Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Literally Cooking

Richard Blais shares his thoughts on the final four.

It wasn't that long ago, a year and a half to be accurate, that I was heading to Puerto Rico for our season finale. I remember feeling like the competition was getting pretty easy, not in a cocky way, but in an experienced way. By the 23rd and 24th challenge, the routine becomes, well, just that. It's a distance runner a few miles in. By this episode, the chefs are well warmed up and in full stride. This is when the chefs should produce some of the best food of the season. And it’s this episode, where the judging also becomes obviously more detailed.

It's not over salting or an unset crème brulee, now. It's the viscosity of the hollandaise - the authenticity of tomate Provencal.

The quickfire dishes were all presented well. They even looked tasty, which is tougher then it sounds. They were seemingly creative. I mean, a panna cotta bleeding mango yolk? Using ricotta as a sub for a bacon, egg, and cheese? The green egg? The egg white as a sheet of nori? Where has this whimsy and inventiveness been all season?

And then I get it. This group cooks through a challenge, for the most part, literally. When presented with Wylie Dufresne, one of our genres pioneers, they respond by cooking to him. Mimicking. WWWD? What would Wylie do? It is the last supper after all?

When I was a kid I wanted to be a professional baseball player. I threw a rubber ball against my stoop for hours each day. I talked about myself, out loud, as if I was the broadcaster. I mimicked my heroes. Dwight Gooden, Rick Sutcliffe, Bob Tewksbury. I would throw in the stance and motion of these pitchers. When I was twelve, if you asked me to throw like those players, I would nail it. Gooden’s high leg kick. Sutcliffe concealing the ball and waving his mitt. Tewksbury throwing of off the ground submarine style.

I was never to become Top Pitcher however. Oh, I still could fan most of you with a wiffle ball. But I never became Richard Blais, stylistically.

Fabio does his best impression of Wylie and finds himself on the bottom. Carla does a good impression of herself and wins.

I’d also like to mention, that most chefs involved in molecular gastronomy, do not care for the term "molecular gastronomy." I’d actually be willing to guess all of them. We may use it, I’m guilty, to express feelings about a genre of food. But it's like telling a hip hop artist he’s a rapper. Rap is to hip hop, what molecular gastronomy is to...

Well, that's the problem. We don't really have a universal term for it.

Molecular gastronomy, it must be said again, aims to make food better. Extending and adding on to tradition by asking questions and experimenting. If you can make an ingredient better by manipulating it, that is good. If you can only manipulate for the sake of manipulation or art, then that is bad.

My favorite quote that embodies MG is from Ferran Adria. "My basil jelly, tastes better than basil."

Exactly.

I would argue that Carla’s green egg did represent molecular gastronomy. Avant garde, new school, alternative cuisine, or whatever else you want to call it. By thinking of her dish from an abstract point of view, she had inspiration that was truly her own. She manipulated the color, texture, and feeling of a simple traditional dish. She elevated it, without losing it’s soul. It’s a remix. Of course she should of somehow incorporated, "On a boat, with a goat," but I digress.

Now the challenge, they have to cook for the Jedi Council of Elders. Featuring Jacques Pepin, playing the part of the guy with the really long neck and gentle disposition. Again, literally, most of the chefs go about creating the last meal as requested. And here, I can’t blame them entirely. I would have wanted to turn the shrimp scampi into actual shrimp noodles. A nod to Wylie and something I know is more delicious then it’s traditional inspiration. It is the type of dish that if you pull off, it wins the challenge. And a difficulty level that gets you high marks even if you don’t stick the landing. But it’s a tough call to make under pressure.

Because of the pressure, creativity and authorship can get suppressed. They collectively and unknowingly bring the judges’ decision all down to simple execution. They don’t afford themselves any interpretive defense. The saving grace of "quotation marks" if you will. They want to talk French with Jacques Pepin, Swedish with Samuelsson, and whatever language Wylie’s planet speaks.

Next week, they will undoubtedly be speaking a language of "yeah babies," "pork fat rules," and "bams!" as they head to New Orleans. The regional cuisine should be a great backdrop to express themselves in the finals. As long as they don’t take things too literally! And for the record...my last meal? You’d have to ask me the day of, but a good cheeseburger or spaghetti Bolognese would always be in the running. What about yours?

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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