Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

My Dinner At Tramonto's Steak And Seafood's Editor dishes about her Windy City meal.

Well, hello again! I don't even know if I need to address comments this week seeing as they were all, um, the same: Lisa needs to go. Well, unfortunately for you I have zero say over that, and since the finale has been shot already, well, you'll just have to watch what happens .... (Yes -- I'm as surprised as you that that is the first time I have used that phrase in my blog.)

And stay tuned to the end of my blog this week for details on my trip to Tramonto's Steak & Seafood including dessert food porn!

OK -- let's talk about this episode. I have a feeling we're going to get a lot of comments about the emphasis on beef this week, especially since so many of you have commented on wanting a vegetarian/vegan challenge. I can assure you that I have brought this up to people who have more power than me. But for this week, it was all about steak. As a big carnivore, I love steak. I grew up eating a lot of meat and steak was a big part of that, especially since steakhouses are some of the few fine dining destinations my whole family can agree on. In the Quickfire the chefs had to butcher their own meat, and well, I thought some of the physically weaker chefs might fall over. I have to say the whole scene reminded me of a scene from Fast Food Nation. Fortunately for them, they were given only the best cuts to deal with. In the end, Spike prevailed, thoroughly impressing Chef Tramonto. As a viewer I was skeptical as to how well a chef would really be able to butcher that size cut, but being able to discern a good cut from a messy one is a chef's job. He only had to look at and cut into the chef's creations to determine who came out on top and who fell to the bottom. A lot of people are afraid to eat pink/red meat, but you should always order medium-rare at a steakhouse if you want the best out of your beef, and Chef Tramonto was looking for that perfect color and texture.

Anyway, Spike's advantage is to choose his two proteins in the challenge. He chooses the tomahawk and scallops ... frozen scallops. We asked Rick about the scallops in this week's "Breaking Bread with ..." and he confirmed that he does not normally have frozen scallops in his pantry. And you know what? Even if he does, Spike shouldn't have chosen them. Remember when he chose the bad meat from the Green Market? It's not the first time not choosing fresh product has bitten him in the ass. Furthermore, this isn't the first time choosing frozen protein has hurt a Top Chef contestant, and unfortunately it probably wont be the last. Honestly I'm sure you're all still upset Lisa is still there, but since there was an overwhelming "Spike should go" contingent, hopefully some of you will be satisfied. And while, yes, after reading all your comments I now know that you all love Dale, my comment last week referencing that you would be happy he was gone was based on comments before last week's episode. We had a lot of first-time commenters who had never expressed their love for Dale before, and, well, I gotta admit, i was caught off-guard. I can't say I don't disagree though. Lisa and Dale are both very talented, but I always saw Dale as a bigger threat. Who knows, though -- maybe Lisa will be a real wild card.

Once again, Antonia, Stephanie, and Richard wowed the judges ... which included our former winners! How nice was it to see Harold, Ilan, and Hung, together? (And Tom in the kitchen?!) I couldn't help but laugh every time the camera showed Harold eating. He really attacks that stuff, and you could kinda tell that he and Rick would probably be best friends if they lived in the same city. He says about as much in his blog this week. Stephanie and Richard both made sweetbreads dishes and while I've never eaten them, I think I'm going to start.

OK -- now onto the fun stuff (for me): My trip to Chicago! (Warning: Foodie fan bragging commencing ...) This past Saturday night, I had the pleasure of dining at Tramonto's Steak & Seafood. I had the advantage of having a reservation set up through Chef Tramonto and Gand's "people," and I certainly got the star treatment. I arrived at the restaurant which resides in the Westin Hotel in Wheeling, IL with four of my girlfriends and was warmly greeted by a lovely man named Tim Rice (If I'm wrong, I apologize!) and an invitation to a viewing party the restaurant was throwing to watch tonight's episode with Rick himself! (If anyone went to the event, please write in!) We were quickly shown to our table, which was the private wine room adjacent to the open kitchen! My eyes couldn't have opened any wider when I saw where they were putting us. The room was beautiful and we were surrounded by just a sampling of the 10,000 bottles of wine in the restaurant's selection. We were greeted by lovely servers and a sommelier named Jamie, who helped us choose our reasonably-priced (wink) Pinot Noir.

After a lot of gawking, it was time to order. Shockingly, I was the only one in my party of five that eats steak! Either the other girls were vegetarian or Kosher and had to stick with the fish and seafood options. Our obscenely helpful server, Edith, came out with the very tomahawk chop featured in the episode, but at 40 oz. I couldn't justify ordering it for myself. Although the filets were the only cuts small enough for one, I ordered the bone-in rib-eye as I had heard it was the best cut on the menu because of its marbling, and I'd just take home the leftovers. I also ordered the goat cheese potato gratin at Edith's recommendation and one of my friends ordered the black truffle mac 'n cheese. Before even our appetizers came, we were greeted with an amuse bouche sent by the chefs. Seriously, I was already floored by where we were seated, but this was too much. Obviously the chefs think i am more of a somebody at Bravo than I am, but who was I to argue?


The amuse bouche (inadequately pictured above) was a beef tar tare with a poached quail egg and brioche foam! I have developed a serious love for quail eggs this year and this couldn't have been a better combo for me. Not to offend the chefs, I ate quite a few of my friends' dishes as they were restricted by their diets.

Next came some appetizers we ordered, and then finally the main dishes. My steak was very well-prepared, and despite my best efforts, I couldn't finish it. The potatoes were lighter than I anticipated. Goat cheese can sometimes overwhelm me. And the mac 'n cheese was amaaazing -- I've never tasted Dave Martin's famous mac 'n cheese, but this certainly cut the mustard.

While the entrees were great, I have to say the highlight was meeting Gale Gand and eating her work! She appeared in our tiny heaven and spoke to us for quite some time discussing everything from Senator McCain's wife stealing her recipes for his Web site, how you should eat a quarter of your dessert before a meal to curb your appetite, and what else -- Top Chef! Since I only get to correspond via e-mail or phone with so many of our guest judges, this was truly a treat to meet such an accomplished chef. And then she asked the quetison every superfan can only hope to hear (pieced together from memory of course):

Gale Gand: "Do you want me to just select your dessert?"

Everyone at My Table: "Um, yes."

Gale Gand: Who's a chocolate lover?"

Everyone at My Table: (Hands up)

A couple of glasses of Pinot Noir later, and in came a parade of desserts! I have a sweet tooth, so I was in heaven. One of my fellow diners had the good thought to take pictures and i can now share them with you with descriptions:


Blood orange and raspberry sorbets, fresh raspberries, and strawberries (thoughtfully for my lactose intolerant friend!)


Warm Chocolate S'more Cake

Moist chocolate layer cake, toasted marshmallow ice cream, graham cracker streusel


White chocolate ice cream, blood orange and raspberry sorbets


Single Estate Vanilla Creme Brulee

Madagascar vanilla beans, raspberry salad, caramel corn


Malted Milk Chocolate Souffle

Malted candies, ovaltine ice cream

We also shread the Warm Blueberry Cobbler -- Oatmeal streusel, lemon zest ice cream. I have to say, the sorbets and the creme brulee with caramel popcorn were my favorites, but it was hard to choose. In all, it was one of the most memorable dining experiences I've had so far. It's not every day I get treated to such a special meal and I just wanted to share it with you. I'll have to go back to indulge in more of Chicago's dining (I think a food tour is probably in order), but for now, all I can say is that my dinner was the highlight of my first trip to the Windy City -- (which is admittedly equally exciting and sad.)

Next week's episode should be exciting as we finally travel to Puerto Rico for Part 1 of the finale ... where we get to see the final four duke it out ... and Lisa's new haircut! (Oh come on -- you were definitely going to make a comments about it after seeing the preview.) Leave your comments below -- I can't wait to read them!

Still full from Saturday night's dinner,


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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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