Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

You Guessed It ... Da Bears.

Find out who Lee Anne Wong diagnoses with "café-itis."

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Had I had to live in that house with Spike, I would've probably started hiding his ridiculous hats after the first week. Maybe grab one and hide it in the basement closet. Or put another one on the roof. I mean, you could have a thousand places to hide his hats in that house. What a constant source of entertainment! (Honestly, there's not much else to do.)

I remember hearing through the production grapevine about Jen's sobbing in interview about how Zoi's the love of her life and blah blah blah. Personally I think it's great that they were both brave and secure enough as a couple to agree to do the show together. But the crying on camera? Dude, she's not dying. She just gets to go home earlier. She can water the plants and feed the cat.

I think it's positively fascinating how Lisa doesn't consider herself to be a negative person so Dale must be the problem. I actually commend Dale for standing by his opinion. "Sorry I yelled at you for being a bitch, but you're still a bitch." It is extremely hard to live day and night with someone who oozes negative energy and I recall quite vividly how that affected my relationship with Tiffani while we were on the show together. Things between us are of course worlds better now as we have both matured since our experience on the show, and she's doing really well and is much happier these days. Lisa was always relatively nice and respectful to me (when she wasn't complaining) but she's the one in the fishbowl so I would often witness or hear about her interactions in the kitchen and home with the other contestants. But whereas I would compare Lisa's level of unpleasantness to a disgruntled dog, Tiffani, at the time, was more like a really pissed off jungle cat with really big teeth and really sharp claws. Either way, the vibe sucks. First of all, I've been traveling to Chicago for the past five years.The first time was when I had first started my job at The French Culinary and I set up a stage for myself at Charlie Trotter's and at Trio, when Grant Achatz was just starting to be recognized as one of the most singularly talented and innovative chefs in the country. I ate at both restaurants, I ate at NoMi. I had my absolute favorite meal of all time at Trio, two days after I had trailed in the kitchen. On subsequent visits, I've eaten at Moto, Alinea, Green Zebra, Topolobampo, and Schwa, to name a few. But the one restaurant I return to time and time again, sometimes eating there twice in one week while I was staying in Chicago and the food I miss the most while I am here in NY? Avec. I was super excited to meet Koren. I babbled on to her like a crazed drooling fan about the pizza I had had on my first visit to Avec: Sardines with Caramelized Fennel and Shaved Lardo. It was absurdly delicious and I am praying she puts it back on the menu someday.

ANYWAYS, my whole point was to congratulate Chef Koren on being named one of Food & Wine's Top 10 Best New Chefs of 2008. She certainly deserves it as the brandade at Balthazar is scrumptious but the brandade at Avec blows it out of the water. And those chorizo stuffed dates ... I'm making Homer Simpson sounds. PKTMP002.JPG

We had a great selection of beers. I love beer and food pairing, and more attention and respect is being given to beer these days as craft breweries have sprung up worldwide, and even the mass produced lighter style lagers are improved in quality and taste, though I wouldn't be caught dead drinking certain light beers. For all you NYers, head over to the Blind Tiger where my friend Louise is a bartender and the head chef. They have a tremendous beer selection, always with several unique cask beers and even a gravity keg. She's occasionally put my billionaire's bacon on the menu as a special (it never lasts very long ... the bacon, I mean.)

Anyways, I tasted all of the dishes, here's my rundown: Richard's Grilled Tuna with Pickled Vegetables was good, and the flavors reminded me of Vietnamese Bahn Mi. Very tasty and surprisingly the bread did not overpower the tuna. The trout and fruit were kind of weird and gross for me. It needed a savory element -- it was just fish and fruitiness.

Dale's pork five minutes before plating was pretty raw in the middle though it was seared on the outside and he put it back in the oven on high heat right before plating and ended up overcooking the pork. With the dry pretzel crumbs and an over-reduced miso caramel that hardened to the plate, it was a dry and unpleasant experience. The miso cod was textbook and quite boring. Nikki's fried shrimp were worse. I could've gotten a better plate of shrimp from Long John Silvers. The shrimp were easily U-12 in size and overbreaded and underseasoned (give me creamy dipping sauce!).

