Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Film Food

Padma laments on the chef's lack of imagination.

For a complete transcript of Padma's Vlog, jump to Page 3. Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 1:

It was nice to have Daniel Boulud judging the knife skills Quickfire because he is just the perfect person to do that. He's so tender and so precise and so sweet, and so knowledgeable, but in the kitchen -- I have been in his kitchen, and it is such a fascist military operation. I don't want to say fascist in a bad way. But it's, let me put it to you this way: It's very precise, and it's somebody who's after my own heart with that philosophy, so I'm with him on this. I think people didn't really understand what it meant.

If I'm going to make a dish to showcase my knife skills, they better be precise. It's not about what you do, it's how well you do it. So if you cannot execute a brunois, which is an extremely fine, fine dice. They look like very, very small, I mean just, they're just as small as you can get. They're like cutting a Tic Tac in three pieces. If you cut a Tic Tac in three pieces, that would be a large brunois. So, you know, you have to know the difference between a brunois and a julienne, if it's an herb, and you cannot go before somebody like Daniel Boulud and not know what you're doing. You just can't. and so I really think that separated the serious chefs from the dilettantes. It was a very telling Quickfire.

So, any foodie, any serious foodie can rattle off a long list of movies that are centered around food, and I was surprised at the lack of imagination that these chefs came up. I think they probably thought, "What can I do well?" Which I understand -- it's a competition environment. What can I do? And what movie can fit that? What can we layer on top of that? Nothing seemed really inspired to me, except for Willy Wonka, and I'm not really a big dessert person. I'm a chocolate fiend.

So it was even more intriguing when they chose that as their inspiration and did a savory dish, did savory dishes. So, I think, we're eating a lot of food, and we've all eaten a lot of food in our lives because we're food people. So, I and Tom and Aisha Tyler and even Richard Roeper, I think we really appreciated the leap of creativity. And that's what we want. That's why we pick these challenges -- to really get out of you, or to really get out of the chef, their personal stamp. You know, what are they thinking? What makes this chef different from another chef?

Part 2:

You know, the Good Morning, Vietnam, making Vietnamese food, that seemed less inspired to me. If you're going to do Good Morning, Vietnam, you know, you gotta do, you know, call Robin Williams' agent, find out what his favorite foods are or you know and do like the craft services on that movie using only produce that you can find in Southeast Asia because that's what they'd be cooking. That to me shows someone who's thinking, a lot. But it would be interesting if these people really thought in that vain. You know, unfortunately, what became evident when Spike and Manuel came out is that Manuel felt insecure about the challenge. I could see him saying, "OK -- let me let him take the lead on this, because if our team fails, one of us is going home, and if I don't do as much, if something on the plate is wrong, then he'll go home."

Unfortunately, we tend to reward adventurousness on Top Chef, and we tend to appreciate really stretching your limits as a chef and as a creative thinking person, and, you know, when we interviewed them at the table a little bit, it became evident that he just kind of took a backseat for whatever reason, and that's not OK because you're the chef, and as a chef, you need to lead.

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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