Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Welcome Back

Head judge Tom Colicchio wastes no time in breaking down the new cheftestants.

I'd like to go briefly into the casting for the season, because this is by far the deepest level of talent that we've had. We asked chefs that we know, that we're friends with, to nominate other chefs. We were picking from a pool of chefs that our trusted colleagues had worked with, that they knew -- chefs who would be able to compete. That's the real strategy -- everybody should be able to compete.


In past seasons, it was pretty obvious that some people could NOT match up with the more experienced chefs. We wanted to deepen the pool, and this is one way we went about doing it.

tom_301_02_320x240.jpg

Why Miami? We shot this in April, but the show will air over the summer and we wanted a warm weather destination, with a rich food culture, that looks like summer. Shooting in New York or Chicago in April, when people are still wearing sweaters and coats, just doesn't make for a good show. In New York, we've seen snow in April. The best part is that Miami's Latin influence plays an important part in many of the challenges.

These chefs had seen two seasons of "Top Chef." And so, it was surprising to us that they were actually surprised when we put them immediately into a Quick Fire. I was shocked. What were they expecting?

tc_301_17_320x450.jpg

The challenge included an odd bunch of ingredients; however, it was about cooking, not how bizarre the food is. The choice of who to eliminate came down to Howie and Clay. Before we made our deciaion we checked the challenge rules, which showed us that we had enough latitude to keep Howie. Let's be honest, the food he gave us was still much better than the dish Clay served despite Clay's using both ingredients.
tc_301_24_320x240.jpg

Clay is a chef, he works in a respected restaurant. I think it was just nerves. This is TV, but this is also real life. The judges did not know much about Clay and first heard him talk about his father when we watched the episode.We didn't know any of this. He really bared his soul. This isn't all fun and games, and there's a real serious side to what we do.

Whether you call it an art or a craft, these are people who put in tons of hours to get where they get, and it's full of real life twists and turns. It was very touching, and I think that he has so much to live up to. I just think that nerves just got the best of him, but I'm sure that he is a very competent chef. Stay tuned. There's more to come.

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

Read more about: