Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Top Chef

Andrea Strong reveals her schoolgirl crush on a chef.


Congratulations to Stephanie for an impressive and well-played 16 week run and an amazing performance (other than the cake) last night. As happy as I was for Stephanie though, I truly felt Richard's pain, what a heartbreaker for him.

As for Lisa, I think you all know by now that I didn't think she deserved to be there and the fact that at one point I thought the judges might give her the title made me want to cringe. I was quite happy when they awarded the title to Stephanie.

One of my problems with the judging of last night's and every season's finale is that the judges' decision is based solely on the last meal prepared. In my mind, it should encompass not only the courses prepared for that meal of a lifetime challenge, but also the competitor's overall performance, both in terms of style of leadership and culinary skill over the entire season. In my mind at least, being a Top Chef has just as much to do with leadership and management ability as it does with culinary vision and talent, and Lisa fell short in that leadership category by a long shot, often being combative and overly aggressive.

The final Elimination Challenge last night was not a new one. The finale often finds our final three competing knife to knife to cook the best meals of their lives, and hopefully the judges' too, but I always love to see the talent they find for the sous-chefs and last night's was exceptional. To have Eric Ripert, April Bloomfield (one of my favorite chefs and if you haven't had her burger and her gnudi you need to visit The Spotted Pig now), and Dan Barber as your number two is pretty incredible. I got a real kick out of Stephanie looking over Chef Ripert's shoulder as he filleted her fish, though I am not sure that Chef Ripert did. But he was a good sport.

I must also confess that I become a 12-year old girl with a crush whenever I am around Chef Ripert. Not only is he a culinary god as Richard mentioned last night but he is the George Clooney of the restaurant world -- handsome to an uncomfortable degree with loads of charisma and genuine charm.

I also thought he had one of the most important observations in his on-camera interview, with respect to Richard's liquid nitrogen cooking technique. He made a point about a chef always needing to open his or her mind to learn: "The day you don't learn anything you've become such an egomaniac that you're blind." That is perhaps the quote of the season.

My schoolgirl crush on Chef Ripert aside, I really enjoyed seeing him, along with Chefs Barber and Bloomfield step into the role of helper. It's always hilarious and fun to watch that sort of dynamic, and honestly I wish we could have seen more of the footage of the time they spent cooking and prepping together.

One of these days I'd love to see the Top Chef winners from the past four seasons compete against the top chefs of our nation, including Eric Ripert, Dan Barber, and even our head judge, Tom Colicchio. I think that would make quite a Top Chef special. Producers, give me a call, I'm available to judge.

In the end, I agreed with the judges that the menu that Stephanie created was the winning meal because she presented elegant thoughtful progression of dishes, and a lamb course that surprised all of the judges with something new -- braised pistachios -- that they all loved. I was skeptical of that dish as well. Who braises pistachios? Indeed if I had been presented with that dish on a menu at a restaurant I was reviewing, I'd probably have ordered it just to check it out, and if it had worked, I'd also have been impressed.

I eat out an average of five nights a week and sometimes food can blend together and a sense of sameness can overwhelm me. Not that the dishes aren't good, they may be delicious, but it's refreshing to find a chef like Stephanie who surprises us, and makes his or her mark with something as unexpected and thrilling as braised pistachios and a bold combination with olives and blackberries.

Not to sound too sappy, but even though Richard technically lost, he's is a winner in my book in many ways. He impressed me all season long with his avant-garde technique, whimsical style, creativity, and grace under pressure. I enjoyed watching him cook and found him to be an inspiring and excellent competitor, and I am sure we'll be hearing great success stories from him as his career evolves.

It's been a great season on Top Chef and I'm already looking forward to Season Five. I'd like to use this space to make an argument for New Orleans as the next Top Chef city. I travel down to the Big Easy about twice a year now, as my fiance's family lives there, and there's no place like NOLA. There's some wild culinary talent down there (read more here), like Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski at Cochon, Scott Boswell at Stella, Bob Iacovone at Cuvee, Jon Besh at August, Susan Spicer at Bayona, and on and on. There's also a huge need for an influx of positive energy, tourism, and dollars into this still-healing city. There could be a Jazz Fest challenge, where chefs cooked up traditional NOLA dishes and go head to head with local restaurants at the Jazz Fest food booths. They could have Po Boy and Muffaletta Quickfire Challenges, an Elimination Challenge using local seafood and sausages with maybe surprise ingredients like alligator. They could cook for a Saints game, or whip up an al fresco lunch for Habitat for Humanity volunteers working to rebuild. It's a city that would be prime real estate for Top Chef. So if anyone out there's listening, how bout it? Top Chef New Orleans for Season Five? I hope so.

While this season of Top Chef is over, I'll still be here every week, writing about food form here in New York, so I hope you'll keep checking in and that you'll also make some time to visit my regular blog,


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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