Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Breakfast of Champions

Lee Anne Wong reveals what Top Chef's culinary production team thought of chefs' dishes.

You want to know what I made the morning of the breakfast challenge? A peanut butter, bacon, and banana sandwich, drizzled generously with honey, affectionately known as an "Elvis". Had I made it cute and small with a ring cutter I probably could've won the Quickfire.

First of all, what the hell is with all the crying with this group? Buck up! For the love of God, you've only known each other a week! Stop crying! Team Culinary not only had a blast building the breakfast table, but we also loved stocking the fridge with a ton of delicious breakfast ready ingredients, including caviar, a variety of sausages and charcuterie, smoked fish, cereals, and beautiful produce, which is why the bacon and eggs thing is hilarious (or typical -- I should've put scallops in the fridge.) Leah really seemed to be the only one who truly understood the idea of the amuse bouche breakfast. I think what struck me the most was the lack of finesse in general with the appearance and plating of these dishes, Stefan being the exception. Amuse bouche should be small, but also appealing to the eye, and I saw a lot of sloppily cut out chunks of bread and many dishes that were well over one bite. Think about it -- it's the first bite the chef gives you. It should look good. Jeff on the other hand went for the-hotel-buffet-fruit-on-a-stick-sitting-in-a-garden-of-wheatgrass approach with a panna cotta, and then a baked potato. Curious indeed. I tend to be a lunatic about aesthetics and presentation so my disappointment really hit home with this challenge coupled with the fact that I always wonder if it really takes 30 minutes to grill a piece of bread and fry a quail egg. What you see, and I know because I had made the same mistake in the past, is Alex chopping up a pound of bacon (and now Fabio has no bacon). A pound. For two amuse bouches. Wasted time, energy, and food. Leah won because she listened to what the challenge actually was. Let's talk about the Today Show challenge. I was really on the fence about this one as part of my argument is that this a challenge based on a skill set some of these contestants may or may not have, not just their food. Trust me, I have done many, many a demo in my career, live and for camera, and it's not an easy thing. I took a solid year of media training to learn how to cook and talk and smile at the camera all at the same time. It's not natural for everyone and takes practice so I was worried that we were setting our chefs up for failure. The producers then asked me if I would compile a demo/quick tips checklist for them so they could really understand what hurdles our contestants would be facing with the nature of this particular challenge. Not all of this information made it to the contestants but the producers were able to pick and choose points from this document to emphasize with our chefs when we read the rules to them. To give you some insight into what I think about when setting up a demo, this is what I handed to the producers:

Questions to consider when devising a cooking demo

•Consider your audience: Can this recipe be made at home by the viewer?

•Will your recipe hold at room temperature for 2 hours?

•How much time do you have? 2 minutes in TV time goes fast.

•How complicated is your recipe? Does it have 4 steps or 20? What equipment is available to you and how much will you need? •Food styling: what can you do to dress up your table and give it "character" (ex: ethnic or worn cooking equipment, spices, colorful fabrics, etc)

•What are the essential steps/points in your recipe? You will need to emphasize the most important parts through visual and verbal cues.

•What small/quick techniques can you demo on TV that are not messy and do not take a long time?

•Is there any part of your recipe that you can include the host in actively?

•Will your beauty plate be edible in 2 hours?

Logistics:

•Demo the key parts of your recipe: Show raw ingredients, beginning steps of cooking and have finished/almost finished steps of same ingredients.

•Always have backup of each step ready in case you need to reshoot.

•Account for all raw ingredients, partially cooked ingredients, and finished ingredients/steps.

•Equipment: demo bowls to hold ingredients, pots, pans, small tools, appliances, beauty plates, cooking equipment/heat sources, decoration for table, tasting forks and knives

•Timing: Your introduction, what recipe are you cooking, what do you start with, what steps can you glaze over, here it is almost done cooking, finishing steps, beauty plate already prepared, tasting/verbal exchange with host. Tips:

•Smile. Look directly into the eyes of your host and the camera. Eyes up, remember.

