Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Wedding War Zone

Lee Anne Wong explains why Nikki went home.

It was a mix of complete and utter evil gleefulness and dread and sympathy for the contestants when we began planning this episode. What was even better is that the chefs were SO sure they would be doing Restaurant Wars. Honestly, they couldn't stop talking about it for weeks beforehand. My own personal shame and humility resurfaces like a bad meal when I think about my experience with both Restaurant Wars and the wedding challenge (but with a hiccup of laughter at the end).

The remaining chefs are an eclectic and funny group. I only get to see bits and pieces of them before and after challenges, so I am watching everything, including their personalities, for the first time, just like you. They all grew on me (like fungus) with their charm, wit, and sense of humor. They are by far the most talented group of Top Chefs to date as a whole. Man oh man, I'd love the opportunity to cook side by side with any of them. They're a good bunch.

What is even better is the fact that there are four women left to battle for the title in this episode. In seasons past, the women have dropped like flies early on in the season and the ladies who are left this season can cook their asses off. As a female chef, it's still a male dominated industry, plain and simple. So I am not only proud of these four girls, but I find myself rooting for them.


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The relay race was such a hit last season that the producers decided to revive the challenge. If you've ever taken part in a relay race, even if it was in grade school, then you would know how it gets the adrenaline pumping. Competition CAN be fun (unless you're Dale). I determined the actual tasks for the race, focusing on classic techniques, the same as last season. Tom had at first thought the artichoke turning was too difficult and would take too long but we turned a few artichokes together in the production office and he agreed that it would be an appropriate challenge as knowing how to properly turn an artichoke is a skill, and not everyone is good at it.

In fact, my very first day in a real kitchen (Aquavit) the sous-chef made me turn an entire case of artichokes. I was still in culinary school at the time, but diligently did my best and didn't utter a word as I slowly made my way through 48 globe artichokes. My hands were on fire by the time I finished.


The fact that Nikki openly admitted she hasn't made mayonnaise by hand in years, gave me the squinty eye too. Really? No, REALLY? Dale's little temper tantrum at the end startled not only the other chefs but production too. (How could you not love Antonia at his point?) Dale's a great guy when he's out of the kitchen but I get his team's frustration with having to work side by side with someone who's constantly looking down at you (key word being team). I also understand his position of being with a team that is neither organized nor cohesive.

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Catering a wedding is no joke. I can honestly say I've never had great food at a wedding, and I learned a lot from my own mistakes in our Season One wedding debacle. Corey and JP were awfully brave to offer up their special day to our chefs. Production loved the fact that Corey was all meat and potatoes. I think Richard, Antonia, Andrew, and Stephanie really did a great job in not only listening to the bride, but they also elevated hearty, classic American cuisine to fit the occasion. I remember working my 14 hours overnight. We were delirious by the time morning came, because if you hadn't noticed, we started the day early with a Quickfire, same as this season. Assigning Stephanie and Lisa solely to the cake was a good idea, and because of our own cake fiasco, I made sure they were prepared this time, supplying them with plenty of cake pans, fondant, and decorating tools, things we did not have during our challenge. Stephanie's jab at our cake mix was funny, but she had the advantage of seeing our anguish beforehand on TV. Had she been in our position, going through it for the first time, it may have been different. Even Tom had to agree after the fact that the cake mix was a good idea. It's just that we botched the cake up in so many other ways. Lisa's cake was akin to an ugly Mayan temple, but it was absolutely delicious. In the end, Richard's team had the better food, plain and simple and I find it admirable how he shared the prize with Stephanie.


The spoons and the forks powered through the night, and while Richard's team had a game plan it was interesting to see Nikki's team fail to communicate at all. It was true, Dale did have his hands in all the pots, and while his determination to get it done and speed were admirable, Lisa was right in saying there's no point in doing 25 things if only five are going to taste good. Dale's anger and ego got the better of him, whereas I think Spike's initial attitude in supporting Nikki was the right approach and could've made the difference between winning and losing had Dale had a change of heart. Communication was the key for a brutal challenge like this and Nikki's team forgot the most important point of the challenge: It was all about the bride and groom and their special day. It's not about who's going to get eliminated. Nikki was sent home for trying to have it both ways. She should've stepped into the role of team leader since she was the one dispensing advice on the menu, but when push came to shove, she refused to take responsibility. Had she taken on that role, she may have been able to save herself, but I guess we'll never know. I go to 24 Prince every now and then, it's in my work hood and it's a nice, casual place to grab a bite to eat. Now that I know Nikki, I'll be stopping by more often.

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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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