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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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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