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!

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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