Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Circle of Life

Richard Blais talks alliances.

Sorry I'm a touch late this week. Ironically, it's because I spent the better part of the week at the Pennsylvania farm show, hanging out with the exact type of people that were featured in this episode. Farmers. And, well, animals. As a matter of fact, I milked my first cow! You can go to YouTube and find it if you're interested.

I've been on a few farms. I actually did an internship at Cabbage Hill, in Mount Kisco, New York. There I minded huge fish tanks of Tilapia. They swam in water that nourished lettuces. The lettuces and compost fed the vegetables outside. The vegetables were eaten by pigs, and goats, and cows. The animals were raised for meat. You get the picture -- it's the circle of life.

For a chef, it's most important to understand our ingredients. It's really easy to blow a few thousand dollars at a cheap culinary school and cook meat that arrives pre-portioned in airtight bags. It's even easier for the masses to think of lamb, chicken, and pig, just like they do a candy bar. We unwrap it, we eat it. Or maybe we even unwrap it, eat some of it, and throw it away.

Tonight reminded me very much of our pig challenge in Puerto Rico. That day we were treated to a fiesta where a whole pig was roasted. It struck me that day how that pig didn't just represent a party, or great flavor. It represented feeding a village. It was much more than food. During my training, I had quite a few chefs tell me how every stem and peel, from anything, represented money. "How could you throw 5 bucks away like that?" they'd say as they scoured the trash bin for scraps. But it's about more than business. While those guys are surely getting their monthly food cost bonuses, they still don't get it. Do our chefs tonight? The challenge at Stone Barns was very clear. Honor your ingredients and make people happy. I'm going to start sounding like I'm bashing my brethren, but once again these chefs misinterpreted the mission. Simple doesn't mean simple food. It means simple cooking.

I am absolutely amazed that I've seen creme brulee as many times as we have this year. That might win the Next Food Network Star, but it's not going to win Top Chef. Maybe it's personal, but I equate creme brulee with the easy-bake oven. Actually, I think it would be neater if someone cooked in an easy bake oven and explained how that was their first experience with cake, and how the technology of the low watt lightbulb actually makes a great cooking medium. But (sigh) I digress...

We are also seeing the first hardcore signs of fatigue here. What you don't realize is that these competitions are stacked right on top of each other, day after day. It's grueling and it's why I sounded like my head was in a fish tank for the last five challenges. So, I hope this is why everyone seems mentally exhausted. No one is showing leadership, with the exception of Jaime and Stefan and maybe Jeff. No one is working like they actually do this all day.

The best example is Lamb-gate. Hosea and Leah both break down lamb all the time folks. It's old hat. Yet, they let Ariane do it? In a competitive kitchen, on your way up the rank and file, a cook's dream is to be the guy or girl butchering. Cooking the meat, and making the sauce. No chef in this country will tell you differently. There's a certain amount of bravado to it. The best cooks in the kitchen WANT to cook the meat, the foie, and do the butchering. It's a rite of passage and the task that separate cooks and interns, from chefs and sous and so on. I don't think Hosea and Leah have ever seen an entire lamb carcass laid before them. They seemed scared. Although Ariane did literally butcher it. At least she did it. This was an ignoble act of cowardice.

And don't think that there aren't alliances amongst the chefs on this show. Hosea and Leah's alliance is obvious, even to Mr. Magoo. The contestants talk about it all the time.

I had an alliance with Dale Talde. We both felt like we were the best chefs in the house. We wanted to go head to head at the end. We decided one night, in the darkness of our dorm, from the heights of our Ikea bunk beds, and topless...that we would do anything possible to reach that outcome.

Next up is Restaurant Wars, where someone unexpected always seems to get the cleaver. And like tonight, unfortunately, it's always the leader from this point forward who's going home.

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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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