Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Just Desserts

Season 4's winner talks turkey and how to get more info on her new project!

Well I was happy to see the outcome of last week finally. Not that I am happy to see someone go, but I think the judges made the right decision I should know better than to try to guess the outcome by the editing alone.

Thanks again for the comments and feedback! Last week was a big week for my new restaurant in that the name and some other details got leaked on the internet. There will be more information to come as things get a bit further and are a bit more secure but for now if you are interested just search for The Drunken Goat Chicago and you can get a little info on the new place.

Back to the show. I must say I was shocked to see Grant Achatz walk into the Top Chef kitchen. Being Chicago's real top chef, many people thought he would appear last season. Of course with all that Grant has gone through recently I was not expecting him last year. It is so great to see that he has recovered from his battle with cancer and is now reaching new heights at his restaurant and with his beautiful new book. Chicago is lucky to have such great talent and I eagerly await my next meal at Alinea.

The chefs begin by pulling knives with seemingly random numbers (I know I could not guess where they were going with this one). Out comes the Top Chef Cookbook comprising of dishes created by chefs during the first three seasons along with Blais' tasty banana scallops from our dessert challenge. I love the way they snuck in a little merchandise plug ... hoping next week the chefs will all be wearing the fabulous "Culinary Boner" t-shirts. Turns out that each number represents a page in the book with a recipe that the chef is to put their own twist on in an hour... a whole hour? Something fishy is going on for sure.

Of course half way through the challenge, once the chefs are well into their creations, in comes Grant announcing he is actually in the mood for soup. Most of the chefs seem pretty happy with the change. Jamie mentions her love for making soup and Carla mentions the final ingredient in soup being love. I have to agree that making soup is very satisfying. You end up with a well balanced bowl of comfort to slirp up and enjoy, well hopefully. For the most part, the soups that we got to see look quite tasty. Seeing Fabio's made me laugh a bit remembering back to the original dish that Mike created while completely high on pain killers, but Grant found his soup a bit flat. Melissa had a bit of a misstep as well. I thought it was a nice idea to recreate a classic Italian Wedding Soup but it seemed to miss the mark. Richard seemed to know he was a bit off with the balance as he ran out of time to add in some lime juice which would have helped with the acidity.

I thought Daniel's looked delicious. Reminded me of a ham hock and leek soup I like to make that stemmed from my love of French onion soup growing up. Just so warming and hearty. I am also a sucker for anything with chickpeas so Jamie's soup called out to me as well. Friends make fun of me for the lack of food in my apartment at any given time, but there are always some chickpeas around. I can imagine that the pickled chilis and cilantro yogurt would have brightened the peas up nicely. Leah was chosen as the favorite for her chilled white asparagus soup. It is a difficult vegetable to work with as Grant points out, as it can turn out quite bitter, though when cooked properly in a soup it can be refreshing and delicious. Leah must have handled it just right.

I would say we all could have guessed that this week's elimination would involve some turkey. Having won the Quickfire, Leah gets the honor of choosing her team. Brings me back to elementary school when we were picking teams for never want to be the last one picked, or in this case the seven not picked. For the most part I probably would have chosen the same team. Even though it is still early in the competition there seem to be some standouts, and I am sure some choices were made based on who Leah gets along with and believes she will work well with. Jamie, Hosea, Fabio, Stefan, Melissa, and Radhika will join Leah on team Sexy Pants. Not sure I want to keep writing Sexy Pants so from now on they are SP for short. Team Cougar, named after Ariane who is apparently the hot mamma of the bunch, will also include Jeff, Eugene, Alex, Daniel, Richard and Carla. I can imagine that Team Cougar feels the extra pressure of proving themselves since they were not the chosen ones, but it seems to me like anyone's game.

The fun twist this week is that they will cooking for the Foo Fighters. They claim to be long time fans of the show (not sure if I buy this but what the heck) and are hoping for a Thanksgiving feast for themselves along with their crew and roadies. After the chefs do a walkthrough of the arena in Rochester, they are walked outside to their lovely kitchen. Yes, outside with microwaves, toaster ovens, and one burner. A step up from a row of Easy Bake ovens but not quite what the chefs were hoping for. Both teams begin to go through their menus once again and strategize on use of the equipment. Jeff emerges as a natural leader once again, helping stop the chaos of seven chefs talking over each other and organizing the team's menu. rianne is a bit disgruntled as she seems to have the most insight into catering yet no one is really listening to her. She has chosen to do the turkey which is of course the center of the meal and it seems a few of the chefs do not trust she is up for the task. I think it is a great opportunity for her to prove herself after a couple of close calls on the chopping block. Team SP seems pretty confident, as most of the members of that team have been doing very well thus far. After a quick trip to the store the cooking gets underway. I would say that the most impressive showing is by Eugene. He actually used his brain and made a make shift roasting grill for his pork. I think that when this challenge was given to the chefs, the hope was that rather than restricting their cooking with toaster ovens, they would come up with creative ways to cook their food. I had some friends who made a roaster for a suckling pig this summer out of two metal gates and some cinder blocks. Chefs in general tend to have creative minds and it is fun to see them at work.

Other than that, the chefs just did the best they could with what they were given. There were not many super standouts, but it is Thanksgiving and I think it is best to stick with the classics and just execute them well. With the Foo Fighters, the vegan stuffing that Radhika made was the best dish of the evening while they were also happy with the little burnt marshmallows team SP had on the sweet potatoes. Arianne pulled through with the better of the two turkeys served which was great to see. Sure she was relieved not to be in the bottom two again this week. The bread pudding, however, was very dry and did not compare to Rad's stuffing and Daniel tried to sneak in some crunchy potatoes that had not cooked all the way. Much easier to get a potato soft in the microwave before you cut it. Seems time just got the best of him and as Tom pointed out he would have been better off making the decision not to serve them at all. That is a tough decision to make especially if that is your only offering to the table. Would you go home for serving nothing?

A bit of a struggle in the dessert area again seems to be the deciding factor. Hosea makes a decent fruit crisp and Fabio makes a pumpkin Tiramisu. I am not a pumpkin pie person but that Tiramisu looked light and delicious. A great alternative to the classic. Jeff attempts to change up the classic pie as well but not in a good way. The berries and pumkin did not seem to really compliment each other and the pumkin "mousse" was a strange texture which the Foo Fighter's did not quite get. Richard decided to make banana S'mores based on the rider listing bananas dipped in chocolate as a favorite of the band. I am a huge S'more fan but what he made did not really seem to resemble what I love about S'mores. Warm gooey marshmallow with melting chocolate on a crisp graham cracker. Makes me hungry just thinking about it. The dessert Richard wound up with just did not have the same effect, and the band was a bit turned off by the "spit" garnish. So team SP gets to go have a goof time at the concert while the Cougars have to hang in back and clean up. Kind of rough. Gives them a lot of time to wonder why the other team was chosen and who is going home. It was very close seeing as neither team was perfect and Arianne actually had the better turkey. Radhika's stuffing must have been damn tasty and the Cougar desserts must have lost them the fun night out.

At Judges' Table, Jeff is spoken very highly of by his teammates for his leadership skills. This is a big part of being a chef. It is not just about the food so although he put out two very mediocre dishes he pulled through by showing he has the ability to run a kitchen. Richard was just not able to hold on with the dish he put out this week. I am sure Tom will miss the weekly remarks on how hot he is. Looks like Team Rainbow is down to one but Jamie seems to be holding strong.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! Hope many of you are enjoying a tasty deep fried turkey!

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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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