Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Lesser of the Evils

Harold Dieterle declares his love for Wylie Dufresne and shares his wisdom with the Season 4 cheftestants.

I thought the Quickfire was good -- I thought both challenges were really good. They did a pretty good job. The difference between people who have experience and people who are just starting to cook is about restraint. I know when I first started cooking I found myself just putting tons and tons of ingredients in a dish, and the next thing you know the person you're cooking for is looking at you like, "What the f*** is this?" This challenge was about restraint, and which chefs know how to take a minimal amount of ingredients and make something tasty out of it. Overall, I think they did a pretty good job.

With Mark, I think he learned what the judges said about the last challenge and composed a dish instead of deconstructing everything, and I think it paid off for him.

I like Wylie. I'm a big Wylie fan. I think he totally thinks outside the box. It's not the way I cook, but I appreciate what he does and some of the other fellas who are doing that style of food. If Wylie thinks something's good, he's going to say it's good. If it's not what he's looking for I think he's a pretty straight shooter. Elimination was another really fun challenge. If you're going to get involved in this kind of competition, you need to know a few things. There are going to be restaurant wars, there's going to be a cocktail party, and you're going to have make a dessert at some point. You need to have a game plan of how you're going to do these things somewhere down the line. It's just preparation.

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Anytime you use pastry or something that's supposed to be hot and you have to leave it out for an hour or two you're probably going to run into some trouble. Blini don't work if you cook them ahead of time and then try to serve them. Unless you can cook them now you're probably going down the wrong path.It boils down to what the worst dish was. I can't really go out on a limb and say whether the right person went home. I'm still trying to figure out the mushrooms with the dried blueberries -- that just sounds absolutely disgusting to me. That's just me, though. I love blueberries and I love mushrooms, I just don't get how those flavors go together. Dale goes out of his way to say he doesn't give a shit about putting flowers or all this other stuff on the table because he only cares about how the food tastes, and then he goes and puts this cheese on the mushrooms that doesn't taste good.

It's a lose-lose situation. Tom's walking out of the kitchen and he's asking what you're doing, he sees you making these dishes, and if they're not served he's going to ask why. There's got to be some sort of rationale as to why you're not serving.

Andrew's a loose cannon. He's got a lot of energy. In the team they talked a lot about what dishes they were doing, but I think ultimately they were each responsible for the dishes they made. They were each making their own dishes. I thought his glacier was really interesting. It didn't look very appetizing to me, but I thought there was continuity behind it with the penguin theme. The calamari, on the other hand, looked really nice. I think he did a really good job. I wouldn't have made a glacier, but I don't know what I would have made.They're making foams already. It's cool that they're bringing some of their own equipment, he had an immersion circulator -- that's pretty cool.

Even though she didn't do well, I think Stephanie's alright. I like Stephanie. I think Richard's going to do some interesting food, so I'm waiting to see. He seems to be able to articulate his ideas through food, which I think is interesting. It's not someone who thinks they have great ideas but can only half-ass it -- I'm not going to name any names. He seems like he knows what he's doing.

Harold
www.perillanyc.com

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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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