Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Rolling With Role Reversal

The judges switch it up with a blind tasting. And Tom sheds light on what to expect from new judge Toby Young.

People think that I have a hand in the weekly Elimination Challenges. I generally don't, but this week was the exception to that rule. With Chef Jean-Christophe Novelli as guest judge, there would have been some sort of pastry challenge, but in light of my locker-room pep talk to the cheftestants last week, the other producers and I decided to scrap it and, instead, to implement a challenge that would accomplish two things:

The chefs had started this Season on good footing, cooking well in the first episode, but they seemed to be struggling after that. So the first thing we wanted was to give them a chance to cook whatever they wished with no restraints from us, to just lay it all out there. Second, whenever we criticized their food, this season's chefs tended to have looks on their faces that said that they thought we were just out of our minds. So we wanted them to taste each other's food and learn firsthand where the judge's comments were coming from.

And I'm pleased to be able to say that overall the dishes were better. As I've said before, the contestants tend to get bogged down in what the challenge is, to over-think it, and to forget that the point is to make great food. Here, the challenge was simply to make great food. Jeff's dish had nice components, all very good, but it seemed like amuses on a plate as opposed to a cohering dish. Radhika's soup was a bit overspiced, but I thought it was good. Fabio was getting a little overconfident. He should most certainly have checked his lamb; he would have had time to make it perfect. His pasta was great, the ravioli filling and mushroom sauce were all really good. Toby's analogy to British stars cast in a film in supporting roles and upstaging the lead actors was very apt for Hosea's dish. His vegetables were great, but the halibut was overcooked. And Jamie's dish was great. There's no rule that says she can't continue to make scallops, and her frequent decision to use them probably had a lot to do with the offerings available at Whole Foods Market while we were shooting the season. I thought the chefs' personalities came through; I thought their limitations did, too. Which leads me to the notion of judging blind. Since Season One, I've frequently been exhorted to judge blind, as though we may be influenced in our decisions about the food by our knowledge of who created it. As I've said before, we don't know what's going on behind the scenes all season (until we watch it much later, when it airs!), nor do we make decisions based on personalities. We just judge the food. But as this challenge proves, it makes no difference whether we are judging blind or not - though we were not told in advance of eating the food, it was pretty obvious pretty quickly, at least to me, who had cooked what. Even without even tasting the food, you at home would have known right away that the Indian food was Radhika's and the Italian food was Fabio's. (As with Jamie's scallops, there was no reason Radhika couldn't continue to infuse her food with an Indian sensibility despite her protestations in Episode One that she would not be doing so, or that Fabio couldn't continue to draw his selections from Italian cuisine.) And beyond that, having actually eaten everyone's food through six prior challenges, it was readily apparent to me right away who had made what. So much for "blind."

Toby and Jean-Christophe were the only ones at the table truly judging blind. As an aside, I think this was a good introduction to Toby. He's exceptionally witty and thought at first that he was being called on as a judge to use that wit and take potshots at the chefs, but he quickly realized that they were all very serious-minded about their food and about this competition, and he switched gears and began assessing the food in earnest. He's fun to work with and I know you'll enjoy him as the season progresses. Meanwhile, blind or otherwise, all of the judges were in accord about the two weakest dishes.

Interestingly, they were the weakest for opposite reasons, both involving creativity in cooking. Unlike last week's challenge, this one was not the producers' attempt to be creative but, rather, an open invitation to the chefs to be so; the contestants could not have had a greater opportunity to show us who they were as chefs. And Melissa gave us fish tacos. I stand by what I said at the Judges' Table.

Eugene, on the other hand, went in the other direction and was being creative for creativity's own sake. It would take a far more skilled and experienced chef than Eugene to find a way to make daikon meld well with basil and tomato. OK, he wanted to use it in lieu of a noodle - great. But that doesn't mean it can just be substituted for pasta. It still tastes radishy. I'm not saying not to try unconventional pairings. A dish by Pierre Garnier with duck breast, clams, and truffle comes to mind, for example, that was delicious. But that's because Garnier is both talented and seasoned enough to pull it off. Eugene is getting too far ahead of himself. He's not yet far enough along to connect those dots effectively. If he wanted to use basil, perhaps the daikon could have stood in for a rice noodle in a Thai-inspired dish. But what was nice to see was his willingness to take risks and push the envelope.

In general, I was glad to see the chefs step up their game this week and put more of themselves into their work. This week marked the midpoint of the season. Roughly half of the chefs are left, and now that they've tasted and judged each others' foods, let's see if that affects how they move forward from here...

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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