Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Ming. Sigh.'s Editor isn't shy about her feelings for guest judge Ming Tsai.

Hi, again! First, I want to start by saying that you guys are amazing. I've been sharing your culinary film suggestions with the office all week. I have to say the Silence of the Lambs was my favorite, albeit a bit creepy. Forrest Gump gets runner-up.

To "mary cusma," saying:

"The outside of the plate is surrounded with colorful veggies...whipped potatoes with a drop of beet juice(pink) whipped cauliflower(white) baby carrots(orange) etc. "stuck in the middle" is seared pork with a blood orange reduction. Guess the movie:)"

And dammit -- I have no idea! Babe? Someone help me out! The sad part is I was a film major.

Also, thanks "d" for the catch -- "Dale" has been changed to "Spike" in last week's entry.

OK, onto this week's challenge. I'm a total sucker for the non-cooking Quickfire Challenges. My favorite from last year was the technique challenge -- I could literally watch Hung break down that chicken all day. This week, the chefs had to show what their palates are made of, and honestly, it was pretty revealing. Every chef I've spoken to has said how important having a good palate is. So this challenge kind of revealed some of the chefs' weaknesses and the chefs' strengths. I've mentioned Antonia as being on my radar before, but her Quickfire win made her even more intriguing. It also put Ryan in a somewhat better light -- maybe his palate will help him out in the competition. I was shocked that Stephanie didn't do better. But let's also remember, that Season 3's Dale Levitski had a self-admitted poor sense of smell, which definitely affects the palate, and made it to the final two. So, we'll see.

The Elimination Challenge brought another team challenge, and while we've had what seems like nothing but team challenges so far, I think actually they're kind of helpful. With so many chefs still on the show, it's easier to give all the chefs the same amount of attention if they're in groups. I'm not saying that's why it's done, because frankly i have no idea, but i can appreciate it. This week, the chefs had to create first courses for a Meals on Wheels event with guest judge Ming Tsai. For those who remember, Ming Tsai was Guest Judge in Season 2 and told Josie what was what when she couldn't pronounce "pho," and I haven't forgotten how to pronounce it. So, thanks Ming! And, again, he's dreamy.

Let's break down the groups. First there was Fire. I couldn't understand why the chefs didn't create something hot from the get-go. I know it's a first course, but that seemed kind of obvious to me. Lisa has single-handedly proven that you will be rewarded for speaking up. Kudos on the win. That bacon sounded gooood. I also want to point out that Stephanie was a very good mediator between Lisa and Dale.

Team Air didn't get much attention, but they kind of messed up with their duck by not rendering the fat correctly. I've been ordering duck a lot lately (had an excellent duck at Harold Dieterle's restaurant Perilla), and I can't even imagine how unappetizing the fat must be without being rendered correctly. The team also decided to make a little drink on the side, which seemed like an after-thought.


Team Water. Oy. I've already mentioned that I don't like salmon, but as Ted points out in his blog, you could see the impressions from the plastic bag on the fish! Also, Andrew, you know I love you, but the faux caviar is over. I really think if he makes it one more time this season, he could go for it. I just want to see what else he's got up his sleeve. rate_405_earth_elim.jpg

And finally Team Earth. I do love beef carpaccio, but not a fan of the mushrooms. And so it came down to seasoning. Antonia got some flack for having immunity and still steering the team, but honestly, I thought that was commendable. While a soup could have been impressive (Elia did win for a stellar mushroom soup in Season 2), it didn't sound too wow-worthy. So, Zoi went home for not seasoning her food.

Aaand, the fight. Whoa!! It seemed like everyone had a bit of aggression built up, and it showed. Honestly, I could barely follow what the fight was even about, but everyone was yelling and probably made some enemies. If I may be so bold as to say I kinda think they all just need a little action .... But I digress. Dale vs.Lisa continues next week, so stay tuned!And now the fun parts of the show, the non-food parts! A few things:
1) Richard may think his charm has worn off on Tom, but it hasn't. Richard was crazy awkward trying to make jokes when Tom did his walk-through, but I thought it was adorable.

2) Antonia seems like a big Top Chef fan saying how much she loves the taste test Quickfires, and i kinda love her for it.

On a sidenote, a few of us had the opportunity to attend Food & Wine's Best New Chef Awards last week -- an event that the lovely Ms. Gail Simmons puts on. And I was in chef heaven. I was such a groupie, it was disgusting. I basically attacked Wylie Dufresne (I kid, I kid), and he couldn't have been, well, less overtly scared. (I was too nervous to do the same to Daniel Boulud.) Celebrating it's 20th anniversary, previous winners of the awards "hosted" little tables where people could sample their food, and Hung represented Top Chef and his current place of employment, Solo -- a kosher restaurant! Hung prepared a fabulous snapper ceviche with mango pearls, that was actually my personal favorite. It was somewhat of a Bravo/Top Chef reunion with Marcel, Hung, Harold, Tom, Rocco, and Gail all in attendance. So, big shout out to Gail for throwing such a great event.Also, just want to draw your attention to the fact that Tom's Blog is back this week! I know some of you were getting antsy, but the man is super-busy, and this week's blog is pretty exceptional, so enjoy.

Be sure to check out our new show Step it Up & Dance tomorrow. It's hosted by Elizabeth Berkley. And FYI, my nickname in high school was Jesse Spano, so tune in! I will be.

Anyway, comment away! Tell me what you thought of Ming, the fighting, the breakup of our first couple, and really, anything you want.

"See" you next week,

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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