Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Bad News Bears

Harold explains what he would have done in the cactus Quickfire and the camping challenge.

Let's dive right in. In the 5th episode the Quickfire ingredient was chosen by the audience and it was cactus. I definitely would have preferred to cook with cactus on that one. I would definitely not do snake. Snake is really hard, especially if you haven’t cooked it. I look at cooking rattlesnake the same way I look at cooking something like something like calamari. It’s tough and you have to cook it either really long or slice it really thin and cook it really quick.

I thought it was silly when we did something similar in the first season. I think we had to cook octopus and we were only given half an hour. I understand it’s challenging, but don’t set everybody up for failure!

I would have loved to do a cactus curry. That’s where I would have gone with it. Mike Isabella won this one with a cactus and tuna ceviche.  I wasn’t surprised people hadn’t worked with cactus before. The first time I think I worked with it was in 2000 when I was in Oaxaca, Mexico and I’ve never used it in my restaurant. I can imagine that if I hadn’t taken that trip I would have never used it before.

In the elimination challenge they went into the wilderness, which I thought was super-cool. I enjoyed watching it, but I would have been a cranky SOB doing that for sure. It was an unbelievable set-up for cooking though. Ceviche sends Mattin home and that dish is kind of a cop-out in my opinion. Plus, going outside changes everything. Don’t try to serve a cold fish outside like that. I don’t know the set-up was exactly, but if you’re going to serve a ceviche it has to be cold.

Tom spit out Robin’s grilled Caesar dish. I’ve had that dish done successfully at a beach restaurant in the Jersey Shore. It was a grilled Caesar Salad and I personally enjoyed it, but I had had a couple glasses of wine at that point… I probably would have eaten my hand. She served spoiled food and I don’t know if she had tasted it before it went out there. That’s bad news bears right there.

Brian won with a pork loin. Those flavors sounded really good. Mike went for it a little more with a dashi and black cod, which sounded better to me. At the same time, you need to know who you’re cooking food for. Cowboys, in my opinion, are going to really go for grilled pork as opposed to a dashi.

I also think more people should have cooked over the open flame. I don’t know they didn't because I totally would have. I consider myself kind of a meat cook and I would have been all over that. Get some rib-eye in there and forget about it!

That's it for this week!


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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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