Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Every Kitchen Needs a Chef

Gail Simmons warns about the problems teams face without a leader.

Tasty tacos and a friendly neighborhood block party!? Wow, our cheftestants have it good. I am not suggesting this week's challenges were easy, but they sure looked fun. Compared to the stress of the Classics Challenge in Episode 1 and the focused nature of the Animal Diet Challenge in Episode 2, this Elimination seemed like a walk in the park. At first, things looked to be heading in the right direction. I saw lots of pats on the back, tons of encouragement, and a whole lot of high-fiving. The chefs' support of one another was a lovely change from the usual back-stabbing, tight-lipped kitchen antics we have come to anticipate on the show. In my time as a judge on Top Chef, I never would have guessed that too much team spirit would be the reason behind failure. Until now. gail_403_04_320x240.jpg

Despite how festive it all appeared, the food for their family fun day did not turn out as planned. Contrary to the positive display of teamwork, I heard a great deal of uncertainty behind-the-scenes and under their breath. This should have been a warning sign that the food was not going to be quite as spectacular as they projected. I also did not see any sort of leadership on either team when it came to working through their menus. When no one's thinking of the whole picture, it almost never comes together as planned.
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It started with Nikki's Mac & Cheese. She voiced her concern twice to the camera about the possibility that it would not hold up in the hot box during transportation to the party. She knew there was serious potential for her dish to dry out, but never communicated it to her group. Of course, that was exactly what transpired. Had there been someone in charge who tasted everyone's food and talked through these individual issues, perhaps they would have suggested ways to keep it from drying out, or perhaps they would have determined that Mac & Cheese was not the best idea in their situation. Although she was on the winning team, her dish, coupled with Richard's (not so authentic) Paella, was the reason the Blue Team still was subjected to intense criticism at the Judges' Table. gail_403_01_320x240.jpg

On the Red Team, communication seemed to break down completely. Ryan's Waldorf salad, lacking the mayonnaise necessary to bind the ingredients together, became a watery, flavorless mess, despite Tom's warning. Neither Ryan nor Jennifer, who helped make it, cared to heed that piece of key advice. In addition, Zoi moaned and complained about being forced into making a pasta salad, as if it were beneath her, but still managed to mess it up. Clearly, everyone else on the team knew she was miserable making it, but not one person stepped in to improve or even taste it, including her partner! Perhaps that was their strategy all along. It would have made perfect sense if they were plotting to get her kicked off the show. Amazingly, they all seemed totally surprised when the judges announced how awful it was.
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It was Erik's corn dogs that really had it coming. Delicious in theory and a family favorite for sure, corn dogs -- as Erik himself acknowledged before they left the Top Chef kitchen -- would undoubtedly get soggy during transit. Now, we all know that practically anything, with the possible exception of an old shoe, tastes great three minutes out of the deep fryer. Erik obviously knew it, and I am quite certain if one other person on his team had stopped to think about it they would have known it too. He told the camera in no uncertain terms that this was a possibility, but he never told anyone else. Or if he did, no one on his team had the insight to deal with it. Were they trying to get him kicked off too? If so, it worked. It should have come as no surprise either when the judges tore those poor little corn dogs apart!

Tonight's moral comes up time and again in team challenges on Top Chef. No matter what the circumstance, every kitchen needs a chef. A designated leader creates structure and direction, which results in quality control. Let's hope in the weeks to come our chefs spend less time high-fiving and more time communicating.

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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