Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Richard, Please Pack Your Knives And Go

(No — is not talking to himself!) The Season 4 finalist talks about his personal experiences with guest judge Grant Achatz.

I never wanted to hear those words. And I didn't even like hearing them uttered for a different Richard. But in the end, Richard's cheekiness did him in. It was only a matter of time. There was a small window of time, where it was very stylish to present comfort food in a fine dining setting. It was for a few years in the early Nineties. A time when David Burke was king, and tomato soup with tiny grilled cheese sandwiches ruled. You can still see remnants of the fad on menus all over. Remember Eric's corn dog last year ? and wasn't that Episode 3 as well ? But it's outdated, and so were Richards 'mores.

What isn't outdated is the cuisine of our guest judge Grant Achatz. If anything, it's ahead of it's time. Way ahead. I don't need to go into the accomplishments of Grant or his restaurant. You can find that in just about any food magazine worth it's salt now a day. But what I will share about Grant is something rather personal, and even more telling of his success.

I worked under Grant at the French Laundry as a commis over 10 years ago. Besides an unusual appettite for power bars, and an understandable one for all things related to food knowledge, Grant was the first chef I worked with that understood self expression as a chef. By the good fortune of being one of the least important members of the dinner service brigade I got a chance to travel with Grant, the pastry chef and TK to Hawaii for an event. After this event, in a moment Grant will most likely not remember, he told me about how he wanted to do something different with food. How he wanted to lighten and purify sauces. How he saw things being different from where we cooked then.

At a time, when the French Laundry was quickly becoming one of the best restaurants in the world, and arguably the best in the United States, Grant saw things could be different. And better, to him at least.

This was pre Ferran Adria, pre molecular gastronomy, but all of what you need to know about Grant Achatz as a chef. I've never eaten his dangling bacon, or inhaled his aroma filled pillows. And I don't have to. I want to, but thats a different topic! I did want to eat soup however after the quickfire. I thought that was such a great idea. Anything can be a soup. As a matter of fact I often find inspiration in soup for sauces and dressings. I mean if it's a soup originally it's only a few steps away from being a sauce. Maybe a vinaigrette ? maybe even ice cream or sorbet ? so it was an easy, fun, but totally interpretive challenge.

Leah's presentation was the most built for a dining room. Jamie is just killing it, and her use of vadouvan spice. Well, dare I say it's the new Ras el hanout . I heard someone mention last week there weren't strong female contestants. And I may be quick to the call, but I'm seeing these girls easily in the Antonia, Stephanie, Leanne, and Tiffany category.

Grant mentions a few soups lack acid. Everyone listen up ! This is what separate's good home cooking from excellent cuisine. It's that simple. so make sure your splashing some vinegar or citrus on those Thanksgiving leftovers.

And with the mention of Thanksgiving ( BTW I'm writing from Tampa Florida where I'm at for my Thanksgiving ) we are handed our first massive team challenge of the season. The game's all about improv, so none of the change up's should have been much of a surprise. From vending machines to cooking on the beach, it's all the same.

Leah stacked her team. And I say this not as a fact I know, but one that I trust in her choices. As a viewer, we can form opinions and make guesses, but trust me, the contestants, who spend every moment with their competitors know exactly at this point who's got skills and who doesn't. So I would take leah's choices and cement them as those who should in theory go far.I found myself however routing for the underdogs. Jeff, who the jury's still out on IMHO, shows some considerable leadership and gets the unchosen moving as a team. I couldn't stop thinking of the movie Dodge Ball ( can't believe I just acknowledged I've seen that). I'd say they certainly looked more like a team. While on the other hand, Jamie is showing, in no passive aggressive way mind you, that she doesn't like Stefan. Or perhaps anyone. And she doesn't have to.

There were a few choices that gave us a clear view into the skill of some chefs. Daniels potato fiasco makes me write him off completely as a possible winner. Did you see the potatoes stacked in that oven ? He wondered why they weren't browning ? That's some basic detail. the choice of s'mores, so cheeky, so played, and then so NOT s'mores ? And Jeff with his contribution for the good of the team couldn't keep an eye on his own food. It's tough.

Cooking in a professional kitchen is a team sport. Cooking on Top chef is not. I was actually surprised to hear Tom wax about leadership. This is an attribute often left out of the game in previous seasons judgement table. cough !

And major props to Gene. His cooking with coals was, well, Eu-genius ! What an archaic cooking method, that in this particular challenge was shear technological wonder.

On a side note, because I do that. Melissa danced like the whitest woman ever at the concert. I think, appropriately she was doing the mashed potato. Josea's air guitar. Did you see that, or was it imagined ? And Jamie looked like she was headed to a Stevie Nicks concert. In the end. The underdogs lost like so many do. Barely. And of the bottom three, it was a toss up between Daniel and Richard. With Richard losing on conceptual mistake vs. Danny's technical error. At least we are keeping that consistent, so far.

Check out, my not so updated blog at RichardBlais.net and some hamburgers at my new concept FLIP opening this weekend in Atlanta !

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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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