Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Easy Start ...

Season 3's Dale Levitski offers his unfiltered perspective on each dish.

blogs_dale_320x240.jpg

Holla!

Where and how do I begin. Watching the premiere was the most intense mindf**k I have had in a long time! I was totally brought back to the first day ... not knowing anything about what I had gotten myself into. Driving in the RAV4 from the airport with Casey and Lia thinking that they suck ... biting my pillow laughing the first night when Brian totes farted in his sleep .... Then the floodgates opened and ALL the memories of Season 3 smacked me in the face. CJ's imitations of Padma ... telling Damien, Padma's ripped hot PA, that he was fat everyday ... the TC3 beer shotgunning contest (I won) ... being asked to get Casey out of bed cuz she wouldn't budge... (Bengt?) ... napping with Sara ... the bathroom line at the NJ Airport ... Andy on set for the "Brokeback Bravo" Quickfire ... I was laughing crying nervous and grateful by the end of the opening credits ....
rate_401_mark_qf.jpg

But none of it had to do with the latest lineup of wide-eyed overconfident victims .... When I finally came back to reality I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what these guys would have to go through .... They got off easy! Pizza. Really? They were not thrown into the stressball panic that the Quickfire should be. Here is the kitchen and PROVIDED Dough! And 90 ... yup 90 mins ...! First Quickfire? OK -- the results had me cringing. The mattress crust of Nikki had me going, "Oooo. Damn. Ouch." ... Marmite ... Dick (Richard) honoring Chicago pizza with peaches ... a few fauxhawks ... a lesbian couple (the new Joey and Howie!) ... ANOTHER DALE ... the Chicagoans getting the bottom on CHICAGO pizza! (Shameful ...)

On the other hand ... Rocco! (honestly a great guy ...) The peaches rocked, as did the Marmite.

rate_401_richard_elim.jpg

Then … Elimination. Classics. Even easier than the Quickfire …. Where are all of the f**ked up ingredients? I mean making Eggs Benedict? Come On! They had it SOOO easy. Don’t get me wrong, I loved this challenge and the twists. Although souffle was mean! 1 on 1! Awesome! Now I will just say that it is totally not fair to judge these people by what was on the screen. I know a lot more goes into it etc., but I am going to anyway ....

Here are the things that stuck out for me: The plastic wrap presentation for the “smoked” crabcake ... dumb. I thought the dish looked and sounded great, but the smoke presentation was a hack job…. And the store bought mayo? What’s up with that? Isn’t mayo like the First thing you make in culinary school? And both of them planned on using it!

Team Picatta … more like Team Picwhatta! I will at least give Valerie some credit for trying to stretch the concept. Ryan’s dish -- WTF? Not even close. I saw it and cocked my head with a "Huh?" He had no idea. 

rate_401_stephanie_elim.jpg

It all seemed good with the duck. Stephanie made a simple clean dish. When I saw her hand shaking while saucing, my heart went out to her. I have never seen her like that. Steph and I worked together years ago. She kinda rocks. Mark went for the deconstruction; risky if you cannot articulate what your goal is. It just seemed silly and useless.

Lasagna …. Great job, girls. Nothing wacky -- just good food. Benedict …. Same thing. Nice basic dishes that worked ….

Steak au Poivre …. Dale’s dish looked like he was trying too hard. Intricate plating that wasn’t needed ... meat looked great. Manuel’s looked sloppy on the other hand. rate_401_erik_elim.jpg

The poor soufflé couple. I really felt for them. But they had a great attitude about it. It seems like they embraced the challenge together because they knew they were screwed.But Erik’s plate looked terrible! I mean nacho soufflé ? I thought Casey’s pizza party ice cream last season was f**ked up, but this was doomed from the concept alone …. Ewww.

Scampi …. Antonia’s looked good -- the judges loved it. But Nimma …. Bottom line -- she just screwed up. The scrambled flan? Nice try, but not so much. Salty shrimp and a f**ked up scramble. When all of the components of the dish fail, expect to go home.

Overall I am very impressed with the chefs -- they are all obviously great cooks. I’m giving it another week before I can say anything about personalities, but not many stick out at me. My first impression: The chicks are gonna kick some ass. They all seemed much more relaxed and focused. Well maybe not Steph’s hand, and she STILL won. The guys seem a little bitchy and possibly annoying. We’ll see.

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.

Read more about: