Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

I Heart Dave Grohl

Top Chef's culinary producer Lee Anne Wong has something in common with the Foo Fighters — bacon!

First, let me start by saying this episode was a monster, but in it I got one of the bigger thrills of my life. OK, Grant Achatz. I had the privilege of trailing at Trio in Evanston while he was the star chef there. Not only was it fascinating to watch him and his team work together, from conceptualizing an idea to refining existing dishes, but it is even more meaningful to me now to see his evolution as a chef. My meal at Trio may have been the best I have ever had (I distinctly remember each of the 24 courses of my Tour de Force tasting menu), and I have eaten at Alinea on three subsequent occasions, each time a completely different and fulfilling experience. It was an honor to have Chef Achatz join us amidst his busy schedule. Some of you may know he is a recent cancer survivor, having battled a life threatening rare form of mouth cancer. He is a hero and a giant in the culinary world for his courage and focus as he continued to work in his kitchen while receiving treatment for his condition. Thankfully he is in remission now and was able to join us for this very rockin' Thanksgiving episode.

The TC Cookbook/Swanson thing was a complicated challenge for us to figure out. I had to choose the recipes and then stock the fridge with plenty of the ingredients from each recipe, each labeled on it's own tray, and then also supplement the pantry with additional ingredients for when they went to go make soup (unbeknownst to the contestants). For the most part, most of the soups were very good. I was particularly a fan of Danny's Ham and Egg Soup, which was rich and thick like a stew with a soft poached egg in it, crunchy bread crouton like French Onion, and lots of ham and cheese in a rich, flavorful broth. Leah's White Asparagus Soup was very good (I can't believe she hates white asparagus) and we knew by letting her pick her team it would create an interesting dynamic amongst the contestants (The talented vs. the misfits? Well, apparently at least in Leah's mind).

The concert was in Rochester, which is a seven-hour drive from NYC. Most of the crew and the contestants were taken up in buses. Team Culinary, fully aware that we would be building an outdoor kitchen, had to drive a cube truck full of equipment and rentals that would be needed to make sure that the teams could pull this off. I sent Peder up to Rochester in the cube truck that morning (I had to stick around for the quickfire) and he went to the market to set up the Butterball display that evening. Louise and I got into Rochester, driving our mini van (or the party wagon, as we like to call it), late that evening and went to bed right away as we had to build the kitchen the next morning. I love 4 a.m. wake-up calls. I didn't get too much sleep, probably because I was guilt-ridden by actually knowing that the contestants would be finding out that they were cooking Thanksgiving meal with only toasters, microwave ovens, and one hot plate. The funny thing about this challenge is that it was one that I had proposed to Shauna and Liz many seasons ago. I had done an episode of some cooking show for Fine Living in which I showed college students how to make a three-course meal using only a microwave and toaster oven. We all thought it was a great idea, but I more or less had it in mind for something like a fancy, multi-course meal for 20 people, not Thanksgiving for a roadie crew of 60. I actually laughingly told Shauna that I thought it was totally devious and mean that we'd put it upon them for a challenge like this (to which she responds, "I know, but this is Top Chef," which of course is the universal explanation for many of the crazy things we make them do).

There was a ton of discussion over culinary needs in setting this challenge up. How many microwaves and toaster ovens do we give them (one per contestant)? Should we give them a hot plate (yes, but only one)? I made sure each team had trays, platters, hot boxes, sterno, chafing dishes, the necessary equipment and electrical appliances to pull this off. We were outdoors so we had to buy a dozen coolers and order 300 lbs of ice. We built an outdoor pot washing area for each team, as there was no water source. We had to work with Grip and Electric to make sure the microwaves and toaster ovens wouldn't blow a fuse. And so on and so forth. So at 5 a.m., with my eyes still half shut, Team Culinary and the unionized roadie crew from the arena built an outdoor kitchen in less than 3 hours. Surprise! (First REAL challenging twist of the season). Yep. The contestants gave me dirty looks for the rest of the day. BUT, outside of the toaster oven microwave fiasco, they had everything else they could possibly need to make a fabulous meal, including blenders, food processors, kitchen aids, chafing dishes, hot boxes, and a ton of sterno. They had a huge pantry provided, and all the small tools and Gladware they would need to get through the challenge. I was thrilled to see that apparently Eugene was the only one who used his brain at the supermarket by picking up charcoal and making a fire pit out of one of the chafers. Not against the rules. Ariane realized that the hot box could act as an oven also, with the use of sterno and charcoal. This is exactly the point and what we want from our contestants; flexibility and resourcefulness.

I can't speak to the stupidity of both team names but both put out respectable food considering the conditions. The actual eating and serving area was a good ways away from the outdoor kitchen, so they all had to do quite a bit of running back and forth to get their stations set up. I sampled both teams food and at the end of the day, I preferred Team Cougar's a bit more, not to say that it didn't have its missteps. I think for me it was Ariane's delicious and moist turkey and Eugene's sweet and tender smoked pork loin. I found Team Sexy Pants' (again, stupid name) turkey to be dry and the gravy uninspired. Plus Team S.P. put out a salad bar, which may have been suitable for the Foo Fighters but to me screams Ponderosa. Part of being a chef is sometimes not giving the diner the choice, so I would have rather seen them make several interesting composed salads rather than fill a few bowls with canned chickpeas, olives, and shredded bagged cheddar cheese. Did I mention how much the salad bar turned me off? Team Cougar fell flat with not only its desserts (The bar-fait was really not good), but also with its salads and sides. What you don't see is that Richard had also made a mozzarella and tomato salad coated in basil pesto, which was fine, but really had no place on a Thanksgiving menu. It was a close call however, and Radhika's Vegan Cornbread Stuffing was a hit with all of them. And by the way, that episode was by the far the worst clean up I have ever had to do for any challenge in five seasons as the outdoor kitchen was destroyed by the rain, and the serving and dining area had only been "tidied up" by Team Cougar. Cry me a river Eugene. Unfortunately for sweet, sad Richard, his time was up. I thought he was very creative and had a great attitude the short time I got to spend with him. He left me a really nice note in his recipe book, which was turned into me after he left. I saw him recently at a TC event in Grand Central so he's doing well and I wish him the best. So the big thrill of my day? I got to look at the rider in which the Foos talk about their likes and dislikes. They have a whole paragraph dedicated to bacon. Bingo. I made bacon gift boxes for each one of them, complete with Bacon Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies and Billionaire's Bacon. After the Foos had judged the contestants and were on the way up to their dressing room to get ready for the show, Liz drags them over to say hi to me. Dave Grohl had his back turned to me and Liz says, "Dave, I just want to introduce you to our culinary producer..." and he turns around, points at me with a big smile in surprise and shouts, "Lee Anne!"

I almost passed out. I'm not usually star-struck very easily but this was Dave Grohl. And Taylor. And Chris. And Nate. I love the Foo Fighters and all of their music. So I start babbling like a drunken teenager to Dave and then feebly hand him a bag full of four bacon gift boxes, each individually sealed with bacon tape, to which he responds, "No way! We used to belong to bacon of the month club!" (I love you Dave Grohl). Handshakes, hugs, and the gift of pork were exchanged that day, a memory that will forever be burned into my teeny-bopper heart.

We were allowed to watch the show from stage right. Unbelieveable. Pat Smear was on hand to join them for a few songs. Later that evening I was out at a local bar with the crew when Tom, Padma, Gail, and Shauna showed up. They had been partying with the Foos backstage and said that after the show they devoured the bacon gift boxes and went bonkers over the cookies and billionaire's. Ahhhhh, spreading the pork gospel to the rock gods. It couldn't get anymore perfect and I hope to be able to someday bring more bacon their way. I have to start cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my entire family, like right now. I hope you all have an amazing holiday, and remember: turkey and dumplings the day after.

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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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