Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Barton G: Guest Blogger

Miami restauranteur and caterer Barton G sheds some light on the latest episode.

There are certainly those among us who feel dessert is the most important part of a meal, and dessert dominated this episode causing controversy, conflict and, in the end, calamity for one chef. As Ted Allen pointed out, the challenge said nothing about dessert -- they weren't required to do it, but three, with Dale as the ringleader, took the plunge...and pretty much drowned.
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Was it a mistake to try their collective hands at something outside their area of expertise? Maybe. If it was, it's probably a mistake I would have made too, because a meal is supposed to have a beginning and an end, and that end is traditionally dessert. We in the restaurant business are programmed to think that way — that a four-course meal ends with dessert. So I think they thought it through correctly.

As judges we all acknowledged they took a chance and gave the team points for the difficulty involved. Unfortunately they weren't enough points to make up for the fact that each of their individual efforts was dreadful. All that said, I give them a lot of credit for thinking it through, for making the meal complete. I respected their decision at the time, and after seeing what went on behind the scenes I respect it and Dale, Sara M., and Camille even more. They knew the course was pretty much a disaster, but they presented it with their game faces on. That must have been terribly difficult for them and, like preparing dessert, out of their realm of normal experience. In their own restaurants they would never have let those dishes out of the kitchen knowing that they were so sub-par...let alone have to answer to the people who tasted them and found them so lacking!
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Actually, while I was watching this episode it occurred to me that I live Top "Chef" now that I am conducting tastings almost every day for the new restaurant that will occupy the space where the chefs prepared their meals. Of course I've always realized it's nerve-racking for a chef to present a new dish, but I think I now have an even better appreciation of just how tough it must be after seeing the anxiety the contestants endured. And I was reminded about how much talent the "cheftestants" represent. I was impressed that night and even more impressed after seeing the episode and gaining more insight into what they had to deal with, not only in terms of the structure of the challenge, but with regard to personalities.
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All of which brings me to the cream that rose to the top that night. Interesting that it was the beginning and the end of the four courses that captured the judges' collective attention. I think that's often the case with a meal.

In any case, the shrimp course was outstanding. While Brian told us they had decided on scallops and then had to switch to shrimp, I had no idea just how set on scallops they had been. It seemed like scallops were the first ingredient anyone mentioned. They adjusted really well on the fly. That sort of thing speaks to me, because I'm the king of "on the fly"!


Now it's time for me to confess that I am not a religious follower of the show, nor of any show because I don't have much spare time for television. So I didn't know much about any of the contestants. I had no idea Lia works with Jean-Georges Vongerichten until I visited Bravotv.com yesterday. Now that I was reminded that she'll be the guest chef at the benefit Barton G. -- the events and catering part of my business -- is doing next month in the Hamptons for the Diabetes Research Institute (featuring a private concert by Diana Ross!), I wanted to know more about her.

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I think it is great that she's self-taught and that she's worked her way through the kitchen ranks the way she apparently has. As executive sous chef she is a vital part of one of the top kitchens in the country and I, along with my executive chef Ted Mendez, are looking forward to working with her. It's always good when terrific culinary talents such as Lia and Ted interact -- a synergy develops and everyone takes something new away from the experience. It's exactly what Camille talked about at the end, about how much the whole "Top Chef" experience had meant to her and how she knew it would change how she cooked. I felt so bad for her. There's no doubt in my mind she could make a great pineapple upside down cake under the right circumstances!

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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