Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Going To The Kitchen And We're Gonna Get Buried

Lee Anne reveals the ingredients to the sauces in the taste test Quickfire challenge.

Our challenge was to reinvent the taste test challenge in some new way. "Taste what's in the sauce" was our reinvention from last year. This is always sort of a crapshoot with the contestants. Remember Season 3's overconfident spelling bee style match? The producers are always tell me to get more ingredients, "What if there's a tie breaker???" Yeah right.

First of all, my sauces are f*cking great. I love making sauce. There's an infinite art and time consuming caring that goes into making a truly great sauce, from the time it takes to make a proper stock, to all of the multiple times a sauce will get strained and refined as it reduces and builds flavors. I made seven sauces for the producers to choose from including a sea urchin beurre blanc which was to be the tie-breaker, and a coffee and red wine demi glace, a sauce chasseur, and even a sausage gravy. Every sauce had at least twenty ingredients.Here's the list of ingredients for the sauces they tasted:

The Bouillabase: olive oil, chicken bones, lobster bodies, shrimp, carrot, yellow onion, celery, leeks, garlic, shallots, fennel, tomato, parsley, thyme, coriander seed, dried red chile, black pepper, white pepper, salt, sugar, bay leaf, juniper berries, orange peel, saffron, brandy, white wine, Pernod, sherry vinegar, heavy cream, lemon juice

The Green Curry: vegetable oil, chicken bones, yellow onion, carrot, celery, Thai green chilies, ginger, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, thyme, bay leaf, cilantro, Thai basil, shrimp paste, fish sauce, coconut milk, rice vinegar, salt, black pepper, granulated sugar, brown sugar The Mole: Vegetable oil, chicken bones, yellow onion, celery, carrot, garlic, ginger, jalapeno peppers, serrano peppers, dried pasilla chilies, dried guajillo chilies, tomatoes, orange zest, lime zest, epazote, cilantro, thyme, black and white sesame seeds, dried oregano, cloves, coriander, cumin, allspice, cinnamon, salt, black pepper, bay leaf, brown sugar, vanilla bean, Mexican chocolate, peanuts, almonds, pumpkin seed, golden and red raisins

So you see, naming three out of 30 someodd ingredients is kinda lame. They were even allowed to name the "gimme" ingredients, like salt, pepper, and oil. And once you know it's a Thai green curry, or a bouillabase, I mean, use your head, what traditionally goes in those sauces?

We are starting to see very interesting personality traits from some of our contestants. Jamie in particular this episode is upset that Stefan has beaten her in the Quickfire, but she handed him the opportunity rather than try to name more ingredients herself. And apparently there is an "I" in team as you see it later at Judges' Table when clearly it was Ariane's responsibility for the perfectly cooked lamb, and Jamie wanted to take credit for the entire working of the team's success. She's a very capable, very confident cook, who reminds me of someone else....

Stefan on the other hand is giving Team Euro a bad name with his annoying behavior in and out of the kitchen. Not entirely sure I'd want to work with him either. Add in the Hosea and Leah affair and doesn't this season entirely remind you of summer camp? Gail's bridal shower was the most straightforward challenge we'd given them since the first episode. Create a dish based around the chosen theme and then execute it. How hard could it be? They devised their menus and were allowed to prep the night before. During that time I take their rental orders, in terms of plates and silverware they want to serve their course with, so we can put the order in that evening and have the stuff on-site the next day. Gail's bridal shower party included a table full of food enthusiasts and professionals as most of the guests worked with Gail at Food & Wine magazine, so our chefs had to really knock this one out of the park. Besides it being an important event for ANY bride, this was Gail we were talking about.

24 Fifth Ave is a beautiful event space with an ample kitchen for them to cook and plate in. They all entered the kitchen space at the same time, so every now and then we have a challenge where the last team to go has infinitely more time to get their dish ready. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. So when you hear "something blue" and you think last course why on earth would you not think of blueberries? A blueberry tasting or dessert of some kind would've been perfectly appropriate and probably more exciting than the fish dish which followed the meat course (they weren't judged on this factor but somewhere in my mind I held it against them as a non-creative cop-out).

The heirloom tomato trio was fine and made total sense. There wasn't anything terribly exciting on the plate but I agree with the judges that Jeff's tomato sorbet had the most flavor (eat THAT Stefan). And for the record, shot glasses on the plate are never a good idea, especially if you have to serve 40 plates. New style sushi was a new style disaster. It reminds me of my doomed Asian appetizer trio for my wedding challenge. Actually, I think I mentioned this to Tom as he was trying the dish and he almost spit out his food he laughed so hard. First of all, you NEVER make the sushi rice the day before. And it's not like he ran out; we keep it in the pantry. Gene screwed up the rice the day before but never thought to make fresh sushi rice the day of. When they arrived at the kitchen they fried the shrimp right away (bad idea NO. 2). In fact, most everything on that plate was a mess. The fact that they left the shrimp and beef on a skewer and then expected the ladies to pick everything up with their hands and eat it was completely inappropriate and required a serious lack of judgement. Unless you plan on passing a tray of handiwipes afterwards then this is probably not the setting where guests want to get handsy with their food. Before I continue, we gave them a budget of $800 so they could buy really rich and extravagant things, like caviar and lobster, none of which any team opted to do. Thank god no one did scallops.

OK, so back to the Jamie show. Poor Radhika doesn't want to corner herself as knowing only how to cook Indian food but she makes herself cliche in the fact that it's really all she's cooked since she's been here. But remember, it's Jamie's secret spice and Jamie's ideas and Jamie's heart and soul on the line and Ariane's already screwed up so many times so she better just stick to the lamb ... yeah (*sigh*). (Plating 10 minutes out equals cold lamb by the way). I chuckle because their dish was overwhelmingly delicious, the lamb definitely being the centerpiece. If anything Radhika should've won for making the lamb marinade and tangy raita. I honestly think they should go back to not giving prizes out so the contestants can stop the winner's envy, though I know it's more about the glory until you get to the episode where they start giving cars away. Team Borrowed won due to the talent of all three ladies on the team, and the fact that none of them are going home is what's important.

The blue corn encrusted seabass was uninspired, a stretch in terms of the "blue" theme, and really just mediocre. The fact that the team relied on Fabio's accent rather than their own cooking abilities leads me to believe they phoned in the challenge. Blue mush vs. new wave BS? Daniel's delusional defense at Judges' Table is what got him sent home. Even Eugene had the presence of mind to admit his mistakes. I suppose the other thing admirable about Danny (other than that lovely geometric chin strap of his) is that he stood by his team mates and his food, even if it was misguided. I saw Danny also at the beginning of this season. Happy-go-lucky guy that he is, he is doing well and continues his gig at the Babylon Carriage House on Long Island. I'm sure I'll see him soon.

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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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