Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Jamie: I Wasn't Inspired

Jamie admits she deserved to be the one to pack her knives.

Bravotv.com: First, the Quickfire: What were you thinking when you saw that Eric Ripert was guest judge?

I thought for sure it was going to something involving fish, I mean, I know Le Bernadin is one of the top rating seafood restaurants in the country so it wasn't surprising when the announced the fish relay race.

Bravotv.com: What did you think of the filleting challenge? If they hadn't started with sardines, do you think you would have gone further?

I thought the filleting challenge was cool, until we pulled off the domes and were presented with the sardines...I had never actually filleted a sardine like that, with such precision...I was definitely intimidated, I usually serve sardines whole, Eric's were gorgeous! I knew I wasn't going to be able to do it as well as he had, it was something I had no experience with. I think, had we started with the Char, I would have totally had a chance to go on further in the quickfire.

Bravotv.com: Onto the Elimination: It almost seemed like you guys didn't know there would be a challenge announced while you were eating at Le Bernardin. Were you guys surprised?

No, Not at all...all through lunch I sat there and scrutinized every last thing I ate. I knew for sure we were going to have to replicate his dishes, and I knew I was in trouble...I am am awful at replicating...I thrive off the creative aspect of cooking and being innovative...I was terrified that was going to be our challenge.
Bravotv.com: What did you think of the concept of the challenge overall?

I thought the concept was cool, but not surprising...we all knew what was coming, some people were even taking notes under the table on certain dishes...but, I would have preferred being thrown in his kitchen and making our own seafood focused dish...I just think that would have been more interesting.

Bravotv.com: Were you happy with the fish you got? Was there a dish you would have preferred to make?

I was happy cooking black bass, I have cooked it hundreds of times before...I didn't think that part of it was going to be a problem (which its was). I would have loved to make the dish Fabio got with the tomato water and bread crust. That dish was beautiful. Or even the dish Hosea got because of the flavors in it, the black garlic (which was one of my ingredients I brought with me), the Persian lime, the cous cous...It was just more interesting.

Bravotv.com: What did you struggle most with in replicating Chef Ripert's dish?

I had a hard time figuring out the sauce, it was such a strange flavor with the ham and the celery. I also was having trouble trying to cook in his 700 degree ovens...I guess in his kitchen he really likes to keep his oven at blazing hot temperatures. Every time I opened the oven door and stuck my hand in, I think my arm hair got burned off! And then there was the braised celery, which ultimately did me in...

Bravotv.com: You knew that your celery was over seasoned. Did you think this would send you home?

I knew the celery was over seasoned, but at the point I realized it, I couldn't do anything to change it. All my ingredients were accounted for and I had nothing left over to help dilute the liquid to take some of the salt away, I tried adding some water when we got to the upstairs kitchen, but at that point it was just too late...I couldn't fix it. But, I had to serve it...it was either that, or serve nothing, I thought nothing would have been a worse offense. I had a pretty good idea that I would be going home, considering mine was the most offensive of all the dishes.

Bravotv.com: Do you think someone else deserved to go home instead?

Nope, not that I can recall...I think it was totally fair, and I was okay with that. I screwed up, it wasn't my food, I wasn't inspired...I think if I were to go out on any challenge this was the one to do it on...because at least I didn't screw up my own food and I didn't go home because the judges disliked something that was creatively mine. I think that would have been a bigger blow for me.

Bravotv.com: What was your experience like overall? Did Stefan ever get that kiss? (just kidding)

I had a great time shooting the show and I am super happy I did it. I met a lot of really amazing people who I know I will be friends with for a long long time to come. I think in the long run being on Top Chef has made me a stronger more inspired chef. It was a chance that not many people get to live through and I am very grateful that I was given the opportunity to do it. As far as Stefan is concerned...I think we may have kissed once or twice in his dreams (ha!)....but, truthfully...he knows I adore him...
Bravotv.com: You were the last member of Team Rainbow left standing -- is Team Rainbow still alive and well off camera?

Oh Team Rainbow...that's one I will never live down! I never wanted to be a gay poster child when I started the show, but I think as the months have progressed I have changed my tune a little...It's amazing to be able to inspire a community and I am glad that I had the courage to be "out" on national tv...a lot of people can't even make it that far...I think its important to embrace who you are and be proud of it, hence the reason Team Rainbow was hatched in the first place. The three of us immediately bonded over being queer, which when you are a minority tends to happen, and yes, we are still thriving...in fact Rich and I are doing an a gay marriage fundraiser in San Diego next month.

Bravotv.com: Where can your fans learn more about you and your food?

Fans can check me out at  www.absinthe.com where I am still the Executive Chef...Plus, on our website there is a link that tells folks where I will be over the next few months so if I am in your city, I'd love for you to come out and say Hello! I also just wanted to say many many thank you's to everyone who has supported me through this journey...

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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