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 But it's outdated, and so were Richards 'mores.

What isn't outdated is the cuisine of our guest judge Grant Achatz.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 !

Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Hugh Acheson weighs in on the finale showdown between Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet.

There is always a Top Chef winner but obviously some seasons have a less experienced assemblage of chefs, while others have veritable US Olympic-caliber culinary practitioners. (Congrats to Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or competition by the way! Silver! Silver!)

This particular season of Top Chef could have been a contest of mediocrity, but it bloomed into something very skilled and mature, which is good for judging, but makes writing a blog with poop jokes and rap humor very difficult. I have to say, I was a little worried at the beginning that the whole chef squadron was a little shaky. But early retreats by chefs with bigger egos than culinary skillsets allowed the true talent to rise without being malevolent fools. And that talent really was there. By mid season we were eating their visions on the plate, while watching them battle it out over the food and just the food.

The two most successful chefs of the season made it to the end, and they are ready to rumble in the most respective way they know how. One will plate most of their food on the side of the plate, incorporating Korean flavors and modern technique into the vittles, while the other will weave a more classic story and put food more in the center of the plate like regular people. Should be a good show no matter what, because at the end of the day, it’s just hard not to be really enamored with both of them. They are good people.

Gregory and Mei start out on a hot air balloon ride, because that’s how I like to start every day in Mexico. The country looks beautiful to me even if you are in a basket hoisted hundreds of feet into the air by hot air. The hotel I stayed in was the Casa di Sierra Nevada, which was AWESOME, so if you are looking for a vacation, go there. It's no party town, but it is plenty fun. Great food scene. And to put safety into perspective, I felt safer wandering around St. Miguel than I do my hometown. Anyway, the balloon ride looks like fun and allows for that finale moment of almost tearful reminiscence and contemplation.

So their balloon ride lands in a vineyard, and Tom and Padma are waiting to put a halt to this sentimentality. The task is put forward and the challenge, this final culinary joust, is to create a meal that is the meal of their lives. They pick their two sous chefs per person; Gregory picks Doug and George, while Mei picks Melissa and Rebecca.

They prep their menus after a good night’s sleep. The prep I will not talk about too much, but suffice it to say that each team seems very pro and super on top of things.

Traci des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, Gavin Kaysen, and Donnie Masterton are dining with us, all of them amazing chefs. Like amazing amazing. The kid’s table, at which I am the head, is made up of Sean, Traci, Gavin, and Gail. It is a super table. At the table I decide to hold true to the tourist warning of not drinking the water. I thus only drink wine and the phenomenal beauty of Casa Dragones tequila, a concoction that will make me sleep soundly (but probably by dessert) on the table.

Mei hits us with an octopus that I really, really like. It resounds with flavors of coconut, avocado, and fish sauce. It is deep. The only flaw is that maybe it is a bit over done. The over cooking made it kind of crunchy and she could easily have been cooking it to that point on purpose. Second course from her is a congee, with peanuts, carnitas, egg yolk, and hot sauce. It is so f----ing delicious. Like stylized comfort food that you just want to eat all the time. Comfort food, when perfect, is perhaps the hardest food to cook, because it is by definition food you are very familiar with, resulting in people having a lot of preconceived notions about it. This congee would have silenced all critics on congee. It was that good.

Mei is gliding through this meal. She has palpable confidence, but is still a nicely soft-spoken leader. In my years of watching people lead kitchens, I have always been more taken with the allegiance that soft-spoken leaders cultivate in their staffs. Her third course is a duck course, and like the congee, she has cooked duck at least twice this season, but in entirely different ways. This duck has kimchi, braised lettuce, and huitlacoche on the plate. Huitlacoche is corn smut, a term I just yelled in a coffee shop, making everyone uncomfortable. It is a good plate, but my refrain about duck skin continues. It was a bit chewy. All in all, the dish just was texturally challenged. It needed a crunchy texture. But it was good still. Her last is her version of yogurt dippin’ dots with strawberry-lime curd, milk crumble, and stuff. It was blow-you-away amazing. Very complex, but very successful. Tom says it is the best dessert on Top Chef he has ever had, and I definitely concur, though he has tasted many more than I have. The toasted yogurt base was amazing.

Gregory steps up with a brothy octopus with cashew milk, fresh prickly pear, and also xoconostle, which is the dried version of prickly pear, kind of like a prickly pear fruit roll up. It is a strong dish, and may be the winner in the Octopus Olympiad. His second was a strange soup that was redolent with flavor until you choked with a shrimp head lodged in your gullet. Strange and a little unrefined for me, and pretty much everyone else. It was a wanted textural element, but made a rustic soup weird. The whole dish needs to be compared to the comfort food of Mei’s congee, and in that context it is no contest.

Third course from Gregory is a bass with carrot sauce, tomatillo, vegetables, and pineapple. It is a strange dish. I am worried for Gregory at this point. It is not like the dish was bad, but the dish was just not a winner winner. Well, let’s not rest on that notion, because his next and final course is a stone cold stunner. Simple short ribs in mole with sweet potato. It is purity on the plate and equal to the idea of Mei’s congee in nailing comfort food. Kudos. He’s back on track. This is a close contest.

Judges' Table comes and we deliberate. I am not going to mince words and hold off on this: It is really close, but this season’s winner is definitely Mei. Well deserved. Gregory is the consummate pro in placing second and is going to be a force to be reckoned with in this restaurant world. His win versus addiction and his success in cooking shows one tough person with oodles of talent.

Mei. Mei. You rock. You are a chef’s chef. You make food that excites and makes us ponder. You are a leader and a super cool person. You are the winner and will always be a winner. Onwards.

Until next season. I loved this season. Thanks BOSTON. And thanks San Miguel di Allende. You are awesome places to work.

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