Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Vive Latino!

Carlos Fernandez gives his take on the spicy Soap Opera challenge.

Casting is now starting for Top Chef Season 4, and let me tell you folks, it ain't as easy as it looks! To all of you aspiring contestants out there, remember: It's not your kitchen. In your own kitchen, things are familiar and you rule the roost. In Top Chef kitchens, the Magical Elves, Top Chef's amazing production team, make the rules, and you have to adapt. Regardless, for those of you who do make the cut, I hope you get digs similar to this season's at the Fountainbleu in Miami! tc_305_group_320x240.jpg
Last week I got a few questions about the Chaine des Rotisseurs organization. Truthfully I have not been to a Chaine event for some time as I am just too busy running my own restaurant to attend their events, which are usually held on weekends-- always the busiest time for me at Hi-Life Cafe. Yes, I wore one of those dreaded sashes. However, being the eternal optimist, I found the sashes especially handy for hiding wine and mustard stains! The medals on the sashes,or bling as some have suggested, are given at special events or when visiting other chapters. Each chapter has its own designated medal. Next, I got a comment from a fellow Floridian who thought that Hung's dismissive remarks to last week's guest judge were similar to my own defense against the "Dark Arts teachers" at the Judges' Table from last season. I say it is the difference between a harmless egret and a vicious snapping gator! Ha!

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Finally, there was a typo on last week's Miami Spice webisode. For my Vera Cruz Snapper, you should use 3 tablespoons of butter, not 3 pounds. My condolences to those of you who tried it that way...and to your hearts.

Joey, it was funny to hear that you didn't want to be the "grey horse"--I guess the role of "dark horse" was already taken! I love the guest chef Maria Frumkin--her dolce tone actually had me swooning. My first thoughts when I heard "frozen piecrust," "90 minutes," and "Lee Anne" at the helm of the pantry were...no problem. Padma actually had a clever comment when she asked CJ if he was trying to "butter up" chef Maria. Shocking!

Tre - I'm glad to see your clean plating styles--I really get a sense of your philosophy. And Hung, it would seem that your dynasty is no more! When I saw you tinkering with the freezer, I thought "Oh no! I'm having ice-cream flashbacks from Season 2!" If you recall, I was the only one to have my ice cream plated and photo-ready within the time limit. But I digress... Joey, your tarts looked simple and delicious. Rather than try to create a five-course meal from one crust, you streamlined and stayed focused, and it paid off. I am glad to see the judges not simply reward quantity, but straightforward quality. tc_305_joey_320x240.jpg
Thirty minutes to shop, three hours to prep a Latin dish, and I am freaking out thinking once again that I was part of the wrong season! That quickly dissipated when Tom walked through those kitchen doors to announce they will only have 1½ hours, and that familiar sinking feeling returned to my gut! Now this is Top Chef stress as I remember it. Howie does seem to have a certain affinity for pork. Hmm. Is it just me, or does it seem that Casey is getting a little cocky? tc_305_casey_320x230.jpg

I know firsthand that it could very well just be the editing, but as Andy Cohen says, they cannot create what did not exist on some level. However, by the time she got to the judging table she seemed appropriately humbled. (And I don't know about you, but those sandwiches Casey has made for herself the last two episodes look better than a lot of what is prepared for the competition.)
It was great to see so many of the stars from Telemundo at the competition, including my faves who I have the opportunity to work with every week on "Cada Dia"--Maria Antonieta Collins, and Jose Diaz-Balart.

I loved Jose's line about Hung needing to spend a little more time in Miami to master Arroz con Pollo! Also on hand were the stars Maria Celeste Arraras from "Al Rojo Vivo," Natallia Streignard of "La Tormenta," Genesis Rodriquez and Kristina Lilley of the ultra hot "Dame Chocolate," and Renato Lopez from "Vivo, Have you Cine?" Tom, Gail, and Padma seemed a bit shocked at all the culinary knowledge these folks possessed, but I wasn't surprised in the least. Cooking and dining are an integral part of the Latin culture. Like all things Latin, they are done with passion and gusto! I thought they were spot on in their critiques without being cruel. Did anyone notice that when Gail was commenting on Lia's polenta being so very un-Latin she looked just like Mo Gaffney's character on "Absolutely Fabulous?" And that "Rebecca of Donnybrook Farm" hairdo and outfit? Well, I will leave that to Bravo's other reality show blogs to decide!

Sara N., you must understand that this group really does understand the difference between guacamole and ceviche. And given the challenge, I don't understand why Lia didn't make some sort of tamale instead of polenta. Oh Lia, the rock at the top is always so shaky. And is anyone else detecting a foot-fetish theme from Padma? First there were the fried toes and now she is talking about Achilles' heels?! Howie, I was really impressed that you have now won two Elimination Challenges with two different pork dishes. You are a rare medium well-done! (Will somebody please give him a towel to wipe all that sweat while he is cooking? Perhaps that is the piquant in his sauce. Hmm.) I was a bit surprised that Sarah M. did not at least get a mention in the top three as her stuffed poblano looked superb, and she finally got to show off a bit of her cheese expertise with that homemade queso fresco. Hers was obviously a favorite of the Telemundo folks as well.

Joey once again demonstrated straightforward flavors will win a crowd over. That dish reminded me very much of my Mom's Camarones Enchilados recipe, which is so aromatic and flavorful. (You can get that recipe on one of my upcoming Miami Spice Webisodes.) I was thinking Joey might actually have that rare back to back Quickfire/Elimination win in the same episode. It was obviously a difficult decision as to who should go, but it seemed the bland polenta did Lia in. She was one of my favorite. But have no fear, she just needs to keep focused and keep her eyes on her craft.

I have no doubt that she has a wonderful future in store, and cannot wait to taste some of her cuisine in the future--either at Jean Georges or her own restaurant that she will no doubt someday run. Anyway, don't forget to watch this weeks Miami Spice webisode here at Bravotv.com You are going to love my delicious baby clam and chorizo recipe. I always appreciate any comments or feedback you might have. Until next week, stay tuned and break an egg!

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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