Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Our Melting Pot

The Season 1 chef'testant gives her behind-the-scenes take on the season premiere.

(Oh Jesus, Jeff just winked in the intro.) Here we go again! First of all, glad to be writing after what has been a very electric few months not just in America but also around the world. By the time Obama is finally inaugurated into office we should be more than halfway through the season! I had many a celebratory cerveza with my buddies in Mexico on Election Night (we all absentee voted). So cheers to America, for its landmark historical decision, and hopes for exciting and promising changes in the time to come!

Working on this show has taken me to some pretty wonderful and exciting new places. The flipside of that is living out of a suitcase for months at a time for more than half the year can suck. So was I excited to film this season here in my hometown? Sure, I thought. I can see my friends, go out to dinner at all my favorite restaurants, spend some quality time at home. Right. I usually go straight back to The FCI after I wrap TC and everyone's like, "Ooohh, where'd you go? Somewhere exotic?" In my deepest, darkest voice possible, I say, "I spent my summer in Bushwick. About 16-20 hours a day. 50 days straight." New York was a grueling shoot because the nature of shooting anything in New York, especially food related, can be total chaos and I would find myself cursing at inanimate objects, like traffic lights, grocery carts, fire hydrants, and Father Time. Besides the stalkers, gawkers, and the few jerks who enjoyed harassing our crew on the street, it's not like you can ask a restaurant to close down for the evening so we can shoot an episode of Top Chef. The importance of why the show depends on confidentiality is really so we can provide maximum viewing entertainment for you guys (I suppose people just love spoilers too much). Being in NY was awesome, but not without its difficulties since there were already individuals camped outside the cast house with a long lens camera. I'm here to give you the dirt, plain and simple, from the production point of view. Yep, while New York is definitely one of the world's most exciting food towns, it sure doesn't know how to keep a secret.

Let me start by saying right off the bat that this season there are no Hungs, no Richard Blaises, and not a Marcel in sight. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as we found a group this year that is uniquely talented in their own right. I participate in final casting of the show, but don't always get my wishes for the final outcome. I was skeptical of a few choices for the cast and I can recognize a lamb when I see one, but that doesn't mean I didn't have high hopes for certain individuals. I always think it'd be a fascinatingly funny if we all made them wear paper bags over their heads with little eyes cut out, duct tape over their mouths, and then that way it would truly be all about the food. I actually flew straight from a weekend long chef event at The Chef's Garden in Ohio to set on Governor's Island. I managed to get there right when they were supposed to start shooting but thankfully upon my arrival they were behind schedule (as I figured it would be, first day). This year I got a brand new team on Culinary, Shannon opting to sit this season out (emphasis on the word "team", as it's only ever been me and Shannon making up the culinary department. That's right, two of us). Angie, or "Foxy", her alter ego, was my No. 2. I was allowed to hire my good friend Louise, better known as "Weezy", as our food stylist and food porn queen. An ex student of mine, a brilliant young man, Peder, was our junior culinary producer and resident guinea pig (under many $3 bets, we challenged him to eat and finish more than a few inedible Quickfire dishes). And then there was Bev, our tireless, food-obsessed production assistant. Just want you to know whom I'm talking about since my team totally kicked ass this season and made my job not only endurable but also enjoyable. Anyways, these guys set up the beautiful cook off tables on Governor's Island, and it involved many cases of apples.

The apple thing was like a light bulb slowly illuminating as the challenge team and myself sat in a room for the first time together for 2 hours thinking of ideas. We had toyed around with the idea of making them crack lobsters, dice a watermelon, make butter by hand ... basically previous ideas for relay races (every season we sit down and come up with a mile long list). We figured peeling (I remember watching Iron Chef Sakai school a bunch of culinary students in a race to peel apples using only a chefs knife), dicing, and an actually test of culinary skill would be sufficient. I knew the medic would need to be standing by too and we were placing bets on how long it would be until someone cut him or herself.

We provided each of them with a cooler of good stuff including steaks, pork chops, chicken, shrimp, scallops, créme fraîche, a variety of cheeses, and plenty of fresh produce in addition to a small pantry table. Both Radhika's and Leah's dishes were good. But unfortunately the salads from both Lauren and Patrick were uninspired (spinach, blue cheese, and bacon ... you don't say) and Lauren had to say goodbye as she had just barely said hello. The quickfire ended up being the not so quickfire, as we had estimated a 6 hour shoot which turned into a 10 hour shoot. Grueling New York summer day, almost 100% humidity. Welcome to the family, newbies.We sourced various markets across the city. This was an interesting process, as I gave the best recommendations I know about ethnic neighborhoods and food, but sometimes production reasons get in the way of, well, reason. Like the fact that The Nile Deli is also technically in Astoria (actually right behind my apartment building on Steinway), but they didn't want Astoria on two knives (Titan market is a famous Greek market in my hood also), so we settled for Long Island City which is also my zip code and appears on some of my mail, even though technically I'm considered to live in Astoria. Then there were politics of calling it Little India (which is technically on 6th Street in the East Village when really Kalustyan's is located in a neighborhood known as Curry Hill, which I think the production company thought could be interpreted as offensive). I know there are many New Yorkers out there who are going to either find fault with or disagree with our neighborhood and ethnicity choices but we were going for a nice variety and the truth of the matter is it's not easy to get business owners, especially in an outer borough neighborhoods, to say "Yes, come in with your cameras and disrupt my daily business". Thankfully we were able to source some stellar markets including some of my favorites such as DiPalo's in Little Italy (Lou and Sal, I love you!), Asia Market Corporation on Mulberry Street in Chinatown, Kalustyan's (one of the coolest markets in NY, in my opinion. I can spend HOURS in there.), and my neighborhood stores, Titan Greek Market and Nile Deli. The contestants were also given a budget to supplement their ingredients at Whole Foods too.

