Keep it Simple

Chef Rocco DiSpirito explains the difference between blini and bellini.


A "bellini" is a cocktail invented in the 1930s at Harry's Bar in Venice, Italy, by Giuseppe Cipriani. It's made with Prosecco, an Italian sparkling white wine, and white peach puree. It's a great way to get an evening started.

"Blini" are leavened Russian buckwheat pancakes traditionally served with sour cream and caviar. The slightly bitter buckwheat is a great foil for the unctuous caviar.

So you see, there is quite a big difference between the two.

I am not one who usually points out this kind of thing, but it's a sore subject for me. I once had a sous-chef who refused to call blini by their proper name. He always referred to them as bellinis, which always got my blood boiling. I thought that if he was going to be second-in-command at a three-star New York City restaurant and serve blini and caviar for $168/portion, he should know how to say it. Fair enough right? (Actually, what's worse is that I think he did know, and that it was his own special brand of taunting me.) So watching Valerie make bad blini in the second episode of Top Chef while at the same time mispronouncing the word, blini, was very irritating.

Thanks, I needed to get that off my chest.

Some of the edge I saw in the "cheftestants" in the first episode seems to have vanished in the second. This time, instead of a group of Method-actor wannabes intent on becoming a "character" on Top Chef, I saw 15 earnest and focused people who aspired to become THE top chef. Even Andrew came across as sweet and humble.


The Quickfire Challenge was all about scarcity being the mother of invention. Limiting the number of ingredients a chef can use in a dish is a great way to test his or her ability on many levels. It's easy to hide mistakes in a dish with many ingredients and many layers of flavor. It's when you only have a few elements to work with that you clearly see a chef's ingenuity, range, and brilliance. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, for instance, is one who is a master of simplicity.

In both the Quickfire and the Elimination Challenges, Richard showboated a bit with his incessant talk of "molecular gastronomy," which is essentially the exploration of the science of cooking rather than the art of it. Ferran Adrià  is generally credited as the first to incorporate the theories of MG into his cooking, but even he doesn't want to be associated with it.

Ferran Adrià  is one few major geniuses who literally transformed the cooking scene, much like Jean-Georges Vongerichten did in the early 1980s. Ferran manages to use new techniques to deliver better results, which is, of course, the goal of innovation. Unlike Ferran, many of his imitators deliver innovation at the cost of flavor and that's just unforgivable. Who cares if you use a NASA laser to aromatize vanilla beans if you can't stand eating the dessert? (If I could, I would ban the words "molecular gastronomist"; "gourmet," as in a "gourmet carrot"; and "right," as in the "right salt" from the culinary vocabulary. The only purpose these empty words and phrases serve is to intimidate people. Lord knows, the home cook doesn't need yet another obstacle in the way of getting a meal on the table every night.) The technique of sous-vide (cooking in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag at a temperature below boiling to preserve moisture and integrity of ingredients), flavored foams, and the use of gelatinous agar-agar have been around in the great kitchens of Europe and America for dozens of years. So when you hear Richard talk about "molecular gastronomy," don't get too excited. And, as it turns out, we learn he does rely a little too much on the "whiz-bang, gadget, gizmos" and MG jargon.

So anyway, even Wylie Dufresne, a well respected and uniquely gifted chef who plays in the "same sandbox" as Richard, gave him a pass. Those chicken wings (not legs, like he indicated) baffled me. (BTW, while eucalyptus IS edible in small doses, it's fatal in large doses. Creativity for the sole sake of itself is one of the most annoying bad habits of immature cooks.)Mark the Kiwi (headband aside) is beginning to come across as talented and truly focused. Remember, he did make me a pizza with Marmite, (a spread derived from yeast, beloved in the English-speaking countries of the Old World.) It's one the most foul flavors on earth, and he managed to make it great.

It's early, but I think this guy has got some chops (get it?) and a strong point of view. True, he did blow it with that awful duck dish last time, but it's clear he lost his way for a only a moment. Let's chalk it up to nerves. This time, he made two great dishes in both the Quickfire and the Elimination Challenge. When he found out he was missing one of the five ingredients he was allotted, he recovered well. Any Top Chef hopeful should be able to do so -- and Wylie appropriately acknowledged that. The lamb with turnip and peaches looked good, and I bet it tasted good, too. His anchovy nigiri was inspired. And anyone who can make quinoa taste good is already a top chef in my book.

Dale delivered a few good zingers, but self consciously so. I think he went into this competition with the idea that he'd morph into a combination of Hung and Dale from last season. If he can truly pull that off, he will guarantee his win.

Ryan seemed to make it through this episode without completely embarrassing himself. Good job, brother.

Valerie (blini aside) needs a booster shot of self-confidence and self-esteem. She seems to have been beaten down in the professional culinary world. Eric had a confidence that I enjoyed watching. It was nice to see him recover somewhat from last week's catastrophe -- although it's already pretty clear he's out of his league.

Stephanie, last episode's winner, certainly wasn't planning on resting on her laurels. She has a great attitude and skills that will guarantee her success in the almost impossible job of cooking for people. She claims she doesn't have a lot of experience catering for large groups, but I know different. She worked with me at a charity gala in Chicago recently (Common Threads, hosted by Tom, Padma, and Gail) and was very impressive. She prepped and served nearly a thousand portions of Cold Beef and Italian Bread Salad from my last book with only one assistant. She did it well, quietly, and thoroughly. And I didn't get a chance to say, "Thank you." (So if you're reading Steph, thank you very much!) rate_402_stephanie_qf.jpgSpike makes you wonder what he's thinking. He made a point of recognizing that his fellow chefs were taking the Green Market experience too seriously, and of course, it turned out, he didn't have the ingredients he thought he had. Like the rabbit that underestimated the tortoise, Spike couldn't recover from his cavalier attitude.

The Elimination Challenge was hilarious. It was a clever way to change things up a bit without venturing into the danger zone of outlandishness just to make compelling TV. I also learned a lot. Buffaloes eat beets? Who knew? I love beets. Working on teams is always hard to do. While every one of those chefs would rather work alone, understanding teamwork and leading a team is a very important part of being a chef. I was surprised and happy to see Andrew play nice with his teammates. During the party at the zoo there were classic mistakes made. Some dishes should have been cooked on site or should have not been part of the program at all (blini). And then we got to see who too was stubborn to recognize their errors and make the right decisions (Stephanie: celery chips) and who wasn't (Nikki: stuffed mushrooms). In the final judging, props were given to the right groups. Great quinoa and tasty jelly are major accomplishments (and I love yuzu, I used to make a yuzu/salmon amuse bouche with agar-agar at Union Pacific). And watching Padma announce that the penguins and vultures were the winners with a straight face was hilarious, in a good way. P.S. If you're wondering why I am not commenting on the winner and loser of this episode as I usually do, it's because as of this writing I still don't know how it ended.

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