Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Train In Vain

Anthony Bourdain defends the elimination of Tre.

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A thrilling episode this week, with a surprising and sad ending. In many ways, the last few episodes have (in their own pain-inducing way) better illustrated the skill set you REALLY need to succeed as a Top Chef than straight, head-to-head cookoffs ever could -- how to do things you might not be particularly good at while under pressure. How to get knocked out of your comfort zone -- without warning -- and still soldier through. How to deal with things going wrong all around you -- without losing your cool. How to step up and above your normal responsibilities -- and manage to pull it off.

As most who've spent any time as professional chefs know all too well, the phrases "It's not my job" and "It's unfair" have no real meaning when you're in charge of a kitchen. You may never have anticipated, back in culinary school, that refrigeration and plumbing maintenance skills (for instance) would be a job requirement. Until the grease trap backs up on a busy Saturday night -- or a vital reach-in cooler freezes up and the service people tell you "First thing tomorrow." Or -- as chef garde manger (salad man), that you will finally get your crack at the saute station -- without warning -- on a busy Saturday night, when the regular guy unexpectedly doesn't show. Hopefully, you rise to the occasion. First rule of Chef's Club is: Shit Happens.

That means your ability, in a pinch, to become a therapist, plumber, refrigeration specialist, dishwasher, floor mopper, plunger of drains, negotiator, money lender, bail bondsman or, lest I forget, triage nurse and medic, is much valued -- and even necessary. In fact, realistic challenges for future Top Chef contestants might be to field dress someone's rotary cold cut slicer injury -- at the same time as expediting. Or deciding on the fly if a particular steam burn warrants an E-room visit -- or a "Spit on it and run a lap!" " Does it need stitches?" is a question as likely to arise in a chef's life as "Is this codfish too funky to serve?"

This week's episode was also an example of the real perils of being Number One, of being exposed out there, the focal point of criticism.

So what happened with Tre? Like a lot of you, I imagine, I was enormously disappointed to see him go. An experienced chef, with great skills and a young man of terrific poise, who at all times conducted himself with a maturity and a professionalism not seen in many -- if not most -- of his competitors. On the first episode's Elimination Challenge (which I helped judge), his winning dish was superb -- and extraordinarily promising. Creative, assertive without being over-the-top, it looked to me at the time as if Tre was head and shoulders above most of his comrades on the show. And the episodes that followed mostly reinforced that impression. A good cook and, unlike some of the crybabies around him (who were easily provoked into histrionics), he always kept his head. Without question, he's generally more experienced, "better" professional chef material than some who remain. I'd guess that if a top tier chef of a New York restaurant was looking to recruit a sous-chef off the cast of Top Chef, Tre would be the first guy they'd think of.
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So, why did Tre "lose"? Simply put, because he was the guy who -- on this particular day -- stuck his neck out the furthest. And as happens sometimes when you stick your neck out, his head got cut cleanly off. I expect a great number of commentators will point out that had Tre not taken the "chef" gig, not asserted himself with his own menu choices, been less of a leader, he would still be around. Absolutely right. In this case, by taking on more responsibility, he put himself squarely in the crosshairs. And ended up cut down. A more perfect example of the way the restaurant business really works could scarcely be imagined. A world where, sometimes, no good deed seems to go unpunished.

Did Tre deserve to be the one to pack up and leave?

I'd have to say that if judging that night, that I too would probably have gritted my teeth and chosen Tre.

Why? Because I've never seen Ted Allen react so violently and unfavorably to a dish as he did when trying Tre's "beet-cured salmon". He jerked in his seat as if harpooned. Guest chef Geoffrey Zakarian, who I have a lot of respect for, concurred -- as did Tom.

Tre didn't get away with the bread pudding. An innocuous dessert choice, one would think, but badly done. The judges noticed.

