Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Turning Up The Heat

Lee Anne Wong reports on South Florida cuisine, and what makes good BBQ

leeanne_302_01_320x240.jpg

Now that the first episode is over, the contestants have had a few days to live together, check out each other's food and form opinions about each other. For those of you who are not used to living with roommates, try taking on 14. This episode, we begin to see the cracks in the sidewalk.

I love this episode because both challenges are so straightforward. Norman Van Aken is a legend unto himself, part of what is known as "The Mango Gang," a group of chefs who include Douglas Rodriguez, Alan Susser, and Mark Militello. These guys put South Florida on the map with their "New World" style, combining the flavors of the Caribbean, South and Central Americas, and Asian cuisine while incorporating Florida's local ingredients. Norman's is a restaurant that has been around for over 10 years, and in restaurant years, that is no small feat.
leeanne_302_02_320x240.jpg

I sourced over a dozen varieties of local Florida Citrus for the Quickfire, working with the wonderful people over at the Fresh Market. The display was meant to get the contestants' blood pumping and I think most of them did a great job with the Quickfire. I personally love working with citrus fruit and having so many different varieties can either inspire or overwhelm (like in Sara N's case).

As Chef Van Aken begins to tastes everyone's dish, it's easy to see that he has a very refined, if not critical palate and the fact that this is all about Florida citrus means that no one's going to fool him with fancy descriptions of what he or she has made. Hung's ego should now be apparent to all but he's got the skills to back it up as he wins immunity from the Elimination challenge. We had scouted several different locations for the BBQ and settled on the Aqua properties sitting on the intra coastal waterway. This is a shout out to all of the production assistants who spent days assembling all of the grills on set. Good job, guys.

So how do you make high end, gourmet BBQ? Well, I'll tell you what you don't do...you don't throw drumsticks on the grill. We had to call The Fresh Market the day before they went shopping to ensure that they would have enough proteins on hand for the contestants. Thankfully they did, and the only one who ended purchasing lamb was Micah. Our field producers are constantly with the contestants and are always taking notes about their conversations and what is going on so that it can be used for story once editing time comes. For the record, Micah did miss her daughter, though I am also sure that part of the crying was due to the frustration of being in the bottom three for the Quickfire.

Two hours is not a whole lot of time to prep and pack everything and now that they are 14 in the kitchen, there's a lot less room. I remember watching Joey and the drumsticks and shaking my head. It's not that I'm a hater of the drumstick -- I happen to love chicken legs -- but maybe not at an Ian Schrager party. Of course there was Sara N. and her Habanero peppers (the gloves are in the pantry!!!).

Brian caught my eye as I watched him poach and chill a homemade seafood sausage. I happen to love making seafood sausage and was impressed with the fact he made his own forcemeat rather than buy pre-made sausage at the store, like Camille and Sara M. Their excuse was that they couldn't find casings. Just so you all know, any market that sells fresh sausage usually has casings somewhere in the back. It's just not an item that is normally on display. Brian however missed the casings too but opted to use plastic wrap to form and shape his sausage while it cooked and chilled.

tc_302_11_320x240.jpg

We gave them 2 hours to get their grills going and finish their dishes before the guests arrived. I had done a test run on a grill in the parking lot days before to find out how long it would take to light the charcoal, get the grill hot and cause the charcoal to burn. I'm from upstate NY where barbecuing and summer are synonymous (though rare due to real estate). I jump at the chance to get on a grill here in the city whenever I can.

It was interesting that some of them had never gotten a grill going unless it was turning a knob on the gas grill in their respective kitchens. The challenge for most of the chefs was grasping cooking time on the grill and how their service was going to run once they began serving. This was also an opportunity for them to flex their salesman skills when dealing with the guests. In Brian's case: a used car salesman, and I say that in the most affectionate way.
tc_302_20_320x240.jpg

I think Micah surprised herself with the end result, but obviously knows how to talk a quick game at the Judges Table. She bought the lamb because it was on sale? Right. By the time Sara's fingers stopped burning, she had put out a simple but flavorful dish that captured the smoky flavor of the grill and was easy to eat. If you haven't tried Vietnamese barbecue I suggest you run (don't walk) to the nearest Vietnamese restaurant. In the end, Mr. Malarkey took home gold for his Chino-Latino seafood sausage. You can learn how to make his winning dish this week on my online show The Wong Way to Cook. It is deceptively simple with a lot of bright flavors. Just remember to make sure you are using the freshest seafood possible.

So now the question for the judges is not using the barbecue at all vs. not making something that is upscale enough? I think Tre did phone it in. The salmon that I had tasted was actually under seasoned and I had wished there were more pronounced acidity and peach flavor to his barbecue sauce.

Joey's drumsticks missed the concept of the challenge altogether and were clumsy and messy to eat. Less than glamorous, though obviously he had no problem throwing stones at Howie. With Howie, I believe he jumped the gun to overcompensate for not having his food ready on time for the last challenge. A little bit of Clay-itis, resulting in a dry, overcooked pork tenderloin.
leeanne_302_03_320x240.jpg

Sandee was sent home because she, in fact, did not grill anything at all. I had provided each of them with a small sautee pan and a saucepan on site for saucing and accessorizing so that they could truly create a gourmet dish for this challenge. The problem was that Sandee forgot to use the actual grill to impart any flavor on her food. While tasty, I agree with Chef Van Aken that the sweetness of the date overpowered the minuscule slice of lobster on the skewer. Sandee is a young chef in terms of the fact that she has only been cooking for 3 years. She has already accomplished so much in that short period of time and is continuing to hone her skills in lovely South Beach. I wish her the best, as she is a truly sweet and talented individual.

Watching this episode made me grill-hungry. Thankfully I'll have a grill to use when I head to Los Angeles for the 4th of July (again, NYC backyards are hard to come by). My barbecue will include marinated rib eye and skirt steaks and bacon in many shapes and sizes (bacon wrapped prawns on the grill, billionaire's bacon, and bacon chocolate cake). Can't wait to fire up the barbie (insert Australian accent). Until then, as my friend Harold would say, keep it hot.

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: