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.

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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.
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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.

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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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