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?


•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.

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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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