Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Chefs Have Lives

Season 4's Richard Blais has been on the Today show. He knows of what he speaks.

Many restaurant chefs absolutely dog television chefs behind the scenes. They aren't real chefs. They're pretty actors that have stolen the credit from those who toil relentlessly in basement kitchens for 16 hours a day. They can't hack it in a real kitchen. They're sell-outs.

For the most part, it's all jealousy. And the best at being capable of producing a dish on a television segment, are also pretty damn good in a restaurant. Tom and Rocco come to mind.

I have chefs in my kitchen who know of Rocco only as a TV guy. A good looking, critical guest chef. The guy who had his momma rolling meatballs while he flirted with patrons on The Restaurant. Guess what folks. Rocco's a great chef. I had one of my first amazing restaurant experiences at Union Pacific, where Rocco earned himself the opportunity and dream he lives today.

Onto the show ... The breakfast Quickfire was great. I'm one of those people who could eat breakfast at any time. What's not to love? Cured and smoked meats, the elegance of an egg, the soft pillowy texture of pancakes, and just enough maple syrup to make it all come together.

That made me want to cook breakfast just typing that!

I thought Stefan did a classic french amuse, a spin on the Arpege egg amuse, a famed Paris restaurant. Leah and Jamie again went head to head with a great example of the difference between New York City and San Francisco. Both chefs presented similar dishes. One, a little more refined and the other a little more organic and tasty looking. Those three chefs, Stefan, Leah, and Jamie are clearly representing that they have a personal style and cuisine. And then there's Danny. Did he really say that he ate cornflakes and zucchini blossoms as a kid? I'm calling BS here. And while we are on the breakfast tip, I felt embarrassed for Danny when he was hamming it up in the elimination. It was one of those Showtime at the Apollo moments where you know the hook is coming out. Now, presenting a dish in two minutes or so on live TV is tough. It takes some practice. Check out my most recent Today show appearance on YouTube! Sorry for the shameless plug! Even the most simplest of dishes have a thousand talking points. And if your host is, well, doing their job and engaging you, then you have to be ready for improv. No one wants to watch a robotic chef run down a list of ingredients. It's about interaction.

Some really struggled. For as great a chef as Stefan has been, he's not much of a personality, huh? Alex made a creme brulee? Odd choice, not only for the execution issues mentioned. But creme brulee? What year is this? Some didn't finish, yikes! And Jamie, who I think is just cooking her heart out gave us a flashback to the stance of Lisa the Angry.

On the winning side. I thought Jeff did the best in presenting himself. He definitely has been in front of a camera before. He may have been filming it himself, but regardless, he's been there before and it showed. And for as much as I love Fabio, I didn't care for his dish, or his theory behind dumbing down the food because people who watch TV don't want to learn new things. He's obviously fresha outta tha boata (his words, not mine). Bravo and this Web site is evidence that people are interested in experimenting with food. Sesame crusted tuna? Dude? I mean, if Bethenny did that I'd be cool with it... I also think Fabio, who isn't receiving many compliments during the Quickfires may be second guessing his approach. He's the only one close to pushing super creative food. I hope he doesn't pull inside his turtle shell and go into Top Chef survival mode. I know a good deal about this strategy. There's a point when you realize that the reward of risk doesn't compare to the consequence. And that by simply cooking simple well executed food you will get by those competitors who can't do that. And what a neat prize for Arianne. I missed her piece the following day, but it will do good for her business, and once you've done the Today show, well, every other morning show is a piece of cake.

I also find it sad that Alex gave up. He did. He called his own name right from the beginning of the show. So many people try out for this show for season after season. To see someone come on here and let us know how it's not that important is a shame. Even if it's an obvious excuse for not performing well. Chefs have lives. We know that.


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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