Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Isle Of Enchantment

Tom Colicchio shares his thoughts on the final four.

The finale marks my third trip to the beautiful island of Puerto Rico.The first trip, about ten years ago, was to cook at a charity dinner. My wife (then girlfriend) and I strolled happily around old San Juan enjoying the pastel Colonial architecture and ocean breezes. My second trip, a few years later, was to a large family resort where we ran through a trough of sunscreen and suffered through endless rounds of chicken fingers (even chefs' kids go through this phase).

This time around I was hoping for some better food. Puerto Rico does its own distinctive riff on Latin cuisine by marrying indigenous (fruit, seafood) Spanish (beef, pork, rice), and African slave ingredients (okra, taro) into something uniquely its own. I was interested to see how the cocina criolla, as the locals call it, would find it's way into the final four's efforts. I was also really curious to see how each of them would attack their pig.

Now people who know me know I take pig (what we chefs like to call "that magical animal") very seriously. Butchered well, an entire pig is capable of yielding up more satisfying culinary opportunities than any other creature on earth, down to their snouts and tails (haute dog cuisine). And as I said in my previous blog, I think butchering is a skill that every chef should have. I was lucky enough to be taught how to butcher from one of the cooks at a restaurant gig in Union, NJ that served a lot of veal (learn to butcher a young cow, and you can handle any mammal nature throws at you, with the exception of a whale). My suggestion to aspiring chefs -- if butchering isn't taught to you in culinary school (and even if it is) -- toss your charts and apprentice yourself on weekends to a local butcher. You will never have cause to regret it. Especially when you're handed an entire pig during an Elimination Challenge.


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Our final four gave it their best shots. None were surgeons (I'm being kind), but they all emerged with usable pork. And for the most part, the dishes they made out of it were pretty darn good. In fact, Richard's was so good we gave him a car. But this is the stage in the competition when we start to nitpick mercilessly; the remaining chefs are all skilled enough that they rarely make huge mistakes, and execution is, for the most part, solid.

So who made the small mistakes? Lisa's puree was too sweet. Antonia's pigeon peas were undercooked and she opted to serve all of her offerings on one plate. Rather than giving it the rustic feel she was going for, this gave her food a muddy, jumbled quality, and turned the "al dente" peas into a spoiler for four dishes instead of just one.

One taste of each contestant's dishes was all it took for me to know immediately how the judging would play out, and a quick glance around the party confirmed it: As the guests queued up for seconds, a long, winding line snaked its way around Richard's table. Another line, of decent length, led to Stephanie's, and a short but interested one led to Lisa's. There was no line at Antonia's table.

Alas, we had to let Antonia go, which of course has brought a wellspring of vitriol from the theorists on our message boards. Therefore, I'm compelled to give my once-a-season response to those cynics out there who insist we make our decisions to manipulate the ratings. If I sound defensive, I think I'm entitled: Let's just say we were the types of judges that, in exchange for scaling the breathtaking heights of reality TV, yielded to the producers directives, in order to play to audiences. Wouldn't that mean we would have let Lisa go?


For the uninitiated: the bulk of the Top Chef season is shot over six grueling weeks some months before the show airs (up until the finale, which is shot as the early episodes air.) While we're shooting, I have very little contact with the contestants beyond those filmed kitchen forays where the chefs struggle to stay friendly to me as they're quietly freaking out, the rare interaction during a challenge (like my bout as expediter at Tramonto), and the couple of minutes it takes for us to taste the food, and share our judgment with them at the Judges' Table. We see tape of the chefs' interviews, and clips of them cooking, bonding, or fighting only after they've been cut into the final episode. It's thus impossible for us to draw anything other than the most cursory conclusions about the chefs, much less figure out ratings that don't yet exist, or who will eventually be "villain" or fan favorite.

If we had been able to somehow able to figure this out ahead of time and thereby act upon it, Tiffani would have been booted early in Season One (or Stephen, take your pick), Marcel would have never made it to the head-shaving incident, Sam would have won Season Two hands down on the female vote alone, and Tre would have stayed, despite screwing up, because he was such a likable and competent guy. In fact, we would have been compelled to ignore all of his subsequent mistakes because he had been such an able contender up to that point.

It seems that the theory-that-just-won't-die has surfaced yet again because of Lisa, who has enraged people with her defiant, arms-crossed Judges' Table scowl. She's clearly not as loved as some of the other chefs who have been sent packing, leading to the conspiracy theories: They kept her for the ratings! I can see why some take issue with Lisa -- she's been called out on the carpet a number of times and somehow seems to hang on. I think Lisa, along with a few chefs from past seasons (Dave Martin and Mike Midgley are two that come to mind,) benefited from a phenomenon I call the "lucky-dog-who-keeps-skating-by-effect," in which a chef of decent, but not stellar, skills gets lucky and doesn't screw up at precisely the moment that one of their more gifted opponents does. And since we judge each week's Elimination Challenge on its own merits, we are operating each time under the assumption that everyone still cooking deserves to be there.


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Now you may hate us for standing in the "judge each week on it's own merits" corner, and personally subscribe to the "judge each week by overall performance" camp, but consider for a moment if we did judge each contestant based on their cumulative merits -- by whose analysis, exactly? And how do we arrive at a consensus? My idea of how the chefs rank may vary widely from Ted or Gail's. And what about our Guest Judge -- he or she doesn't know any of the chefs -- of what value at that point is their input? The debate would shift from "who won this episode?" to "who's won the most episodes?" and "should we factor in the Quickfires?" "Does attitude or likability count?" "How about we assign each dish a score, tally them up, and then knock people off by the numbers?" Etc. etc .... It opens a huge, even more contentious can of worms. The "week-by-week" logic may be only incrementally fairer than the "overall performance" argument, but it's our story, and we're sticking to it.

That said, I felt manipulated by the week-before-last's show -- it really did seem like Lisa should have been sent home over Dale. I wrote this in my blog not to sell my fellow judges up the river, but rather to empathize with viewers who are left to wonder, How did that happen?" It's hard to boil four or more hours of nuanced debate into a few minutes of screen time, and I can see why the results don't always mesh with what viewers have seen.

I can only resolve to follow my gut each week about the food in front of me, and hope that Top Chef fans stick it out with us and keep writing in. Your thoughts and comments, even when I don't agree, are an essential part of making this a dish that works.

Tom

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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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