Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

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Wilo Benet

Gail: Mei's Menu Was Almost Flawless

Make Top Chef Mei Lin's Winning Dessert!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Make Mei's Sushi Style Guac!

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

Make Melissa's Mom's Egg Custard

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Make Mei's Inspired Duck a l'Orange

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

Wilo Benet

Guest Judge Wilo Benet predicts the Top Chef winner.

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Bravotv.com: Chef, were you a Top Chef fan before appearing on the show? To your knowledge, is it fairly popular in Puerto Rico?
I watch TC often and is quite popular in PR. There are a lot of foodies here!

Bravotv.com:What were you expecting before beginning your gig as guest judge?
I was expecting a group of motivated and creative young chefs to present their craft and they did.

Bravotv.com: First the Quickfire -- which dishes impressed you the most? Didn't impress you?
I loved Stephanie's "toston" with the tuna tataki not only for it's great flavor and great presentation but as well its perfect bite-size as well. My least favored fritter was Richard's.

Bravotv.com: For those unfamiliar with Puerto Rican cuisine, how important is the plantain? What are some other flavors and ingredients commonly used in traditional Puerto Rican cuisine?
The plantain is the equivalent of the potato for us because of its versatility and presence on our daily menus. Sweet and salty is probably the most authentic flavor combination in PR as ripe plantains are used in so many dishes in combination with savory elements, as well as a popular side dish we call "maduros," in fact so much that plantains in its "arañitas" are included in my offer at the Aspen Wine Classic next week.

Bravotv.com: Do you happen to have an easy fritter recipe you'd be willing to share?
Of course I do. "Almojabanas" or rice flour "Beigniets" which I love to watch fry since they turn themselves over in the fryer as they get golden brown on one side. (Recipe on Page 4).

Bravotv.com: Onto the Elimination -- which dishes impressed you/didn't impress you?
I loved the overall use of the pork by Richard, but especially I liked the belly with its crispy skin and the pickled vegetable as well as the Ham and Eggs was a beautiful and tasty rendering, but my absolute favorite was the ribs with the "malta" glaze which was not only clever but certainly original in using local elements in its recipes. Another element I loved was from Stephanie. I really liked the small "blini" like ripe plantain mini pancakes.

Bravotv.com: How close was the call between Lisa or Antonia going home?
I felt there was a clear distance between them greatly attributed to the undercooking of the pigeon peas and the lack of a cleaner presentation on the following dishes. Conceptually I liked how Antonia wanted to somewhat implode to reconstruct the concept used locally of everything in the same plate but in the end she was not able to bring a great conceptual idea to the plate this time.

Bravotv.com: Did you have a prediction at that point as to who will be crowned Top Chef?
I think Richard will be the winner -- to me he is clearly out of the contestants the one with the greater amount of experience conceptual, clarity, and developed technique as well as flavor accuracy by a significant margin.

Bravotv.com: Anything else you'd like to add? And where can people learn more about you/your cuisine?
Thanks for having me on your show.I truly loved your show format even more after having participated as a judge and first hand having contact with Tom, Padma, and the participants. It is truly reality TV. Serious foodies should give PR a try since our gastronomic offer local or international is a great one from traditional roasted pig to more elaborate contemporary renditions.

You can get more info on my restaurants and career path at www.wilobenet.com.


Puerto Rico: True Flavors by Wilo Benet

Section II: Fritters

Almojábanas

Rice flour and cheese fritters

Makes 2 dozen

Almojábanas are a traditional family treat. Because their taste is a bit neutral, they are commonly served drizzled with honey or pancake syrup or served as a dipping treat for hot chocolate.

Ingredients:

2 cups milk

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups enriched rice flour

5 eggs

12 ounces queso fresco del pais*,

crumbled vegetable oil for frying

Procedure:

1. In a round-edged saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk to a boil, and stir in the salt. Add the rice flour, and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon, until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan and forms a ball. Transfer to a bowl, and set aside to cool slightly.

2. Once the dough has cooled to the point where you can handle it with your hands, incorporate the eggs (one by one) into the dough to form a thick smooth batter. At this point, incorporate the crumbled cheese.

3. In a frying pan, or a deep fryer, heat about 3 inches of vegetable oil to 350°F. Carefully drop tablespoonfuls of the Almojábana batter, in batches, into the hot oil. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes until golden brown, turning occasionally to make sure the fritters brown evenly.

4. Using a slotted spoon, remove the Almojábanas from the oil, and set aside to drain on paper towels. Serve immediately.

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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