Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

It's Not A Good Thing

Richard Blais admits he's no good at catering-type events. But, he's willing to critique this season's chefs anyway.

I always try to do one pot dishes at home. I'm usually tired from cooking all day, or on my way to the kitchen in a rush, so there's no time to break out nine pans, or do the dishes.

My wife doesn't do dishes. And I'll be honest, the one pot thing is surely about convenience. I hate clutter. During my time on the show, the neccesity to have to work in a frantic manner and be a bit less organized really aggravated me. I'm the type of person who enjoys cleaning out desk drawers and could consolidate and put in order random stuff for hours and with gusto! So cooking in one vessel, then cleaning it and putting it away works. It's efficient. It's what home cooks should always attempt. It is how I believe Martha Stewart would cook. And, OK, here it goes: It's a good thing.

On a side note: what a great challenge for Lee Anne Wong and her team. What you don't see is that the kitchen absolutely gets destroyed every Quickfire. I mean demolished. War zone. So with each contestant limited to one pan; well I bet it was a tiny bit cleaner at the end.

Confidence is a major factor at this point. Go back and watch your TiVo of Episodes 1-2, and tell me Arianne is the same person. Nope, she's different. Her work has been validated. She's still humble and sweet but she's walking with a bop for sure. On the other hand, Jeff and Fabio are floating around at this point not sure how to get out of their slumps. Thats what it is, a major slump. When an athlete gets in a bad slump, he or she may start changing their stance, fidgeting, reacting differently. Our chefs here don't have the assistance of a trainer, or even game film to watch, so they are making adjustments, sometimes the wrong ones, every time at bat. Fabio, for example is all over the board at this point. He was heading down the creative route. That didn't work for a few challenges, so he ditched it and fell into his Italian comfort zone. That's not working now, so what's next? Jeff really hasn't had the opportunity to get his rhythm at all. What I see in Jeff is a really good chef who just hasn't gotten comfortable with the competition yet. In one of my first executive chef roles I did a dish of potato risotto with clams. It was a riff on one of my favorite comfort foods, clam chowder. It was tasty. I loved it. The guests didn't. They did exactly what Martha did. They expected rice. Sometimes, especially before a chef has become known for a style, it's better to write a menu in an under-promise and over-deliver way.

Try and pick these trends up; it's interesting stuff. Who do you see that's changed their approach to the game?

Also, Stefan and Jamie will always be confident. It doesn't matter what happens. They will go down with their ship, if need be, with the pride of any captain. It's an attitude that comes across a touch rough on the screen, but rings clear as a bell in a professional kitchen.

Ariane wins. She's ready to go to the finals. I know this feeling and I'm sure others can attest. I knew I would be in the finals.

The elimination is a tough one. Three hours sounds like a ton of time to some of you. It's not. An event like this would usually require a cook prepping the night before for a few hours. The next day, two or three chefs would finish the prep and head to the function. Here, it's one chef, a few hundred canapes. Vanilla Ice. Pressure.

I'm, admittedly, not good at these kinds of events. I want to do things that blow people away. I bring toys and gadgets, robots, and storm troopers. I plan labor intensive dishes. Or I used to. Now I just show up with a 600 pound nitrogen tank, and it's a wrap. All of our chefs play it really safe tonight. I have a feeling it's going to be really safe all year. It's like watching Runway where everyone makes a sweater. In this case it's a sweater with a sequin reindeer, but still. Boring.

Pot pie, crab cakes, deviled eggs, and 13 things served on toast. As a viewer, and also the guy who made three renditions of banana scallops, I now get it. I'm so sorry I put you viewers through that! I hope you'll forgive me! Because now I'm hoping Jamie can cook something besides scallops. And begging for Rhadika to serve something without chutney. But there's nothing else flavor-wise happening here, so more Indian food Rhadika. Just go for it!

Back to the scallop crudo for a second. The smell of a raw scallop that isn't just from the shell makes me want to toss my biscotti. It's not a rotten smell. It's just the smell of seafood that should be cooked, and once you know what a true fresh scallop smells like, you won't mess around with serving ones from a tin or fish box raw. Scallops, when they are fresh and should be served raw, actually jiggle and shimmer. Yes, like Jell-o. It's a beautiful thing (to me). Gross to some I'm sure. I have had a dish in the back of my head, maybe on the back burner would be more appropriate, that is simply a few slices of raw scallop presented tableside with a flashlight so the dinner can observe the scallop pulsating.

To sum it up -- and it's not to take anything away from Hosea -- Chipotle mashed potatoes won this challenge... Holy Bobby freaking Flay ... What year is this? What is going on?

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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