Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The New Kids on the Block

Lee Anne Wong shares the joy of meat on a stick.

... OK, OK -- I used to be a New Kids fan. So shoot me. Anyways, I was so happy to hear that Rick Bayless would be the judge for our third episode. I have worked with Chef Bayless several times here at The French Culinary and we always have so much to talk about since I visit Mexico every year. He is not only incredibly polished and professional, but the passion he has for the culture and cuisine of Mexico is inspiring for a young chef such as myself. When he was here filming Chef's Story with us, he was being interviewed on his love of cooking and Mexico and I was listening with headphones on a monitor in the back. Talk about wisdom. It makes me smile when I think about what he had said and how motivating it was for me. In other words, I heart Rick Bayless and those of you who still give him shit for the Burger King commercial need to let up because you probably don't know the whole story. guest_403_01_320x240.jpg

Again, simple challenges are often the best. Create a upscale gourmet taco. Shannon and I had a ball stocking the pantry for this Quickfire for 2 reasons: 1. We both love Mexican cuisine, and have traveled across the border several times together. 2. We couldn't wait to use the leftover raw ingredients for a fiesta of our own.

We bought some standard ingredients and some not-so-standard ingredients. What I found challenging, and I probably would've made the same mistakes as the contestants had this been a challenge during my season several years ago, was what actually defines an upscale taco. Is it the quality of the ingredients? Is it how one uses the ingredients given? Is just plating and no paper and lots of fancy colorful sauces? While I agree with Spike that tacos are generally considered street food (Taco Bell is NOT Mexican food. Go find the nearest bodega), Erik needed to loosen up altogether and be a little more flexible with the challenge. So what if it bugs you, do you want to win $100K? And if you're gonna badmouth a chef of Rick Bayless' stature, don't do it on national TV. At least Richard and Mark got the point.I chowed down on everyone's food porn taco. When I go to Mexico, I practically gorge myself on street food. Puebla is the place to be for street food that's off the hook. It's delicious, obscenely cheap, and more satisfying than what I would normally get anywhere else. Most of our contestants made something very close to street food. Mango salsa does not make a taco upscale. We had put things like taro root and sweet potatoes on the table as options for crispy taco shells. We also had fresh masa and a tortilla press for the contestants. Everyone, including Memo, used the packaged corn tortillas. There was also caviar and different kinds of sashimi-grade fish (... potato chip taco shell, tartare, avocado cream and caviar?). Again, it speaks to the pressure our chefs are under when they only have moments to imagine a dish and then 30 minutes to execute it. I am sure with more time we could've seen some more creative results.

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Poor, poor Manuel. You can just see how crushed he was that he didn't win the taco challenge. I've known Manuel for a few years here in NY and he's always made phenomenal food for me when I would go to Dos Caminos. Plus the fact that he's super nice. In his defense, his chorizo taco was muy delicioso.