The first night together is always fun. They sniff each other out, sort of like pooches at the dog run for the first time. Some play well together, others do not. One thing was for certain, they actually went through two cases of wine that night. Bunch of boozers, this group. I have my own opinions and impressions of each of these contestants. Fabio's a bit more tolerable than Stefan, if only for the language barrier (Fabio's continued excuse for not understanding the rules was that he was "fre-sha outta dee boatah", which always made me smile). Stefan, when we met him in casting, was reality TV gold. Quickly establishing his stripes and exercising his healthy ego amongst the others I knew would happen sooner than later.

It was thrilling for us to have who I consider to be the reigning king of high-end multicultural cuisine, the man himself, Jean Georges, as the judge for our first elimination. I was part of the opening team at Restaurant 66, his Chinese venture (now closed) and I got to witness firsthand how he applies his signature techniques to and takes inspiration from ethnically diverse ingredients and flavors from all over the world. I have tremendous respect for him and he is always such a gentleman when I see him. They cooked head to head and I sampled all of the food porn dishes, some were very good, some not. Richard's lamb slider had all the right flavors but the patty was dry and overcooked and the orzo feta salad was a little too thick and cheesy in texture. Jamie's black bass on eggplant puree was sophisticated and simple, evoking the classic flavors of the Mediterranean. I wasn't partial to either Hosea's trio of smoked fish or Carla's fishcake. (I always wonder what actually takes two hours to prepare since they each had to make only two portions of everything, and they both bought already cured and smoked fish). Stefan's Middle Eastern combo was simple but good and well seasoned. Ariane's lamb was perfect but the undercooked farro should have never made it to the plate.Then there's cabana boy. Ambitious, and very Miami. His rough start out of the gate surprised me because Jeff had cooked for me before in South Beach and it was really quite exceptional. Fabio suffers from terrible plating syndrome with this one, and there was really no relationship between the pork and the salad on his plate. Jill's jerk scallops were reminiscent of something you'd see at neighborhood chain restaurant, a little too big, and if there's such a thing: clunkily colorful. For me, it's like taking that all-popular-Top-Chef-go-to-ingredient (scallops) and ruining their delicate flavor by overcooking them and covering them in a bunch of crap. Radhika's dish was not only monotone in its brownish qualities but completely lacked texture and screamed for acid and salt. I suppose the Kentucky fried scallop medley won out in the end.

Leah's snapper on the other hand, was a perfect example of controlled, thoughtful cooking, with the right amount of restraint in the flavorings and garnishes. Melissa's steak was only Italian in the sense that it was the size of a family style platter you'd see at Carmines and was smothered in red sauce. Alex and Eugene used strikingly similar ingredients but Eugene's version with the masala sauce and raita made the cut and even impressed Ms. Lakshmi herself.

Far and away the most disappointing neighborhood showing was the dishes from the Chinatown knife pull. Not only did both of them do what I would consider "cliche bastardized Asian", but they did it quite unsuccessfully. Asia Market Corp. is a store that has aisles and aisles of fantastic Asian groceries, ranging from Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese, to Korean, Malaysian, and Filipino. There's a ton of super-fresh Asian produce out front, with variety far more exotic than bok choy. Choices like rice noodles and crispy wontons do not an Asian dish make. Daniel's creation was indeed a bad version of Wolfgang Puck's Signature Chinois Chicken Salad (which I happen to love, and I certainly do not consider this what I referred to earlier, as Wolfgang Puck is one of the founders of California fusion cuisine. It's the shabby imitators I revile.). It was edible though, if not soggy as it sat in a pool of soy vinaigrette (and a vinaigrette is not always an emulsion. There is such a thing as a broken vinaigrette. But what a stupid thing to argue over anyways.) I happen to love Daniel's energy by the way. Totally manic, but comedic at the same time. Nice guy.Poor Patrick. You know that class he's referring to? CIA grads refer to it as "Asian Vacation". Anyways, he took what he considered to be Asian ingredients and put together an incongruous, poorly executed dish. He precooked his salmon, which was under seasoned salt wise but for the overly sweet mirin reduction brushed on top of the fish. By the time he reheated the fish to serve it was overcooked and texturally unpleasant to eat. The rice noodles were over cooked. Most rice noodles you should pour hot water over and allow them to steep for 5 minutes for good texture. He boiled the hell out of his noodles and the whole dish was the monotone flavor of sesame oil overkill. He spoke of, "Doing the best with what he had to work with", which implies that some other forces of nature (like production) were to blame for his dish's inadequacies, when in fact the first challenge we love to give the contestants a big budget , plenty of time, and freedom to really show us what they can do. I chalk it up to inexperience, though it shocked and surprised me that most of the contestants don't seem to have a broad understanding of various ethnic ingredients and cooking styles. Patrick is an incredibly charismatic, bright young man who has a wonderful future in the culinary industry. I was struck by his mature and optimistic attitude, which will set him apart from many young cooks at his stage. I wish him only the best for an exciting and fulfilling career as a chef! (The Monchichi style hug is gonna be all the new rage, just wait and see. People will be leaping into each others arms in greeting all over the country.)

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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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