Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Lions and Vultures and Bears, Oh My

Tom Colicchio wonders why the chefs would make something for the Elimination Challenge that they've never made before.

I'm never part of judging the Quickfires, so I don't usually have a lot to say about them, but I particularly liked this week's challenge -- to create an entree from only five ingredients (excluding salt, pepper, sugar and oil), because I think it illustrates an important point about cooking that I learned from teaching cooking classes -- sometimes too many choices can distract and overwhelm, rather than inspire. When I limited my students to only three ingredients, it kept them from going all over the map, and seemed to free them up creatively. It's very tempting for cooks (especially here, in a competition setting) to want to dazzle us by loading the plate with numerous ingredients and a complicated presentation, but that can be a sign of immaturity. It takes self-confidence to select just a few great ingredients and cook them in a way that allows their very essence to emerge. I just returned from a great week in Venice with my son, where we had a few truly memorable meals. Some of the best dishes were composed with just a few beautiful ingredients, prepared very simply - roasted fish, risotto, pasta with a simple ragout of clams, tomatoes, and prosciutto, etc. What made the dishes great wasn't the number of ingredients on the plate but their freshness and skillful, confident preparation. It's pretty telling that Mark -- who left one of his five ingredients back at the Green City Market -- ended up winning the Quickfire challenge with his remaining four.

I was happy to see Wylie Dufresne join us at the Judges' table. Wylie is innovative, talented, and humble -- a great combination. (Congratulations, by the way, Wylie on getting 3 stars at wd~50 in The New York Times). We divided the chefs up into five teams -- Bears, Lions, Gorillas, Vultures, and Penguins, and sent them off to shop and cook hors d'oeuvres for 200 guests, using the key components of their respective animal's diet. While the animal angle might seem like the tricky part of this, honestly, it was the catering element that presented the greatest challenge. Most chefs are asked to cater something off-site at one point or another in their careers. The skill lies in designing a menu that can be prepared ahead of time, then assembled and finished at the event itself. (It's rare to have a full kitchen at an event site, occasionally there is a kitchen 'tent' with a few burners, but a single gas burner or hot plate is the norm.) A trained chef understands that some foods just don't store and travel well, and plans accordingly. Some dishes will travel fine, but you need to modify the normal steps you would take to accommodate serving them later. For example, you wouldn't add salt to a crab salad hours ahead of time in your home, so why do it here? The salt is going to draw the moisture out of the dish and make it watery, so seasoning should be saved for the moment before serving. Another case in point is Valerie's blini. Valerie should have had the items in her dish ready for assembly and then made the blini a la minute (which means "last minute") in a pan over their burner as the night unfolded. Her teammates were there to do the assembly. Of course, even that wouldn't have saved the rest of the dish, since the rutabagas were partly raw, giving the dish an unintentionally unpleasant crunch. But that brings me to another point.

A catered event is not the place to teach yourself new skills. By this I'm not suggesting our cooks should have played it safe during the challenge, rather that they should have drawn from their (hopefully expansive) body of tried-and-true dishes that they already knew worked. Every chef has these, which can then be a great stepping off point for on-the-fly, seasonal creativity. It's important to remember that a catered event is often a big moment in someone's life (think wedding, anniversary party, etc.) and in my opinion, that is not the place to start the process of trial and error that is (in another setting) so crucial for a developing chef. I am surprised how often I've heard a contestant admit, "I never made this before," as they went about preparing the dish that lost them the competition. I don't think there would have been any shame in Valerie admitting to her teammates, "I've never made blini, and I'm not feeling confident about that. I'd rather make my famous XYZ (insert slam dunk dish here) instead." Andrew understood this. He pulled out a neat trick with his balsamic tapioca "caviar" over Team Penguin's squid ceviche. Clearly this was something he'd made before. He knew it would work, he knew it had visual appeal and would make sense with the overall "black and white," seafood-inspired penguin menu. It was a good call. Another important point about catering: Unlike a restaurant meal, which can achieve balance over an entire dish, a canape has to work in one bite -- the balance of flavors and textures must be immediate, and in order for the item to be memorable, should pack a real wallop of flavor. Well-spiced, highly flavorful items work best as canapes, which is why Team Vulture's Moroccan-spiced meatballs and anchovies with quinoa worked so well.

At first Team Bear made the right call not to serve their mushrooms stuffed with berries when they saw they didn't work, but then Nikki turned around and served them to the judges. Huh? She said the problem was that they were cold, and everyone on the team felt they looked like bear --ahem -- poop, but personally I think we would have let the appearance slide somewhat if they had tasted really good. Dale's idea to garnish the mushrooms with Pecorino didn't help - in fact, it made them worse. At first bite it was clear that none of the Bears had tasted the dish. If they had, they wouldn't have served them to anyone, least of all those of us deciding their fate.

Ultimately the Bears and the Gorillas were called to the carpet, with the Bears edging out their competitors because they were accountable for only one of our three least favorite dishes. The Gorillas, responsible for the other two, lost big. Ultimately we decided Stephanie -- who, despite her watery crab salad, had redeemed herself with the delicious banana bread with salted caramel sauce -- could stay. Valerie, the blini-maker, was out. We gave the win to Team Penguin. In addition to creating three delicious dishes, the Penguins nailed the challenge from a few angles; the food was intelligent and tasted good, and they carried the black and white visual "penguin" theme throughout the presentation, which was a nice touch. Andrew was named the winner because of his interesting contribution to the ceviche and his surprising and fun yuzu "glacier." It took some guts to play with thickening agents and tapioca while cooking for Wylie -- it's not easy to impress people on their own turf -- but this time around, Andrew pulled it off.

Tom

P.S. My apologies to Paul Kahan, whose wonderful restaurant Blackbird I accidentally called "Bluebird" in last week's blog. Blame it on the jet lag. I had an amazing lunch there on Monday (sea scallops with truffle and banana puree, and an entree of duck pastrami for those of you who are curious). It was a memorable meal -- one of many I've enjoyed there over the years.

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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