Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Good To Be Back

Casey shares her thoughts on Wedding Wars.


Hey everyone!

Again, it's good to be chatting with you regarding the latest shows!

This season is just starting to get good. The contestants are starting to show some real talent! I still have my predictions: Richard, Stephanie, and Antonia are my pics so far. No one else really stands out.

I must say I was sad to see Mark go. I really thought he had some solid tricks up his sleeve, but his cards were never shown. I still think he is a solid chef with solid talents. Can't wait to see what you have in store for the future, Mark!

On to this week's happenings ... WEDDING WARS! OH LORDY -- that's crazy town! Weddings are the death wish for caterers AND the bride and groom are involved! And, they had to really marry someone off! That's hysterical! Restaurant Wars can't really harm anyone. Well, I guess someone could get sick, but we are talking a lifetime of memories here! Thank goodness, as a contestant, you are so worried about doing everything perfectly for the judges, they really didn't have time to worry about screwing things up for the bride and groom! The positive aspect here is that the two teams only had to take care of half of the menu each! If one team sucked horribly, the other team could save the wedding dining experience!

Quickfire: My favorite. I have to thank Stephanie for the five-hour comment. True, true. I will be the first to admit that dull knives have no place in the kitchen! Thanks for the comment though!

I must admit, even I tossed my pillow at the television! And boy, that girl can make some mayonnaise, can't she? Turning artichokes, cleaning monk fish, and turning artichokes are all skills that basic good chefs should know. They all did very well. This is a great challenge. And winning allows the team to pick the bride or groom to cook for. In this case, the winning team decides on the bride. Good choice. Praise Mary the other team did not win -- the bride would have been in tears with the outcome!!! This is the bride's day, and usually the groom is much more lenient when it comes to the details of it all.

And I will say, Dale really made Chef Colicchio want to reconsider his team to win by punching a locker. Way to go, Dale! You are the real winner! The bride likes meat and potatoes. LUCKY! How great is that!? You wouldn't even have to produce a vegetable side and she would still be in marital bliss!

Right out of the gate, the menu is designed and the plan is laid out. Shop and work all night. RRRrrrrr>>> record scratch -- what did Padma just say? There are cots lined up??? Aww s#@*! Ha! Boy, Bravo couldn't WAIT to use this one!

I knew there was going to be trouble from the start just looking at the teams! But, you know these teams are picked totally randomly! There is no funny business in the knife pull. Groom's team: had no chance. These are the four left that do not play well with others, blame things on others, and make excuses for their own dishes. The bride's team we have seen work together already. They listen to each other and put out consistent good food. The "dream team" I will call it.

Team "no chance" immediately hears "Italian" out of the groom's mouth and all eyes are on Nikki like the clouds had opened up and there were sun rays shining on her. Her eyelashes were golden from the rays as she bats them with understanding like the groom himself is speaking Italian -- kind of an unheard love song.

The blame game begins. The dishes decided upon were primarily Italian in nature. The rest of the team stood by with their hands in the air and a blank look on their face. A familiar look of submission, a look that said, "She's the Italian one that knows Italian!" Oh no. Beware sista friend. When you stick your neck out there and then try to pull it back in, the outcome is usually not good! Nikki went from "I know exactly what the groom's vision is" to "I don't want to be the ONLY one making decisions".

At that moment, all her other teammates had to do was make a semi-homemade meal and they would STILL be safe. Pack you bags lady! And when the clock begins the countdown, the team is divided and this is never good.

First of all, the cake is the major issue here. The cake must be completed by the end, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. This is going to require the most capable person to provide all attention to the cake. One person down. That leaves three to carry the rest of the work load.

But, Nikki decides she is going to make homemade tortellini and take herself out of the workload! Two people down! That leaves two people to prepare the rest of the dishes. Not a good plan. A better plan of action might have been, divide up the workload -- maybe Nikki makes the pasta dough, but does not roll them out all by herself. Anyone can learn to assemble the pasta; this could have been a team effort.

Instead, the team is left with only two people to knock out the bulk of the many projects because two of the team members are completely tied up making cakes and pastas! The other dishes suffered! It appeared to me that none of the other projects were completed to the standards of the majority, but who else was left to monitor these things? And if the team is not talking to each other, of course the bruschetta will be hard and dry if that was not even Dale's idea! If the bread was not cut to snuff, who was there to check the width?!

Things are spiraling out of control and all of a sudden, Nikki wants nothing to do with leading the team, Dale is acting like a hard-ass and the other two are doing nothing but complaining. The was NO CHANCE this team was going to pull out on top!!

On the marital bliss side of the kitchen, the "dream team" has come up with a plan, tackled it, asked questions and prevailed. Andrew is tackling his chicken strips (albeit, I would have never served crispy anything on a buffet either), and spinach.

Richard is braising, making sauces, and monitoring progress from team members (a little nutmeg is actually good in creamed spinach -- too much is too much).

Antonia is working on pizza dough and poor Stephanie is busting out a six-tier brides cake! Ha! WTF? All in all, everyone is working together and it appears thus far, they have got their shit together.

The wedding begins, Richard is overjoyed because he loves weddings and Antonia is taken aback at the site of the wedding gown. I must admit, I even get a little weepy at these things, but if I were team "no chance" I wouldn't be weeping over the wedding, just the food the guests were about to have to eat.

The Italian buffet was not a hit, not even with the groom. Things were too hard, too "uninspired", and just plain not good. In the end, Nikki gets the ax. But, we knew this was going to happen, right? Hasn't anyone figured this challenge out yet? Let's give her the benefit of the doubt, maybe she never watched the last season. Maybe she didn't know that when you stick your neck out there and it ends up sucking, you WILL BE ELIMINATED! Her teammates certainly watched last season because they knew that you stand behind the team's front person, and when the ship goes down, you will still be afloat! Oh, well. Maybe next season. Claiming that you could not argue your position because you are exhausted is valid! I would have been standing there asleep. No wonder in her exit interview she said she was ready to get some sleep! Ha!

Does this really define the chef? I'm not a wedding caterer either. Come on. I certainly know that there are things that CAN define you such as your behavior with others. Also, the kind of product you put out -- and EVEN how well you run a restaurant! Catering a wedding? I'm sorry -- I do not feel this defines you as a chef.

Just put out the most simple, perfect dishes you can execute and dishes that you know will hold up well on a buffet line. That is all you can do in a situation like that! I think that the Top Chef competition should exist on Friday and Saturday nights in different kitchens around the globe. You should be doing prep, execution, and clean up. Judge that! Im in!!! Sorry, Nikki. Keep your head up.

But, I must admit that I really never thought you were going to make it from the beginning. I was surprised you made it thus far. Congrats to the winner -- Until next time folks! Get out there and eat! It's good to be back!

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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