Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Eric Ripert

The renowned chef answers our questions about the Le Bernardin challenge.

Bravotv.com: First the Quickfire, what is the most difficult fish to filet correctly?
They all have their own challenge. Since the sardines are so tiny and fragile, it’s definitely not an easy task to fillet them. It is a very fatty fish and the more you keep them out of refrigeration the more they become inconsistent, almost like a piece of soft butter. The arctic char is very similar to salmon and they both have a very delicate flesh, and an ultra-thin spine, and fish bones that are not easy to locate and follow. The eel is certainly the most challenging. Even after they are dead they move a lot, they are very bloody, and their skin is very difficult to remove. It’s also a fish that you don’t see very often and therefore few people have experience filleting it.

Bravotv.com: How do you think the chefs did filleting their fish?
Stefan definitely did very well on that challenge. The arctic char was his weakness but it was very acceptable. Carla really sabotaged the sardines. Hosea in particular did an excellent job on the arctic char. The group overall reflects what I see all the time with young chefs and line cooks — they are uncomfortable and lack confidence in filleting fish. It’s one of the basics of learning how to cook, therefore I always encourage our team (or anyone) to spend time with the fish butcher to learn better techniques.

Bravotv.com: When Leah gave up on the arctic char, what were you thinking?
Gone baby gone …

Bravotv.com: Onto the Elimination: Which dishes do you think were the hardest to replicate?
At Le Bernardin we focus mostly on flavors and harmony between all the components of the dish keeping in mind that the fish is the star of the plate. Since fish is so delicate we believe in not overcomplicating and overwhelming a dish. Presentation is never the priority at first. All our focus is in the technique and the precision used to build flavors. Looking at one of our dishes, it can be deceiving and appear extra simple, but that is our intention and challenge. However, as soon as you taste it you enjoy a subtle complexity of textures and refined flavors. For example, the black bass, the dish that Jaime had to reproduce, represents our style and philosophy the most and therefore was the most difficult to replicate.Bravotv.com: What were the keys to being successful to replicating Le Bernardin’s dishes?
The key word is focus: focus on the overall look of the plate, in the taste profile of the dish, identifying the techniques we used to elevate the fish.

Bravotv.com: Which dishes stood out the most to you (for better or for worse)?
As an overall I was very impressed with the capabilities of the contestants to replicate the dish that was assigned to them. In presentation it was at least 90% identical. In terms of flavors, the lobster dish was 99%. And really, I was impressed with Stefan since he had never seen that dish before that day of the challenge. The black bass recipe was inedible. The celery was an embarrassment and the sauce was burned and way oversalted.

Bravotv.com: What put the winner’s dish above the others at the top?
The execution, the closeness to our dish, again it’s all about flavors and it was great. In fact, the lobster dish Stefan had to make was not that simple. The lobster was perfectly cooked and seasoned, so were the asparagus and his sauce was very well-balanced, harmonious in between richness, acidity, even its consistency. The herb flavor in the sauce developed very well.

Bravotv.com: The eliminated chef was seemingly sent home for oversalting celery — was this the worst culinary crime that day?
By far, yes. Unfortunately we just couldn’t eat it.Bravotv.com: What is your overlying philosophy on creating a great seafood dish?
Our mantra is that the fish is the star of the plate and all our efforts and creative vision support the mantra.

Bravotv.com: Overall, how did this experience compare to your other guest judging experiences?
I have always loved being a guest judge on Top Chef. This time was very different since I was hosting it at Le Bernardin. I felt very responsible for making sure that we provide everything possible for the contestants to shine. I always feel that the most important thing for me as a judge is to be fair, focusing solely on the quality of the food, not personalities.  I was certainly more involved and certainly felt more pressure to be an inspiration in this episode.

I was certainly more involved and certainly felt more pressure to be an inspiration in this episode.

Bravotv.com: Anything you want to catch your fans up with that you’ve been doing lately?
First and foremost we are taking care of Le Bernardin and our other restaurants: 10 Arts in Philadelphia, Westend Bistro in Washington, D.C. and Blue in Grand Cayman Islands. All located in The Ritz Carlton hotels. I am also very involved with a food rescue organization called City Harvest in New York City. Their mission is to save unused food from restaurants, corporations, grocers, farmers, etc. and deliver the fresh food to agencies around the city who are serving those in need of a meal. Actually we just decided to give City Harvest $1 for every client who dines with us this year — and we anticipate a donation of upwards of $100,000 for the year. I’m also finishing shooting my own TV series called Avec Eric which will debut nationally this Fall on PBS. The show has been shot on location in HD in Italy, Northern California and New York.

Last but not least, I’m just about to conclude promotion of my new book called On The Line.

To keep updated on what is going on with me, please check out my Web site: www.aveceric.com

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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