Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

What The Chef?!

Casey Thompson knows the way to Sam Talbot's heart.


So, in the Top Chef house, everyone is tired. Up for 40 hours, with little rest, and back to the grind. Sounds like my schedule in the first kitchen I worked in! They had fun though -- isn't that the point? So, what do we have today in the Top chef kitchen? Padma, vegetables, and Sam Talbot. This is a first. An actual past competitor to have the chance to tell the chefs the very same things that he probably once heard. This could get interesting. I will have to give Sam a call after this and get the gory behind-the-scenes details. But, what's up with all of the vegetables? Salad. Wow. Sam's instructions are to "put sexy back" into making a salad. Wait a minute ... was Justin Timberlake a sponsor on this season too? It wouldn't surprise me!

45 minutes to make a salad. Spike is ready to make a salad that is gonna make people want to have sex after eating. Andrew already woke up this morning ready to stab someone. What in the world is going on here!?

Look, I know that the competition makes you crazy after a while, but let's all keep our eye on the prize. "Sexy" -- I'm immediately thinking about what I would do. I see spice, poached eggs, bacon, citrus. Many of the same things that the chefs also saw in their visions. Stephanie goes for a duet of fall flavors, pears, mushrooms, artichokes, with a hint of boring. Missed the duet part. Dale is thinking poached chicken and Nori paste. Lisa goes with a "sexy banana" salad and throws in luscious lobster with a yuzu vinaigrette. I like having only seven chefs left. We can actually see everyone's food and their style is showing more in their dishes. We are actually getting to see some food! Sam tastes each dish and gives us his first thought on the flavor components. Andrew's Thai salad has "good flavor." Antonia's poached egg and bacon salad had "great flavor. Richards' must not have had flavor at all because Sam didn't even comment! Oh, that's the worst. In the end, Richard's ceviche did not have enough citrus and Stephanie's salad was lacking. Lisa only had banana in her salad apparently and that landed her on the bottom.

How come they never say whose dish was the worst??? I want to know! But, the award for the sexiest salad in the end goes to Spike. Curry, radish, and skirt steak turns Sam on. There you go ladies. The way to Sam Talbot's heart!

Congratulations to Spike. You win. And you have an advantage coming your way, AND piercing death stares from all of your fellow contestants. But what do we have in the hands of Padma and Sam?? Trays of a bunch of fast food packages and brown bags. Wait, this isn't your Elimination Challenge, it's your lunch! They tricked ya! Oh, I'm wrong ... it really is your challenge! The trays of fast food for dinner will come later. Be patient. We all know how much we looked forward to meal time! The challenge: to create box lunches in a healthier way and to also make them diabetic-friendly. Another doozy.

What the hell??? Is anyone else friggin' bored with these challenges?? Box lunches? Zzz ... Come on! Let's really cook here! I really want to see these chefs in a restaurant kitchen rockin' it out! Screw all of this police academy stuff! "Use one ingredient from each category. Whole grains, lean protein, fruit, and vegetable are the items that your dish must contain. Spike has the advantage. He is allowed to pick one item from each category and no one else may use it. It was not his choices that disgusted me, it was the ha-ha-nanny-nanny-poo-poo attitude that he possessed in the grocery store that was so gross. Even Stephanie comments that "Spike would love to f#@* everyone over." Sounds like he is kind of a little shit around the house. So, that would mean with his 10 minute head start that his dish better be pretty cool. He also took bread, tomatoes, and chicken away from everyone else. His dish should rock. Stand by. Andrew tells us that he has a background in nutrition, so his will rock too because he "knows how to cook healthy."

Lisa is doing stir fry and brown rice. When the cooking begins, most of the chefs feel good about their dishes. Spike's dish does a very common chicken salad containing grapes, jicama, olive, and raw veggies. It barely gets a "pedestrian" comment from Padma. Better luck next time Spikers! I especially liked your strategy with hiding the containers to make it appear yours is really good. Appearance is not a flavor though. And you contemplated not using the tomatoes? Nice.

Stephanie is working harder after the QF on a hearty barley soup with a butternut squash puree(?) and yogurt. The judges found this to be seasoned well though, and from the sound of it, seasoning was lacking everywhere else. Texturally ... I don't know about the puree and soup. Sounds like it worked.

Richard is the candidate on the "Do you like burritos?" campaign. That was really funny. I was laughing every time he said it! Though it didn't look great, I agree with the judges, the flavor components appeared to be there.

I have NO IDEA what Andrew was doing. Four pieces of sushi that was made with parsnip and pine nuts. Aww hell. He went through this long explanation of EVERYTHING he was putting in this sushi roll and I did not hear one single grain. Trouble is on the horizon! Listen up everybody: You could make PB&J with lite peanut butter (though not ideal) and still not get sent home!

Dale is doing a bison lettuce cup with an herb salad. The judges like this one and the only comment is that they would have liked to have a little heat in the dish. But, overall, it sounds positive for Dale. Good, not too much moaning out of him this show. I think after punching the locker last challenge, he decided to play it cool this time around. And Antonia pulls out a nice one -- curried beef filet with jasmine brown rice. At first when I saw the bare berries, I was worried. Then she pulls out the Concord grape syrup and I was on board! Looked good, tasted good, and tender.

Last but not least (or close to least) was Lisa. When she described this dish in the beginning, I was like, buzzzzz, and we have the biggest loser! Stir fried veg, and "a little shrimp?" She could remember what the challenge exactly was -- low cholesterol or low fat? So, she just put "a little." Hmmm ... then the pineapple salsa? And the sabotaged brown rice? By the way, let's stop right here and talk about this. Dale is right -- it does happen in the kitchen all of the time. No body wants it to happen -- it just does. Do you ever accidentally ever turn on the wrong burner at home and then keep turning the knobs until you find the right one? Well, try it with 16 burners! It happens. No one was trying to sabotage anyone. Everyone is so busy anyway. IT HAPPENS. In this situation, you come up with something else. Barley cooks up really fast. I'm just sayin'. Ummm, I think we have found our bottoms!

Back in the "stew room," no one knows really who they think will be on the top, nor the bottom. Usually after the general gabby conversation dwindles, everyone starts talking about the challenge again. While discussing the challenge and what everyone had used in their categories ... Andrew discovers his mistake. Ughh. That must be the worst feeling. I don't think that ever in the history of TC has anyone gone home because their dish was so much worse than the person that will fail on a technicality.

So, Lisa and Andrew will duke it out. Lisa's dish just sucked. Andrew's sucked, but did not also complete the challenge correctly. We all know Andrew is going home -- did Lisa really have to call him out for the technicality though? I really do think that is cheap and just plain wrong.

Man, how must one feel when in defense of your own sad work, you point out someone else's inefficiencies? I wouldn't feel good. I guess that is how I was raised. In the end, congrats to Dale for winning the challenge. And Andrew, you had a good run ... Take the punches and roll.

On to RESTAURANT WARS! Yea! Finally some real cooking. Get off your computers and cook. Get out there and EAT! Go on ... go! Turn it off ... Much love!!!

'Til next week! PEACE!

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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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