•Breathe. Speak slowly, loudly, and clearly. Because you only have 2 minutes every word out of your mouth will count. It's always a good idea to write a list for yourself of important steps you will cover and touch upon during your demo.

•Talk technique, but keep it personal. No one knows your food like you do. Why is this your signature dish? Why do you love a certain ingredient? What caused you to treat this particular ingredient in this way?

•Go with the flow. Again, 2 minutes is a short time but at the end of the day you have a beauty plate already prepared for tasting so if you can't get to all of the steps in your recipe, improvise. Don't get flustered, just push through it.

•Smile and relax. The camera picks up everything, including nerves. This is you, just showing the host how to cook an easy, quick meal.

So, you see, there's quite a bit of thought that has to go into devising a live demo with such a short time limit. I've actually done some food styling for Padma on the Today Show and I do all the set up and styling for the Wong Way. I always have to have each step in the recipe ready, so one has to be incredibly detail oriented, including equipment and set decoration. The easiest way to win a Top Chef challenge is to actually listen to what the challenge is. Bravo to Ariane. Yes, watermelon, tomato, feta, and basil. Most chefs will roll their eyes and say that they've been doing that for years and they're probably right. Hell, it's a go-to salad in my summertime repertoire when the watermelon and tomatoes are at their peak ripeness. The juicy sweetness of those two ingredients combined with the salty bite of feta cheese and the fragrant addition of sweet basil and balsamic syrup is delicious, fresh, and screams simplicity, which is exactly what the hosts were looking for. The point of the challenge was to create and demo an easy and creative recipe for the home viewer, and I am positive some households have never tried such a wonderful combination of accessible, simple ingredients. Key words, so good for Ariane for meeting all the criteria for this challenge. Jeff continues to perplex me. I tried his cabbage rolls the night before, and they were fine, if not well suited for our "Chicago PD Healthy Lunch" challenge. However, I think Kathie Lee's reaction was a little dramatic. Fabio, fresh outta de boat, is wholly entertaining, and quite charming. His plating style kills me, but his dish was simple and flavorful.

On to the bottom: I feel like the wrong person went home. There. I said it. The judges HAD to send Alex home because he completely failed the challenge. He not only didn't finish in time, but what you don't see is that he had also forgotten to take his crème brulees out of the freezer, so he didn't even have a finished product on the table for the judges to try once the timer went off. They did eventually try the custard, which was warm and runny, not set up at all. However, I thought the flavor of the custard was spot on. He had scented the custard with lavender, which is not an easy ingredient to work with (too much and everything tastes like bath soap). I thought the flavor balance was good and the texture of the custard once the brulees actually set up was on point (I ate the chilled ones). But he didn't complete the challenge.

Jamie just had a case of the bad attitudes. She is incredibly defensive about her food (which is really good), and I saw the crossed arms and the other back-the-f***-up body language from her a lot throughout the season, but I think it's great she has a point of view and is willing to stand by her food and admit her mistakes, ego aside. Melissa's dish was 300% offensive to me. This is where one of the $3 bets came in with Peder. My man had a real difficult time finishing it and Peder eats ANYTHING. Besides being off the charts hot (as in the Scoville scale), loaded with habaneros, there was none of the much needed acid or salt in the dish, just spice and HEAT (I can still remember my mouth on fire). This offense, lack of palate, because just like Rocco I am positive she didn't sample a mouthful of her creation before serving it, is the worst of its kind. It tells me you either have no idea what edible food is or you're just not tasting what you're serving. Unfortunately for Alex, she completed the challenge and then did what I recommend to every contestant by actually defending herself at the table (if not delusively so). Harsh? Yes, I am afraid so. But it's been a long time since I've had such a violent reaction to tasting someone's ... anyone's food. It's not that I don't like Melissa, but I can't remember the last time I had eaten something that I had to spit out (as did Tom), which seems to be the theme of the episode. Inedible vs. Incomplete vs. Inflexible. Eventually these will all get you in the end but hopefully we'll see a little more inspiration from our chefs the next time around. This was a really tough challenge and I commend them all for their actual live demos, which is much harder than it looks. Til next time.

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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