Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Frugal Sea

Tom explains that you can't be a great chef if you can't run a kitchen.

Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship. ~Benjamin Franklin I'd like to start by explaining my absence all these weeks on the Top Chef Web site -- this summer I opened a new Craft in Los Angeles, a big, ambitious place that gives me an excuse to troll the marvelous Santa Monica greenmarket for the kind of produce I dream of (delicate heads of cauliflower, rainbow-hued heirloom tomatoes, tiny little roma beans that would make you weep...) The opening was a success thanks to my hardworking (and very tired) staff, but the effort demanded my full attention day in and day out for the last three months. As the season unfurled, I hoped that the foodies among you would understand my single-mindedness and not hold it against me.

Let me briefly address Tre's ousting two weeks ago, which I know from reading the message boards was an unpopular decision. It was hard to send Tre packing after the Restaurant Wars -- he was a good guy and, despite his share of missteps, an able competitor. But it brought to mind the same sports metaphor we used when hunky favorite Sam was sent packing in Season Two: Having a great season record doesn't mean you get handed the pennant -- you still need to win the World Series. I applaud Tre's decision to take on the role of team leader, but with that came the understanding that his neck was on the chopping block. If all went well, he'd emerge the hero ahead of those who played it safe. But if he failed -- and in my opinion, all three of Tre's dishes failed -- then he knew he'd be on the hot seat. Frankly, without that, the risk of leadership is no risk at all.

As for tonight's Elimination Challenge, if you boil it down, it really was a very basic task: to stretch a buck. The chefs let themselves get thrown by the setting and circumstance (A rocking boat! A galley kitchen! A bunch of fashionistas!) But to be honest, the challenge was really about being creative and savvy within a limited budget. Something that millions of home cooks manage to do every day of the week. When I'm asked to cater an event, I often encounter people operating within a budget. If it's too low for me to deliver, I turn down the job. But if I do agree to it, then it's up to me to make it work; a lower budget doesn't entitle me to scrimp on technique or imagination. I felt Casey's beef carpaccio and Sara's tomato bread pudding were excellent examples of skillful, budget-friendly planning and execution. Neither dish featured pricey ingredients, yet both delivered maximum finesse and flavor for the money and time available. It would have been hard to improve on either appetizer by spending more money.

A number of the chefs made a mistake by attempting to put out two appetizers instead of one; with only $50 in ingredients, why would you needlessly cut your resources in half? Howie clearly felt two items would redeem him after his disastrous (non)showing at the Quickfire, but that only would have worked if both dishes were exceptional, which neither was. His mushroom duxelles was a case in point: the trick there is to carefully cut away the mushroom's gills (to avoid turning the duxelles an unappetizing grayish black) and introduce a small amount of acid. It would have been achievable in the time allotted, but Howie was intent on banging the dish out so he could start in on his disastrous asparagus cigars. If he had used all of his time and money on one beautifully crafted hors d'oeuvre rather than two hasty ones, he -- and our guests -- would have been much better served.

Overall, Hung has shown an excitement for cooking that borders on zealotry, so I was surprised at the flaccid little bites he turned out in this challenge. I didn't buy his protests that these were classic combinations that have been around for 300 -- or was it 800? -- years (not sure where he got this historical tidbit, but we'll let it go.) There is a fine line between classic and dated, and his hors d'oeuvres fell on the unhappy side of that line. They showed Hung's usual technical finesse, but even he ultimately acknowledged that he could have done better.

I'm of two minds about Brian's turn as team leader; at first I felt he should have stepped up during the challenge and done more to shape the overall vision of the food, vetoing the chefs' decisions to make more than one app apiece, for example. But after watching the episode I feel a little differently. Brian saw his role as motivator and manager -- not watchdog -- and in that sense he delivered. He helped to keep his team mindful of time and money, and that's a big part of succeeding as a chef. bourdain_310_02_320x240.jpg

Ultimately I think tonight's episode underscored a basic tenet of the restaurant world; there are plenty of great cooks out there who can make beautiful food but will never be great chefs because they can't run a kitchen. It involves hiring well and delegating appropriately. Keeping people motivated and mindful of time, as Brian did. Thinking on your feet and staying creative, even whimsical, in the face of obstacles, like being stuck in the cereal aisle during a Quickfire. And all the talent in the world won't save you from a lack of understanding about purchasing and quantities. If you can't spend your allotted cash with intelligence and moderation in a cocktail party competition, how do you expect to manage the day-to-day financial operations of a major restaurant? Folding under pressure is simply not an option. In the case of Howie, he wasn't overboard, he was in over his head.

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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