Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Like We Could Leave Restaurant Wars Out Of The Picture

Gail: Mei's Menu Was Almost Flawless

Make Top Chef Mei Lin's Winning Dessert!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Make Mei's Sushi Style Guac!

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

Make Melissa's Mom's Egg Custard

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Make Mei's Inspired Duck a l'Orange

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

Like We Could Leave Restaurant Wars Out Of The Picture

Lee Anne Wong dishes about the popular episode.

Like we could leave Restaurant Wars out of the picture ... please. I scouted out Lou Mitchell's with production several weeks beforehand. This meant Shauna and company threw me behind the line for two hours on the egg station to see how I fared. The trickiest part was not the fact that there was only one burner to fry the eggs as the griddle was mostly taken up by hash browns and bacon and sausage, but the fact that they used small eggs and a whole lot of diner lingo. One egg meant crack two eggs, and two eggs meant you had to cook four eggs. The trick was making sure there was a stockpile of cracked eggs in the bowl next to the stove. But I did very well (OF COURSE I DID - ha!) and we knew throwing our chefs in the hole on a busy weekend brunch morning would make for a challenging Quickfire.

If you live in Chicago, then you know all about those dastardly donut holes they hand out when you walk in the door at Lou Mitchell's. They run around with an entire basket of them, like Little Red Riding Hood. Cakey, a little crunchy on the outside, and drenched in powdered sugar, I could seriously devour an entire basket and got into giving whoever was carrying the basket a dirty look if they headed in my direction (which was usually Helene). Our contestants all took turns on the line. Each was given 20 minutes in the hole and in the end Antonia and Dale fared the best (I think Antonia made in for 11 minutes, Dale for 9). I was literally standing off camera watching them cook. The toughest part is keeping track of the orders and getting them out in such a small space. As you can see with Richard, it's not often easy for a cook to get the body movement down in a strange space right away. In this case, they could literally only turn around in a circle, so it was awkward for some of them to get their bearings.

I was glad we got to execute this challenge. The contestants had been looking forward to Restaurant Wars for the entire season, and I'll be honest, it's a damn good challenge that has grown in both scope and budget since Season One. Who better to judge than Jose Andres, who has opened up a slew of restaurants in DC and Spain. As one of the world's foremost Spanish chefs, he is a leader in concepts for both food and restaurant, with successes of his own that include the popular tapas menu at Jaleo to the intellectual dining opera that is Minibar.

Antonia made a smart decision by choosing Stephanie and Richard. In my opinion, the three of them are clearly a bit more level-headed than the others. Their idea for a gastropub was a smart one: underpromise, overdeliver. That's what we like to say in the restaurant industry, and it's a formula that never gets stale. They went with a simple and familiar menu, adding their own special twists such as the ras al hanout for the beets and the sausage and horseradish cream for the linguine and clams. It would ensure that the diners could feel comfortable ordering the dishes and then be pleasantly surprised with the dish that was actually presented to them. And at the end of the day, Antonia and Richard executed the dishes flawlessly, while Stephanie vigilantly took care of the customers. The decor for their space was low-key and understated, which allowed for the food and service to shine.

While I knew Dale, Lisa, and Spike would go with an aggressive Asian theme, I'm not sure you could pay me to be on a team with the three of them. You could sense the tension and unstable energy, and quite frankly, there's not enough air in the room to sustain all of their egos at the same time. Not to say that they are not talented, because they are. They just all seem a little conniving, contrary, and condescending to each other once in interview. There's no "I" in team, except for with these three. Spike actually lucked out and skated by, by taking on the front of the house role (the suit was a nice touch, but he's no Stephen Asprinio). We provide wait staff for each team and one of the things that I am always looking out for is how the chefs address and manage their wait staff. As you can see, Dale doesn't handle stress so well and took to calling his staff names and cursing at them (could you imagine being one of them?). At Judges' Table, it became a blame game between Lisa and Dale, both being equally at fault for the team's failures. The laksa tasted like you were chewing on burnt wood. The butterscotch miso glaze was cloyingly sweet.

The only real successes were the short ribs and the dumplings. Many would argue that Lisa should've gone home for both of her dishes being bad. The fact that Dale refused to take responsibility as the Executive Chef, the role he so eagerly deemed himself, and for Lisa's mistakes, got him sent home. There have been cases in the past where the Exec can take responsibility and still send their sous-chef home (Season One and Season Two ring a bell?). Deliberation is the last chance you have to state your case, and if you can do it diplomatically, or at least intelligently, you may be able to save yourself. I think Dale was overconfident and in denial that he could be at fault for any of his team's shortcomings.

Competition is a strange thing, because Dale is one of the nicest, happy-go-lucky guys I've ever met ... off-camera. Wildly talented, and certainly passionate, I have no doubt his emotional goodbye should let you all know he's a little soft on the inside and just how much the competition meant to him. He should just be thankful he never let the dam break, like Joey. His reputation as a tough guy would be ruined.

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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