Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

A New Season Already?!

Top Chef: Chicago's winner scopes out the newbies.

Hard to believe the new season is already here. Seems like we were just in Puerto Rico a few weeks ago. I had finally gotten past having crazy Top Chef nightmares with the red clock counting down or Padma suddenly appearing with a new challenge, and I am hoping the new season does not cause them to return. From the first episode it seems like there is a talented group of chefs and a lot of strong personalities so I am sure it will be a fun season to watch.

I have to say it seems a little harsh to give someone the boot after just a Quickfire. I cannot imagine, knowing what anticipation I felt before filming began, having to go home without even putting on the Top Chef coat. Though peeling apples may seem like a simple task, and I am sure it is during a normal day in the kitchen for the chefs, the nerves that the chefs were probably dealing with on the first day of filming made simple tasks suddenly challenging. I could sympathize with Richard when he cut himself in the first minute of competition, since the same thing happened to me. You just have to holler for a band-aid and keep on going. It would have been kind of fun to see what the actual time was for the chefs as Tom commented that they were going to be there for a while with 15 apples per person. Stefan cruised right through as one of the nine chefs who was safe and got to watch as the other eight chefs sweat through round two.

Along the same lines, I am sure the chefs have brunoised cases of apples, but the three sets of camera crews, Tom and Padma, and the other nine chefs looking on made the knife skill a bit more difficult I am sure. Even though Daniel was not the speediest apple peeler, he showed he could bang out some brunoise. So then we were left with the final four hoping to make it to the Top Chef kitchen. I was a little nervous at this point, seeing my fellow Chicago chef Radhika still competing to move on, but was happy to hear the final portion involved actual cooking. I understand viewers' frustration of not being able to taste the dishes, but would say from my living room the scallops looked tasty, with a nice touch of dried apples for some texture contrast. Radhika pretty much had me at pork, and the flavors sounded like they worked well. It came down to Patrick and Lauren, who both chose to do salads on what must have been a hot July day in New York. I think during our season we were convinced that bacon was the way to win the hearts of the judges, but I guess we were wrong. I have to admit a slight bias, having met Patrick while I was out in New York a few months ago (love you!), but I did not want to see anyone leave so quickly.

Then out came the knife block, which made its first of many appearances, to decide which chefs would face off in the first challenge. I like the first challenge in that it highlights the various neighborhoods and cultures found in New York and also gives the chefs a chance to cook head-to- head, which is always fun. I think the neighborhood that I would have been most nervous about was Little India, mainly because Padma seems to know a thing or two about Indian cuisine. All of the markets they found looked great and it would have been fun just to do the shopping to check out all of the different ingredients. I might have to do some exploring on my next trip and check out some of the places I have not been like Brighton Beach and Long Island City.

I was excited to see Jean-Georges make an early appearance. I was lucky enough to have my first cooking job in Chicago at Vong and love his food. Of course having JG show up was sure to make some of the chefs a little more nervous. All in all it seemed like the chefs did well for the first round. Jeff had some timing issues and was unable to get all of his ingredients on the plate, but in the end the judges picked his dish over Fabio's, so maybe it was for the best. It is a little tricky at first because you do not want to prepare your plate too early and have your food sitting, but you do not want the feeling of missing a component (as when my artichoke chips did not make it on my salad) and wondering if that was going to be the deciding factor to send you home. It was evident that some of the most important elements that the judges were looking for were properly cooked proteins (a technique Richard failed to execute by overcooking the lamb patties), proper seasoning (many chefs were told to use more salt), basic cooking techniques being executed properly (Ariane's farro and Patrick's noodles were not made properly), and contrasting textures (missing from Radhika's halibut, because of the rice being a bit "mushy.")

Stefan seems to be the early contender, having finished first in the Quickfire and also winning the first challenge. I remember being asked in my first interview if I thought winning the first challenge was a good indicator of my winning the whole show and saying, "Please don't say that, there is still a long way to go." Stefan does seem to have a lot of confidence and has proven his skills in the first episode, and though it is way too early to tell, I would put him in the final three. (It is fun to guess!)

Other strong showings were from Gene with his classic Indian dish. It was his first attempting cooking Indian cuisine, and that seemed to really impress Padma. Leah also impressed the judges - her snapper and faro that had an earthiness that Tom really enjoyed.

Ariane and Patrick both seemed to have some issues with their starches. Ariane ended up serving undercooked grains, which was shown to be unacceptable during our season when it cost Antonia a place in the final three. Patrick decided to try working with black rice noodles for the first time, and wound up with a result he knew was not right. I do give him props for trying something new, but with two hours to prepare the dish, maybe he should have tested them out early on and tried to adjust. In the end, Patrick was asked to pack his knives and Ariane was given a chance to redeem herself.

Patrick has a lot of passion for cooking and has great potential in the industry once he finishes school. I would say this was a fun experience for someone so young and new to the industry.

Looking forward to a great season. I can't wait to see what other chefs make a guest appearance this season and what other fun New York challenges are ahead.

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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