There were a lot of steak tacos too. Lisa's skirt steak was close to raw, and watching Rick try to eat it reminded me of the cavolo nero I never chopped up for Tom for the sandwich Quickfire. Andrew's tacos were delicious. I am a believer in the duck taco. Aaron Sanchez puts what I call the "crack taco" special on his menu at Paladar every winter; Crispy Duck Confit Tacos with Foie Gras (which I couldn't stock in the pantry all season because we were in Chicago) and a Quince Habanero Salsa. I always order them when they are on the menu. I do not share. Erik's sloppy plating gets him called out again, and Spike shouldn't be in such disbelief that he didn't win. He deliberately didn't meet the criteria and he knew it. Richard's Jicama Tacos were very light and delicious, and they actually remind me of a dish I had just had two months before in Oaxaca. They were also similar to Korean Vegetable Wraps. Either way, it was the most innovative of the bunch and definitely deserved the win.
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This Block Party was a Sistine Chapel-like challenge for my team to set up. It's our version of door-knock dinners. Of course production had met with the people who lived on Richmond Street to coordinate the pantry raids and get the OK to let a bunch of crazed chefs in their houses. I met with the homeowners who opened their doors for us to find out what they had in their fridges and prepare them for the mayhem to come. There were certain concerns I had by allowing our chefs to just go in and take food out of a stranger's fridge. Food safety was my first and utmost concern. We needed to make sure that the food was as fresh as possible, unlike my fridge, which needs to be cleaned out because I haven't cooked at home in a while, so there may be a science project hiding somewhere. The homeowners were indeed permitted to give the contestants any food out of their fridge or pantry, as long as it was fresh and unopened. Thankfully, our contestants had plenty to work with. And for the record, I did not fill up that lady's pantry. In fact, I never even saw it because initially we weren't going to let the chefs in their cabinets. Dude, totally bomb shelter ready. Reminds me of my mom.
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So Blue Team wanted to identify themselves as "Upscale", while the red team categorized themselves as "Classic Americana." I think neither really hit the mark and most of the food I had tasted was OK but nothing stood out. So everyone can know, it was a bit of an Indian Summer in Chicago and even though it was late September, it happened to be around 90 degrees out the day of the block party. However, it was 88 degrees out the day before, so the contestants shouldn't have expected much different. I found the paella and mac and cheese to be questionable items for such a hot day. A seafood ceviche or salad might have been slightly better use of the seafood he had, and I don't know anyone who eats mac and cheese outside when it's 90 degrees.I think both teams played it fairly safe. And here's the thing ... most of these chefs had have catered a party at one point or another in their careers. When we read the rules to the contestants after the challenge set up, I usually show them what equipment will be available on site and what they are allowed to bring. I gave each team six disposable chafing dishes with plenty of fuel, and several serving bowls, platters, and utensils. Here's the thing with chafing dishes: There's usually a base pan into which you put an inch of water in the bottom to keep your hotel pan insert which is holding the food warm. This happens through steam heat. Remove the water from the bottom pan, what do you get? Dry heat. Dry heat + cold corn dogs = something better than what was fried then steamed. I had argued this point with my team for the monkfish challenge, stating that our monkfish nuggets would get soggy in the steam table and we should dump the water out of the bottom pan. I was shot down by Tiffani AND Harold, but at the end of the day I know I was right because I had used the same method to keep my spring rolls from the sex shop challenge hot and crispy.
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I really enjoyed both the sliders from the Red Team and the pulled pork sandwich from the Blue Team. Dale's pork kebabs were spicy delicious, as well as Memo's pork ribs, though I found the mole-like sauce to be heavy on the chocolate. I refused to eat the mac and cheese. The paella had a ton of flavor, and I think Tom was nitpicking about the paella and "the crust." While I do look for a great crust on paella, I don't always get it, so to assume that one would know that this is a requirement is 50/50. It could have been achieved though; they could've broiled their disposable hotel pans of paella before traveling and then removed the steamer tray for the paella altogether and put their dish directly over the sterno.The cookie was cute and tasty, and the fruit crumble was simple and seasonal, putting Stephanie at the top of the heap again. The question is, do you cook for your audience or do you cook for the judges? The answer is both. Red Team made the fatal flaw of underestimating their audience. While they did make a lot of food, I think they could've been more creative. So what if you get stuck with pasta salad? I can think of dozens of ways to transform the basic cold pasta, cold diced veggies, and oily vinaigrette, especially when combined with ingredients from our pantry (the pantry list is quite expansive). I'll be honest -- Ted and Rick hit the nail on the head when they said you could find better pasta salad at a supermarket deli counter. Then there was the wretched Waldorf salad. It would honestly be the last salad on earth I would think to make, but I guess it fits in the theme of classic, if not totally boring and poorly done. It was a mixed bag with both teams, with some good dishes and some really bad dishes, neither necessarily fulfilling their criteria for "upscale" and "classic Americana." In the end, the soggy corn dogs were the biggest disappointment for all, including the guests of the block party, and the judges. I was not so fond of Erik's attitude toward the challenges and Chef Bayless, but underneath his bruiser-like exterior, he's a very sweet guy with a laid-back California-style of cooking. I wish him the best and hope to try one of his signature corn dogs next time I'm in his neck of the woods.

Speaking of corn dogs, I was at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California a few weekends ago. I went for two things: roller coasters and a corn dog. The park was not fully open so there was only one stand that sold the corn dogs and I didn't reach it until it was late afternoon, due to its location (deep in the park). I would've preferred the corn dog to the terrible incarnation of Johnny Rocket's that I had for lunch. The first bite into that crispy sweet corn batter and then the juicy jumbo hot dog beneath, smeared with ketchup and mustard, as I like it, always brings me back to my childhood. After all, it's meat. It's a stick. It's meat on a stick. In the words of Mike Midgley, "Who doesn't love meat on a stick?"

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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