Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Turning Up The Heat

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

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.

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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