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!

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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