He hadn't fully synthesized what he'd learned from the previous night's experience: Just 'cause everybody stopped dead in their tracks and put on HAZMAT suits after a mouthful of his "smoked" potatoes, didn't mean they particularly liked the "gorgonzola and wild mushroom crusted" filet mignon that came with. I didn't note much enthusiasm for the dish that night -- other than a mention that the meat was properly cooked. Both the filet "crust" and the unlucky "pesto" on the salmon speak of creative limitations -- as if Tre ran out of inspiration and fell back on something he'd done many times before. Plain truth? How can I say this without sounding too mean? Pesto? Mushroom/Cheese-crusted filet? That might well fly in Texas, but not with two hotshot chefs from New York City.

By the time the smoke cleared and the blood and hair had been hosed off the walls, Tre's stats for the evening were:

1 horrible dish (the beet-cured salmon with pesto)

1 screwed up dessert (the unpeeled, undercooked bread pudding)

1 not terribly inspired or interesting dish (the gorgo-mushroom filet)

1 good dish (the scallop)

If you're the chef of an expensive new restaurant in New York City with aspirations for three stars -- and that's your batting average at the end of even one important food critic's meal? You may as well shut your doors. For the many who, like me, found themselves depressed by Tre's exit, console yourself with the certain knowledge that of almost all the Top Chef contestants, past and present, few are as well suited for the real business of being a "top chef". He has the character. He has the skills. He lacks only, perhaps, the inspiration. And he is well on his way in that department. Last I heard, Tre was trailing at some excellent NYC restaurants. He keeps that up, he shall surely, someday, rule the world.

T'was not all tragedy and pathos in Miami this week, though. We saw a full menu of human behaviors from the heartwarming to the horrifying:

What the hell is with Casey's knife skills!? During the Quickfire, I was absolutely gobsmacked watching her methodically sawing away at those onions like Ina Garten on Thorazine. No. Let me correct myself. Ina Garten on Thorazine would be faster. MUCH faster.

Casey's a very strong contender in my opinion--a very talented cook with a great palate. She's an experienced line chef. How did she get so far -- and get so good -- with the knife skills of Barney Rubble? Betting line just changed. Drastically. ( I'm still in shock over this...)

Hung had another good night. The Quickfire Challenge was just made for the show's resident knife-happy speed demon. He ripped through those chickens as if he'd been waiting his whole life for the chance. And he seems to have learned to play well with others. He tried -- in his own way -- to be helpful to his team. The New Improved Hung kept his yap shut and actually made what worked well the previous night -- instead of trying to bludgeon his audience anew with something entirely different and "genius" as the Old Hung might have done. He's been coming on the last couple of episodes. Hell, at the end of the challenge, his team's kitchen was a veritable Woodstock of peace, love, and understanding. I thought there was going to be a group hug for a second. Had they broken out with an impromptu rendition of "We Are The World", I would not have been shocked. Take note, Hung-haters!

In further news from the Department of Who Woulda Thought, Sara stepped up. Damned RIGHT Howie's lamb chops were undercooked! And nicely done sticking by her guns and telling Howie that "resting them" would not be enough, and to do them again. When called upon to be decisive, she was. Some impressive decision making tonight from Sara. First, recognizing the full extent of the previous night's disaster -- and the extent to which they'd have to change and adjust. Second, presiding over a smarter and vastly improved menu. Third, shutting down Howie's irresistible urge to drag his team into the crapper.

Howie! Dude! That lamb was stone raw! Howie may talk an enlightened sounding game, but push comes to shove, it appears he'd rather serve uncooked lamb than admit he's wrong. Again and again, his performance fails to live up to his advertising. What he says he is -- and what he says he's capable of -- diverge wildly with what we plainly see. He was remarkably slow on the oysters. And slamming the oven door in a mini-hissy fit/editorial comment doesn't make your lamb cook any faster. For all his yapping about "resting", the lamb chops I saw on my TV screen -- whatever the judges might have said about theirs -- had not properly rested. Sara might well have saved his ass from elimination.

Another good performance from Dale, who continues to impress with his professionalism. When confronted with Madonna's asshat brother, he managed to avoid telling him where he could go with his interior design suggestions and what, exactly, to do with that candelabra. A remarkable display of self-control. I am atwitter with anticipation, wondering what other food world luminaries might share their wisdom with us next week! Joe Piscopo's brother, the landscaper? Mickey Rourke's dog-groomer? This could get really, really good!

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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