Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Rolling With The Punches

The Real Housewife of NYC admits she was wrong — twice!

So maybe I was wrong about Ariane's win last week. The judges said she won on flavor, which was Radhika's marinade, but Gail said it was "juicy," which was due to the cooking. I stand corrected. I still contend that Ariane won't win the whole competition because her cooking is too straightforward. That's the way I like to cook, which is probably why I wouldn't win either. Speaking of classic, traditional and straightforward cooking is Martha's specialty.

I'm loving the camaraderie theme between Fabio and Stefan and between Ariane and Jamie. Let's see how long this lasts.

Martha loves a one-pot meal, and I agreed with all of her critiques. Cornstarch is nasty, and Eugene saying that it's what housewives use doesn't help matters. Fabio is flailing and he is giving the Italians a bad name. I instantly thought paella was the perfect idea, but Ariane took it home again with a twist on a classic. She stumped Martha on butter, which is probably still driving Martha nuts. I myself make cauliflower as a mashed substitute, so I loved the idea. Jamie is ready to jump. Also, I suppose by substituting cauliflower for potatoes, she avoided the dreaded "too simple" warning from Martha. I've had culinary moments with Martha and she knows her stuff. Ariane's meat and faux-tatoes must have been good.

I get that gospel is religious, however I didn't know where that moment was going. I did, however, love the Christmas theme. They are always so clever. How perfect that Fabio got 8 ladies dancing? Stefan was so right on by describing how daunting 3 hours to prep for 300 people is. Just unpacking is a process.

Here we go again with Jeff doing something complicated and out of the box. Jeff, less is more. I hope this works out. Even his method of cutting potatoes into Arborio rice was a bit too tricked out for my taste. Holy crap. The refrigerator was warm. That is terror in the heartland. Brutal. Maybe I'm hormonal, but I literally started to cry when everyone pitched in. Those are good chefs and no one should go home. They are rolling with the punches.

Don't complain. Don't explain. Hosea and Radhika were rock stars and Carla and Eugene's genuine offer to help was divine. Although Stefan has his moments, I was moved when he said that Radhika being without duck does him no good, and that he wanted to win fair and square. I literally welled up.

However, everyone was oddly mediocre. I long for the days of Harold, Hung, Dale, Richard, Stephanie and even Marcel.

Eugene is disappointing me.

That Poisson Cru looked nasty. And Fabio, how do you screw up crab cakes so monumentally? They are such an easy "go to" dish for a crowd. Jamie, who oddly made scallops twice in one day (not everyone loves scallops to begin with) couldn't even pull those off. Scallops are a really easy food to cook - simply sear them with salt, pepper and olive oil and you can avoid a slimy taste. Melissa doesn't ever seem to bust out with anything impressive and Ariane used that immunity by throwing in deviled eggs. Huh?

I was wrong about Jeff because the judges liked his dish, but I still think his Achilles heel is being too all over the place.As for the Radhika and Hosea mishaps, they pulled it together and Hosea deserved the win. I think he is the best one there if we factor in Stefan's arrogance.

I understand Natasha Richardson's connection to Amfar, but I thought she was an odd choice for a judge. Many people don't know who she is to begin with, much less as an actress. This season is odd in so many ways and I can't get excited yet. Am I alone?

My top 4 picks: Stefan, Hosea, Jamie or Ariane and possibly Jeff. I'm rooting for Hosea.

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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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