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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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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