Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Anthony Bourdain: Lost In The Supermarket

Anthony Bourdain sheds some light on the frozen food challenge.

Well, what can I say about last night's episode? I sat down, like everybody else, baited breath, waiting to see who'd do well--and who would have to "pack their knives." I was also waiting to see which Rocco DiSpirito showed up. The breathtakingly-gifted, French-trained chef of three star Union Pacific fame? Or the "thatsa speecy, spicy meatball!" shill-for-hire and ex-reality show personality? I think we all now know the answer to that question. (Though for the first few moments, I thought David Gest had taken his place.)
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It was Joey who paid the terrible price for this unholy exercise in brand expansion/product placement. Little could this chef--of the very fine Cafe des Artistes in New York City--have guessed that he'd ever find himself standing in the aisle of a supermarket, trying to thaw a block of frozen pasta over a hot plate! Or that this--THIS--would be the challenge to knock him out of the competition. Joey? I feel your pain. Console yourself in the knowledge that better, smarter people than you or I have found themselves run over in Rocco's blind rush towards the bright lights. There was no glory to be had last night. There were no winners. Not when everybody, contestants and judges alike, were left wiping Rocco's Frozen Love Juice off their faces at the end.
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OK--CJ and Tre got a nice trip to Italy--where the pasta, presumably, will not be frozen. But no one looked good. Not Howie--who bullheadedly allowed Sara's hectoring and general uselessness to distract from the fact that she was probably right about a few things.

Not Hung. Hung was right about procedure, but has so alienated himself from his colleagues that no one listens to him in principle. For once, I actually shared and sympathized with Hung's look of contempt when he was presented with the challenge. But he did learn something valuable: Being able to cook well--or even being smarter than everybody else--doesn't matter in the kitchen if you can't get the people around you to listen (and hopefully, someday, execute your ideas). Hung also learned how to throw somebody else under the bus last night. A valuable skill and an operation he managed to perform clumsily--but effectively. I still think Hung is the guy to beat, the cook most likely to have a really good showing in the late stretch. If he doesn't trip himself up by over-thinking, overreaching, or by just tweaking out.


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Casey and Dale had a good night, though it has been forcefully pointed out to me of late that actually putting meatballs in with your pasta (as opposed to serving them on the side) is about as Italian as guacamole. No matter. Both are strong contenders. Judging from the Quickfire "bee", Casey has an impressive palate. I'm guessing she's not a smoker. Sadly, The Howie and Joey Show is at an end. The dynamic between those two was video gold. They brought out the best and worst in each other.
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I was truly sorry to see Joey go. His tears at the end spoke of a good heart. He went out looking good--after losing a contest which, frankly, I'd be proud to lose. Joey's the chef of a damn famous restaurant in New York freakin' City.The place every ambitious cook and chef hopes to work--in the big leagues. So he's already a "Top Chef"--and already a winner in my book. This wasn't so much a contest as it was a cautionary tale. For surely, in culinary schools of the future, students, in Media Training 101, shall be shown faded videos of the tragic, Icarus-like trajectory of chef Rocco DiSpirito. And-- as if watching a highway safety film--they shall watch last night's episode of Top Chef where they will learn of the hidden dangers of "this thing of ours", the inevitable collisions between ego and ambition...between business alliances beyond our control...and our own desire to just cook and cook well.

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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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