Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Too Many Cooks ...

Richard Blais explains why the taste test Quickfire challenge is the only one that really matters.

Of course, cooking is all about taste. At the end of the day, nothing else matters. Presentation is fun and technique is usually the means to an end. But flavor is most important. No serious chef will argue this. It is simple fact.

So the palate test, although it's taken many a shape in our Top Chef world, is the most anticipated by the contestants. And the most feared perhaps! Win this one and it means more than any other Quickfire. Bottom out and it hurts the most. There's no team to blame. No guest judge to disagree with. Nothing at all to deflect the embarrassment.

This particular version had an odd fusion of Name that Tune and March Madness. The tournament style was very entertaining, but as a chef I felt this group got off a lot easier than past seasons. The sauces they tasted were classics and should have been easily recognizable to any professional diner, no less a chef. A heady fish soup and two of the most flavorful sauces in the history of all food in green curry and mole?

First off, those tastes should have registered like when someone asks you to say the alphabet. These are recipes that chefs, once they experience for the first time, run right to the bookshelf to demystify. Then to the kitchen to make firsthand.

The first time I tasted green curry and mole I absolutely had to know what made it taste that way. There wasn't an option; it was a mission. It's the same drive that got me to start playing with liquid nitrogen, or experimenting with any and all food additives listed on processed foods now. A chef has to know something ... about everything. I found it mind-boggling, that some of the chefs just cashed out and let the challenger name three or four ingredients?

I think I'll make some mole tomorrow. A great way to use some of that turkey you may have plucked in the freezer BTW.

Hosea wins the taste test. Like I said, it's the only Quickfire that really matters. It was our season's palate test, where my good friend, Antonia Lofaso, emerged as a serious competitor. Will it be the same for Hosea? Only time tell, will we? (thats Yoda).

I got some serious flashbacks when the chefs broke into a mass production small team challenge. These are the worst challenges IMHO. The team isn't large enough to sway to a natural leader. The team may randomly not contain a leader. Or the team may have too many leaders and become split.

This was very evident tonight.

With three obvious leaders on the "old" team, they made a wise decision in presenting a dish where each individual chef would be responsible clearly for their effort. I didn't like Stefan's dismissal of attempting sorbet. Although, I agree it's technically difficult and a risk for a large plating. It's also that exact philosophy that makes caterers boring. The girls on team "borrowed" nailed it. Using lamb on Top Chef is like gobbling up a cherry in Pac Man. Go find a lamb dish that hasn't done well in this competition. It's bonus points right away. It's a chef's meat. Vadouvan spice makes another appearance in what looked like a perfect carrot puree. And the raita? I loved it. Sometimes I think about rubbing it on myself in the shower. This team showed tremendous composure, natural collaboration in the name of flavor, and produced a dish that I would order in a restaurant. I don't find myself thinking like that usually.

On a side note... We are really starting to see a very unflattering side of Jaime. One guarantee you get from going on Top Chef is the opportunity to learn how to take criticism. Jamie is revealing that she is a sore loser and doesn't receive critique well. I had a guest tell me that her pickles were too vinegary the other day. I easily could have crossed my arms, told her she was an idiot and marched away. Instead, I listened and smiled politely. And then gently walked away and thought to myself that she was an idiot. A chef needs these tools to be successful. In this show, and well, in life.

"Blue" team gets a tough buzz word, and then doesn't get inspired; it's that simple.

And then we have, what Tom accurately identifies, as a conceptual nightmare. The "new" team. For the record, I would have enjoyed receiving this buzz word. It's almost a free pass to go super creative at this stage. Instead of new, they go with sushi. Now I'm sure, that even in the smallest of midwestern towns, sushi, is not new. Nor is salad in a wonton basket. Beef on a skewer. Or fried shrimp. I recently just played the Top Chef video game (where my silhouette gets PYKAG!!!). You'll have to play it yourself to truly get this. But New team's dish looked like the plated dishes in the game. It looked like what a plate might look like if you were hungry and marched down a buffet filling your plate with offerings from different dishes. It was a stuffed potato skin, and mozzarella stick away from being the sampler platter at a LT McSpiffs. Not even ranch dressing could have made this right. And let's face it, ranch dressing makes everything better.

And the worst. Listening to Danny say he loved the dish after both of his teammates and all the judges dogged it. This, my friends, is where you take responsibility for your actions and say you made an error. That you know it. That if you escape you will not make it again. Or. You can just basically tell a Michelin starred chef, a world-traveled gourmand, and the heartbeat of the most exciting and prestigous food magazine in our country that they don't know what they are talking about.

Tom wanted to let them all go. Yikes!

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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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