Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Kidding Around

Tom Colicchio discusses hunger issues and responds to Mark Simmons' comments about Tom not liking him.

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Me: "What do you like about cooking?"
Emmanuel (age 10): "Eating!" I got a real chuckle out of that.

When you boil it down, I guess the love of eating is what got all of us cooking in the first place!

I loved this week's show. I loved shooting it, and I loved watching it. Having kids in the kitchen brought out a warm, fun side of our chefs we don't often get to see and did what kids do to any situation -- they brightened it.

And while this week's Elimination Challenge may have seemed Draconian -- $10 to feed a family of four? And cooking healthily to boot? -- here are a couple facts to help put that in perspective:

•28 million Americans (almost 10% of the population) will rely on food stamps as a primary source of nutrition this year.

•A typical food stamp allotment in this country is $21 a person a week, which breaks down roughly to $1 per meal, or $4 per meal for a family of four.

Suddenly that $10 doesn't seem so bad, does it?

Especially when you consider that our chefs were driven to Whole Foods, a purveyor of high-quality ingredients, to do their shopping. The reality is that many mid- and low-income families live far from any place to buy healthy high-quality produce at affordable prices. Here in New York City, hundreds of thousands of residents live in neighborhoods with no supermarket, no green grocer, and no farmers' market. They are often forced to make do with what they can get at the corner grocery -- largely canned and boxed goods -- or fast food.This is especially upsetting once you learn that cooking from real ingredients like beans, whole grains, pasta, and protein sources like chicken, turkey, pork, and eggs costs a fraction of what it costs to buy prepared or frozen food. And with a bit of know-how, it can be done in the short time available to busy, working people.

Common Threads -- the organization that supplied us with kids -- understands this. Their mission is to use cooking to teach kids from some of Chicago's most underserved neighborhoods nutrition, well-being and cultural diversity. It feels good to know that this group of kids will be well equipped to feed their own hungry families good, healthy food one day, without breaking the bank.

I was glad to see that our chefs kept their grumbling to a minimum. It helped that they had the greatest group of sous-chefs in the history of this show.

By and large they did a good job with a few exceptions. Stephanie's dish was overly busy and featured a bizarre flavor combination -- peanut butter, tomato, and lemon juice. Just plain didn't work. Plus, the couscous was overcooked. That said, she did manage to introduce a nice variety of vegetables into her dish.

Mark's dish was way too sweet, and failed to live up to the parameters of the challenge. While sweet potatoes and squash are high in vitamins, he neutralized this by making a high-fat, coconut-based curry, and limiting himself to starchy vegetables.The edamame on Lisa's dish -- usually a kid favorite, and a good source of protein -- were undercooked, and the black beans were bland. I didn't mind that her beans came from a can -- she's correct that canned beans are a common household staple. But she should have tasted them and seasoned them according to her own palate. She may have intended to keep the beans under-seasoned as a foil to her roast chicken, but I don't agree with the logic that a flavorful component of a dish demands a bland counterpart. In fact, I actually think the contrast makes the plain part of the dish even blander.

In retrospect, I think the episode was cut in a way that made it seem we took the greatest issue with Stephanie's dish when in actuality, we debated long and hard about them all, and Mark's emerged as the least favorite of the bunch.

And speaking of Mark, I was genuinely surprised to hear that he thought I had some personal vendetta against him. He suggested that my evident dislike was the reason he found himself at the Judges' Table week after week. After all, it couldn't have been because of his food, right? For the record, and I'll say it again, while we're shooting, I never spend enough time with any of the chefs to form opinions about them personally. With my schedule I barely have time to keep track of the people I already know.

Sorry, Mark. It was the food.As for the top three chefs, I think they each did something great. Nikki made a healthy, tasty one-dish meal, which demonstrated an understanding of how a real family likes to eat (and clean up). Andrew served a Chicken Paillard that delighted everyone, including the adults. And Antonia put her own experience as a busy, working mother to use and created an appealing and healthful chicken and veggie stir-fry that had the kids licking the plate. I hope her daughter knows that she was the inspiration for that dish, and the reason her Mom knew just what to do.

Tom

p.s. If you're interested in learning more about Common Threads or how to help end hunger visit: www.ourcommonthreads.org
www.shareourstrength.org
www.secondharvest.org

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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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