Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Walk Softly and Carry a Fresh Fish

According to Lee Anne Wong, Manuel was sent for being too nice. Let her explain.


It's interesting to see the other chefs start to sweat the fact that Jen and Zoi are a couple, though from what I've seen so far they were both very respectful to the others in the house.

Daniel Boulud. One of the greatest French chefs in the world. The man who took more than 30 minutes to decide whose burger was best. When thinking of this Quickfire I was reminded of that terrible fruit basket challenge I had to endure. I was like a deer in headlights. A deer in headlights standing in front of a brunch buffet with a big beautiful melon carved out to hold a fruit salad.

We have one lovely lady named Doneen who produces the Quickfires. We came up with a list of techniques that could be used for his and the list was longer than you think.

It was interesting the way each of the contestants perceived the challenge. Some took it as a straight up cooking school test, displaying knife skills with perfect brunois, macedoine, julienne, and baton. Others saw it as an opportunity to display their originality and cooking skills. While Lisa complains that Daniel's style of cooking is not her style, that's fine. The challenge is not to recreate Daniel's food. Cooking methods? Saute, braise, roast, poach, deep fry, steam, pan roast, grill, smoked, cured, sashimi, pureed, clarified ... you get the idea. She's complaining about something hat has absolutely no relevance to the challenge at hand. In essence, most dishes that any chef creates involves at least three techniques, from the knife work to the cooking techniques to the plating and garnish.

Zoi did a great job by creating a beautiful but delicious composed salad. Runny egg yolks rock my world. Dale also interpreted the challenge in a unique manner, plating an artful vegetable sashimi composition on crushed ice. He also saw this as an opportunity to display his use of Asian style techniques. The daikon married with the creamy avocado was the best part of the dish.

Lisa, along with Memo and several others, went culinary school basic. The issue with this is that they were supposed to create a dish meant for consumption, not just knife skills. Everything needs seasoning; the flavors need to make sense. Richard did really well with his modern hors d'oeuvres/garniture plate. Uniquely done, thoughtfully plated, it was reminiscent of traditional French style accoutrement for a charcuterie platter. Bar Boulud has similar treatments of vegetables on their menu.

Spike's dish was messy -- the highlight being a nicely-carved, whole, raw mushroom. Appetizing. Dale won immunity and his choice of team. With so many team challenges right off the bat (16 contestants are difficult to manage logistically for certain challenges) an interesting dynamic is starting to appear amongst the contestants.

"Film Food" was a fun and easy challenge. Favorite movies of mine? Anything Python, Goldfinger, Anchorman, Good Fellas, Riding Giants. Favorite food movies? Dinner Rush, Big Night, Babette's Feast. Richard seems to be emerging as a sort of team leader, or at least the guy everyone wants to pair up with. It's kind of hilarious the way that Andrew considers Dale to be a third wheel. They choose the movie Willy Wonka, which I know by heart, and create this bizarrely simple dish that sounds unappetizing at first but very tasty combination of fatty smoked fish with the vegetal heat of the celery root and wasabi slightly sweetened with the white chocolate, and then there was the salty pop of the soy tapioca. It was a surprisingly good dish. The Oompa Loompa imitation? Not so tasteful. The dynamic between Spike and Manuel is interesting: cocky and controlling vs. lay down in the road for you. They based their movie around their dish, not the other way around. The dish was reminiscent of supermarket summer rolls, and the sea bass was indeed a tad fishy. The pickles had no relevance and would have made more sense if they were actually inside the roll rather than in their own corner on the plate. And the soba was undercooked making the roll difficult to eat.

Jen and Nikki chose Il Postino and I thought their dish reflected the movie very well. It may not have been the most creative, but the rustic style tortellini was delicious (I looove cavolo nero, black Tuscan kale) and the sweetness of the pumpkin complemented the other ingredients very well in a classic Italian style.

Antonia and Zoi chose Talk to Her, a movie by Pedro Almodovar. I find the way they sold the movie a little off. Yes, the movie is about two strong women (in comas). Anyways, I am a lamb chop fanatic. There are the kinds of people who would use a fork and knife to take down a lamb chop at a four star restaurant, and then there are those who pick up the bones afterwards with their bare hands so they can gnaw at the last of the tender meat. That's me with a lamb chop. Their dish was not bad. The lamb was cooked perfectly, though it was sliced very thin. I thought the puree could've used more saffron, as I could barely taste it to begin with.

It was interesting that Ryan and Mark go with A Christmas Story -- Mark not knowing this American classic. Either way, I thought it was an intuitive and fun interpretation they did of the final scene in which Ralphie and his family have Christmas dinner in the Chinese restaurant and an unforgettably racist version of "Deck the Halls" is sung by the staff. The quail subbed in for the duck and the Asian touch was added with the spring roll and seasoning of the cranberry chutney. It was a very successful dish. Stephanie was not familiar with the movie Top Secret either (I have vague memories of Val Kilmer, but I forgot the cow scene). It was creative and the salty caramel worked well with the steak and apple short rib dumpling.

I hope you all paid close attention to the gorgeous dining room, which was created by our Art and Lighting Departments. The marquis started as an idea in a notebook between Sam and Willy and two days later it was built and back lit. I helped put the letters on it.

Service went smoothly. The pear and celery soda was a nice touch with the smoked salmon. It was this sweet, smoky, salty, buttery, fruity vegetal combination. Completely weird, absolutely delicious, totally Willy Wonka. It was a winning dish that impressed Daniel Boulud and that's all that counts.

Next came the fishy summer roll with the undercooked buckwheat soba. Then the delicious tortellini. There I am in the elevator helping bring plates to the dining room. And the juicy quail. Tasty lamb chops and candied steak. All in all I thought they did really well -- the summer roll clearly the weakest dish of the bunch. Each team had a $150 to spend which worked out to $12 a head, an ample budget. At the end of the day they sent Manuel home for being too nice of a guy. Many would think it's Spike's fault for his misguidance and I would tend to agree, but you gotta have a little backbone to win this competition. I have enjoyed Manuel's food for several years, and I look forward to the next time I get sample his cuisine.

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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