is a better cook I think, and much more versatile, and much less slavishly attached to the Church of Adria (1999 edition) than his wolverine-haired predecessor. But he need only look at the simple yet refined charms of the winning dish, his teammate Lia's olive oil poached shrimp (exactly the sort of dish that Ferran Adria likes to eat when off duty, by the way) to see a potentially fruitful avenue towards victory. Just the same -- from this episode, Hung still looks like the guy to beat. Of this talented and diverse group, the most likely candidate to beat Hung...is Hung. -- Anthony Bourdain

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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