Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Wedding Bell Blues

You asked. She answered. Stephanie Izard discloses her top three picks!

Hello all, sorry to have missed last week. As many of the chefs have to look forward to, I have been doing an obscene amount of traveling and though I am sure to have enough frequent flyer miles to go to China and back a few times, it sometimes becomes difficult to squeeze everything in. No complaints though as each day is a new adventure.

It seems that Ariane is beginning to have more confidence and is moving past some of her early mistakes. It is a different environment than any chef works in on a day-to-day basis and I think it takes some people a few episodes to adjust.

It is time for the palate test. This is one of the Quickfires that finds its way into every season in a slightly different way. This year, it is set up as almost a game show as the chefs have to call each other's bluff. I found myself wishing that is had been set up a bit differently so that each chef was required to name as many ingredients as possible. As it was, some chefs were able to move on to the next round without naming anything. I suppose that is the fun of playing BS.

The sauces chosen were classically made so that even if a chef could not pick out exact ingredients, they would know many ingredients based on what sauce they believed they were tasting. I loved Carla's comment about tasting flavors in her head. This is a trait that I believe all chefs possess and I have often tried to describe it when asked how I come up with dishes. I think most chefs can taste various components of a dish in their head and know how the end result will come together. Not that this in any way takes the place of tasting everything you make, but it is a nice preview. Stefan is certainly coming out as the most competitive and arrogant of the bunch. So far he has shown that he has the skills to back it up though so I do not have a problem with it. It does make all of the chefs feel that much better when they are able to overtake him. Hosea is able to beat him out in the final taste of the Mole as Stefan tastes tomato paste incorrectly. Pretty sure this is not going to ruin Stefan's confidence but Hosea had to feel pretty good knocking him out.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs draw knives with the obvious wedding theme of something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. Then in comes the beautiful bride, Gail Simmons. I have to say she is one of the sweetest women I have met throughout this experience and I wish her the best with her new marriage. Her husband is certainly a lucky man!

The "old" team of Hosea, Jeff, and Stefan decide to go with heirloom tomatoes. I thought this was a nice choice for both the relevance to "old" and also for the placement as first course. Stefan is certainly not afraid to voice his opinion which I can respect, though I was happy to see that the other boys trusted their own instincts and did not let him run the show. In the end when the dish was tasted, the women loved the sorbet which Jeff made and Stefan had tried to talk him out of. Others commented that Stefan's terrine was a bit under seasoned. Maybe Stefan will start to realize that he is not the only talented chef still standing.

I was not quite sure where the "new" team was going with this dish. Sushi does not really scream "new" to me at all. There were many missteps beginning with the sushi rice. Sushi rice is an art form all in itself. Most new cooks at sushi restaurants spend months only making rice so they can learn to perfect the craft. I am not going to claim to be an expert, but when the timer went off on the rice cooker, that rice needed to come out and be fanned until it cooled properly and was unable to carry over cook. The second mistake was deciding to use the rice anyway. A good chef needs to know when to throw away a component of a dish and either start again or make a new plan. Adding flavors to mushy rice is not going to make it any less unpleasant. It seemed that the team just had too many ideas and needed to streamline a bit. There was so much going on that the women had no idea how to even eat the dish. Though Eugene and Daniel had the most trouble with flavors and execution, Carla lacked communication skills. It was easy to tell she was uncomfortable with the direction of the dish from the beginning and she should have voiced that to the others on her team. It makes her just as at fault as the others. The "borrowed" team seemed to be headed up by Jamie. Though Ariane has proven to be gaining confidence, she still takes a bit of a back seat in the team challenge. Radhika also is a bit quiet and is still concerned about being seen as someone who only knows Indian cuisine. The truth is that she did grow up in a household where Indian food was the staple and I think she should embrace this. Of course she can and should branch out into other areas but when she focuses on Indian flavors she does very well. The entire group of women seem very pleased with this dish. Just from watching their reaction I could taste the bright flavors working well together to create a very harmonious dish.

On to the "blue" team. This does seem to be a tricky one seeing as, as Tom pointed out, there are no blue foods. I guess going into the deep blue ocean was the way to go. It seemed to me that the dish just lacked any creativity and love. A piece of fish over some chard with a corn puree is just not going to impress. The chefs had two and a half hours to prep the dish and I just can not imagine what they were doing this whole time. At the end of the day the fish was cooked properly and the dish tasted fine, but it just did not show any real thought or effort.

The "borrowed" team took the prize as the best dish of the day. The flavors worked well together, the lamb was cooked perfectly and the idea behind the dish showed that there was thought put into it. I will say that I was as shocked as Jamie was that Ariane was given this win. I would hope that any of the chefs could cook a lamb rack properly. I know that proper cooking technique is the biggest factor to Tom and I agree that it is key, but Jamie should have been given praise for her creativity and leadership. As for the bad news, the "new" team was clearly on the bottom. Though the 'blue" team lacked creativity, they at least put out an edible dish. The "sushi" dish was composed of many faulted components and in general just too many components. No one wants to look at a plate of food and be confused as to how they should eat it. It seemed that Tom was most shocked and concerned at the fact that Daniel could not see that the dish was a failure. It is good to stand by your dish at certain times, but when it is so clearly faulted a good chef must admit their mistakes and learn from them. Carla and Eugene were given a chance to do so.

I am getting excited to see where this all goes. Many people have been asking me who I think will win this season. I still have my top three picks of Fabio, Stefan, and Jamie but the race for fourth is pretty in the air. Plus you never really know as one mistake is all it takes.

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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