Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

It's Party Time At The Zoo!

The chefs throw a shindig at a zoo. Restaurant critic Andrea Strong gives you suggestions for places in Manhattan to hold your next soiree.

You know what they say: It's all fun and games until someone gets eaten by a bear. Well, luckily there were no casualties in last night's Zoo Dinner Challenge, other than Valerie. While I thought last night's Quickfire Challenge was a little easy on the contestants (cooking from the green market should be second nature to most of these chefs), I thought the Elimination Challenge was not only creative but also added a nice degree of difficulty with the elements of working as a team (most chefs would rather just go it alone without the potential hazard of other people's input), cooking for 200, and basing a menu on the diet of various zoo animals. Now that was a surprise. These producers are probably banging their heads against the wall at this point trying to think of new challenges. What will it be next week? Maybe it should be more topical, like, say "Make dinner for Eliot Spitzer and his team of lawyers. You have $80,000 and only nine ingredients, one of which must be tongue. GO!"

Seriously though, I think last night's show demonstrated one very interesting thing about the challenges on Top Chef and the way they tap each contestant's strengths and weaknesses. In the Quickfire, Andrew was eliminated because he'd broken the rules, while Valerie was in the top four for her peach and tomato marmalade over grilled steak. And yet the very opposite scenario played out in the Elimination Challenge as Andrew took home the top prize for his squid and Valerie found herself down in the bottom because her dish didn't work at all -- her blinis were dry and tasteless and her rutabaga was crunchy and not cooked properly. The difference in skill was cooking for one versus cooking for 200. Quite a big leap. Clearly, Valerie's got talent -- it's just that her skills lie in the intimate not the grand. Andrew, on the other hand, was able to pull it off, and a glacier too!

I was surprised Richard didn't end up higher in the ranks this week, but I was rather shocked at the shot of him pulling his immersion circulator out of his locker which was in total shambles. He needs to get that in order. I also have my eye on Dale, and feel like he's got some juice, and we'll have to see where that goes. He may just talk a good tough game.My award for Top Chef Quote of the Episode this week is actually a tie between Andrew's response to Padma when she eliminated him because he had used six items including the balsamic vinegar, not five, as the Quickfire rules required. "I'm a dumbass -- what can I say." Well put, Andrew. His admission is tied with Gail Simmons' hilarious Judges' Table description of Nikki's turds, er, stuffed mushrooms: "They looked like something a bear would produce, not eat." Very nice one, Gail. In any case, the fun and games continue next week. But now, in honor of the "entertaining" theme of this week's episode, I thought I'd share a few restaurant options for anyone considering hosting a soiree of their own. No Zoo Animal Diet Menu required.

Irving Mill, 116 East 16th Street, between Irving Place and Union Square East, 212-254-1600
If you're looking for a place to gather say 75 of your closest friends for an honest-to-goodness locavore dinner party, Irving Mill is your spot. This farmhouse-styled American restaurant from Gramercy Tavern alumni chef Johnny Schaefer who's crafted a menu from ingredients sourced at nearby Union Square Greenmarket. (Make sure you request his chicken and biscuits.) Their lower level wine cellar-inspired dining room has a separate stairwell which allows for complete privacy, and its high tech features -- wireless Internet and wide pull-down screen, make this room ideal for showing movies, power points, or photo shows.

The Blue Seats, 157 Ludlow Street, 212-614-1494

March Madness is upon us, and the problem may not be with your bracket, it may be finding a place to watch the games with all of your closest buds. Well, forget tiny rickety stools and sticky bar floors and head over to The Blue Seats. Named for the seats where the loyalists used to sit at Madison Square Garden, is a sophisticated sports den that offers high-backed leather banquets (which seat 6-8) with five independent flat screens each and private audio. Got even more friends? Rent out the Skybox, a private sports enclave outfitted with banquet seating for 17 and a dozen independent HDTVs. Now that's what I call fantasy sports.Chinatown Brasserie, 380 Lafayette Street, at Great Jones, 212-220-4110.
When it comes time to host a private dinner, your options are often limited to a stuffy windowless dining room, or some high-priced Midtown venue serving lifeless seasonal French-American with no sass. These options might work for a corporate affair, but if you're throwing a festive dinner and are looking for something known as FUN, Chinatown Brasserie is your place. The menus are as varied as you want them to be, from a 4-course dim sum feast with family-style platters of shrimp dumplings, spicy fried wontons and Szechuan chicken with fried spinach to a five-course Peking Duck Dinner, and custom-designed menus for everything in between. The Gold Room, which is located behind the bar and absorbs some of the energy and life of the restaurant, seats 20 with its own private Zen garden-inspired cocktail lounge. For parties of more than 20 and up to 200 for cocktail (100 for a seated dinner), you can move downstairs to the glamorous Koi lounge, which also happens to be where I am having my rehearsal dinner for my wedding this August!

Grayz, 13-15 W. 54th Street between 5th & 6th Avenues, 212-262-4600.
If I could close my eyes and click my heels three times and be told I could have any chef in the world cook for me, you can bet your morning coffee I'd chose Gray Kunz. This guy is the real McCoy, the four- star chef behind the legendary Lespinasse and his very own Michelin-starred Cafe Gray in the Time Warner Center. At Grayz, a Rockefeller era lounge and bar located in the renovated Aquavit space, he features three private dining rooms (seating from 10 to 80), and a variety of custom-designed dining experiences, each tailored to your own needs whether it's a cocktail fete, a formal seated dinner, or a mix and mingle soirees with small plates. While Kunz may be known for his exquisitely refined and innovative cuisine, but he makes the best chicken wings I've ever tried. Meaty, tender and lush with the flavors of the Far East, his pistachio-crusted chicken wings with hot and sour sauce may sound lowbrow, you'll be hard pressed to find these at Atomic Wings.

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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