Stephanie's mussels were intuitively unique and delicious. Lucky girl chose the wheat style beer. For those of you who like the lemon, try orange. It's actually the proper citrus to pair with wheat style beers and has a much more gentle acidity that marries well with the beer. If you add a shot of OJ and vodka to a Hoegaarden, we call that a "Dirty Hoe". Try four of those and let me know how you feel. Anyways, The lamb was tasty with Mark's manuka honey. A crepinette is supposed to be a small, breaded, flattened sausage patty sauteed in butter. Ryan's was a grossly large and unrefined meatball. The charcuterie plate was a lazy cop out in my opinion. The bacon cheeseburger was "ehhh (a little dry)." The shrimp and scallop beignets were delicious, even after sitting around for an hour. The creamy avocado complemented the airy fritter with a nice limey tang.
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So imagine everyone on the crew running around doing their "Da Bears" "Dit-ka" schtick. Funny enough, I had a close enough encounter with Mike Ditka at a bar in NY about eight years ago. It's a story for the ages but to save a friend's dignity, let's just say he's a very nice man. We got to Soldier Field while it was still dark out. Weber had brought sample grills, one gas and one charcoal, for our chefs to look at once we revealed the challenge and stopped down for rules. They are ginormous in size. Like the Humvee of grills. The charcoal one was the size of a flying saucer like the Jetsons, and I wanted to sit in it. We actually set up a decoy table with all the eliminated contestants who served straight burgers and hot dogs we provided for them. It was a very popular table, believe it or not. The refrigeration space problem is one of those logistical things we take into account. It's hard to accommodate the food of 16 chefs versus two or four teams.

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I love tailgating. I love the Giants, always have. Though I did get to mug with Gale Sayers, Richard Dent, and William "The Fridge" Perry, I look forward to tailgating at Giants Stadium with my chef friends (and good God do we throw down.). Paul Kahan is Chef/Owner of both Avec and Blackbird. His Chef de Cuisine at Blackbird is the very talented Mike Sheerin, who used to be the sous at wd~50. I remember when we finally had placed all of the grills, and the tents were pitched, and the band marched through, and I stopped and looked around and I was like, "WOW. Top Chef and the NFL. We've come a long way." Nominated for two James Beard Awards this year, by the way. Anyways, the food.
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Spike's wings with jicama slaw were delicious -- the wings were sticky-spicy-sweet. He had a nice hot chocolate to accompany, which was awesome because it was cold and rainy out. Stephanie's pork tenderloin was also delicious, the almighty bacon part of the equation once again. The rosemary sauce was surprisingly subtle. The Jerk chicken sandwich was good. But it was still just a chicken sandwich. Ryan is Brian Malarkey reincarnated and the used car salesman act can't sell the awkward bone in chicken thigh over the dry bread salad with the undercooked poached pear with crème fraiche and boozy syrup. Spazz McGee's shrimp were average as well as Lisa's predictable skirt steak with salsa verde. The pate melt was delicious as well as the Middle Eastern-inspired chicken kebab with yogurt and quinoa tabouli. Dale's ribs and potato salad, however, kicked ass. I ate an entire quart of the potato salad in one sitting after taking home the leftovers from filming the recipe for "Wong Way."

While Mark's soup had very good shellfish flavor, and was hot and creamy, the texture was very unrefined and would have been better as a fine puree with precision cut vegetables and seafood folded in. His chowder had absolutely no cognizance with the yakitori skewer also. Plus his station was indeed disgusting. I know this because I had to clean up after him after the challenge. The sausage and peppers just made me angry 1. Because she used store-made sausage. And 2. Because it was the most unimaginative dish she could possibly think of. At least Richard had a fun take on a burger. And then she ran out of garnish for the sausage for the judges. There's really no excuse for that, period. When we read the rules, we are always very specific about how many portions they need to reserve for the judges. Ryan, on the other hand, suffers from cafe-itis. Having worked at a sandwich and soup shop back in San Fran, his cooking choices throughout the competition have been good, but not terribly inspired or appropriate. The point is to use the grill. To make the pear relevant at all maybe he should've grilled it instead. It all reminded me of that terrible Waldorf salad, which was like a bad 1950s housewife version. Not to say that he isn't a talented chef, but we've got some super talented competitors this season and his style could not hold up over time. He does have a great attitude though and he's a pleasantly cheesy kind of guy. I wish him all the best in his future endeavors. I've got sweet, sweet stories for next week's episode. Can't wait to see it!

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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