Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

A Whetstone from Good Meat

Gail: Mei's Menu Was Almost Flawless

Make Top Chef Mei Lin's Winning Dessert!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Make Mei's Sushi Style Guac!

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

Make Melissa's Mom's Egg Custard

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Make Mei's Inspired Duck a l'Orange

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

A Whetstone from Good Meat

The farm fresh challenge really hits close to home for Tom Colicchio as he reflects on the conception of Craft.

"A clever cook, can make....good meat of a whetstone." -Desiderius Erasmus, Dutch priest and scholar (1466?-1536)

And if they try to be too clever, they can make a whetstone from good meat.

This was an interesting episode, insofar as the Quickfire Challenge required cooking with the worst of ingredients while, in contrast, the Elimination Challenge provided the opportunity to work with the very best available anywhere. As Jamie said in dismay upon learning of the Quickfire Challenge, without great ingredients it's hard for chefs to do good work. This could not be more true.

It was my time in France over 20 years ago, working in the kitchen of Michel Bras, that taught me this lesson; what I began at Mondrian and continued at Gramercy Tavern really culminated in my conceiving of and opening Craft, which was created to focus on the ingredients and create meals that honor them. And, in doing so, it also honored the farmer. I work closely with farmers of small, local farms, and I make it a point to visit the farmer's market as often as possible, always striving to get the food from the ground to the table as quickly as possible. Being at the forefront of the Farm-to-Table movement, I have been so glad to see chefs like Dan Barber pick up the mantle, so I was excited that this week's Elimination Challenge would bring the cheftestants to his exceptional farm to cook. He and the farmers of Stone Farms, as well as we Top Chef judges, were really looking forward to seeing what the chefs would do with all of the amazing produce and lovingly raised animals. We were all let down. The ethos at Craft is to take the finest ingredients available and prepare them as simply as possible, so that the flavors and textures of the ingredients themselves will shine. "Cooking simple" is like walking a tightrope without a net -- simplicity isn't as simple as it seems, because there's nothing to cover up mistakes; there are no heavy sauces to hide behind. It requires forethought about how best to help the ingredients sing. It requires skill and precision, and, of course, an abiding reverence for the elements themselves.

When animals are raised as they are at Stone Hill and are fed the right ingredients, you don't need to do a whole lot to them. You don't want to remove the flavor -- and moisture-rich fat from the pork -- that made no sense to anyone. And even worse, you don't want to take a beautiful leg of lamb, which was as tender as such meat could be, and do what Ariane did to that lamb. It was completely hacked up and then rolled. A chef would usually roll lesser ingredients, but here there were these muscles you'd want to keep intact. Ariane's treatment of the lamb showed no respect whatsoever for the animal that died to feed everyone. It was more than disappointing, it was upsetting, most of all to the farmers who had worked so hard to raise the produce and animals. It felt to them like their work just wasn't honored. The irony of Ariane's losing the Elimination Challenge with the very protein that had won her prior challenges is not lost on us. But the work of each chef is judged anew in each successive challenge, and while I certainly overstated in the first sentence of this blog, Ariane's performance this week made her the clear choice for elimination from the competition. I'm not thrilled that Leah and Hosea kicked back and did nothing while that meat was both literally and figuratively butchered right in front of them, but at the end of the day, she is the one who did the actual damage. I will make one more point that did not come across in the episode, about Jeff's choice to make fried green tomatoes. I appreciate when a chef uses something that would otherwise go to waste and manages to create a fine dish. But this episode was shot at the height of tomato season. There is a narrow window of time in which to get a remarkable tomato. This was that time, and the vine-ripened tomatoes at Jeff's fingertips were among the finest to be found anywhere. Dishes with green tomatoes are usually made at the very start of tomato season before they've ripened or at the tail of the season with those that never did. So while I commend the impulse to create with ingredients that might otherwise be overlooked, I question the judgment of doing so under these circumstances.

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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