Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Let The Eating Begin!

Head judge Tom Colicchio shares his thoughts on the season premiere and reacts to some viewers' conspiracy theories.

Welcome to Chicago! This town's wide diversity of cuisines makes it the perfect backdrop to our fourth season -- from the gutsy cooking of Paul Kahan at Avec and Bluebird, to Rick Bayless' Nuevo Mexico to the avant-garde cuisine at Alinea where Grant Achatz's experimental style would have Marcel spinning in circles. Chicago boasts the country's most prolific restaurateur -- Rich Melman, whose company consistently turns out high-concept, high-quality restaurants like The Big Bowl and Cafe Ba Ba Ree Ba!. His company, Lettuce Entertain You, is this country's largest independent restaurant group, and it's fitting that Chicago is his home base. The town is awash in great ethnic food, like luscious Polish stuffed cabbage, German bratwurst, and spicy Korean bibimbap. And then there are Chicago's famous hot dogs, deep dish pizzas, and "wet beef" sandwiches, which don't sound like they taste good, but do. From day one, I was well taken care of by Chicago's chefs and shopkeepers, but the highlight probably was LuLa Cafe where Amalea Tshilds and Jason Hammel spoiled me and my wife with their organic brunch. We're still dreaming of the duck breast and braised endive omelet and ricotta-stuffed French toast.

On a personal (non-food) note, the music scene here is incredible. On my time off, I got to listen to great blues in several different bars and tool around for hours with vintage guitars at the Chicago Music Exchange. I caught a terrific Springsteen show at the United Center (I'm a Jersey boy -- whither Bruce goest, I go) but the highlight of my Chicago music adventures was seeing Bob Dylan (with Elvis Costello opening) at the Chicago theater. Amazing. If you're reading this blog, then by now most likely you've met the 16 contestants from our first episode. As you can see we have a diverse and interesting bunch. Once again it seems as though the new season has brought an even more skillful bunch than the last, almost as though Top Chef has become an important stop on the upward slog for serious up-and-comers, who turned out in droves to audition. This season we're seeing better knife skills, stronger resumes, and more overall experience. Most of the contestants are sous-chefs or chefs of their own restaurants -- not a first year culinary student among them. I'm OK with that, because I think the title of Top Chef should go to someone prepared to meet the many demands of running a restaurant, and in this a little experience goes a long way.

I've been reading around the blogosphere and getting a kick out of some of the theories I've read about this season: One theory has it that the contestants' placement in the publicity photos is a clue as to who will ultimately get the title. This one's funny because we shoot those ads one week into a grueling six-week schedule, when no one -- from producers, to the contestants themselves -- knows who is going to win. At the time those ads were shot, we had eliminated only two or three of the chefs and the most persistent feeling was one of anticipation and looming exhaustion. It's a good theory though. Creative.

Another theory is that this is the season a woman will definitely win. I expect that is because right off the bat, the high number and quality of our female contestants was apparent. I'd be delighted to have a woman win the title, to join my female peers and serve as a role model for all the young women and girls who are considering culinary careers. But, as of this writing we have not yet shot the finale; even I don't know who will ultimately take the title. I can promise this, though: It will be the chef who impresses us the most with his or her creativity and skill, regardless of gender, ethnicity, hairstyle, or eclectic fashion sense. If this season follows the previous ones, I'm sure all of our loyal readers will have their favorites, their crushes, and their villains. I'm sure that I will completely screw up on more than one occasion, get rid of people for the wrong reasons, make my smug faces, roll my eyes, and seem inconsistent and unfair after editing. It comes with the job. All I can promise you is that I don't have a dog in this fight -- I genuinely want to see the best man or woman win. I will strive to be fair and open-minded. I don't feel the least bit smug. And as far-fetched as it may seem, I really just care about the food.

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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