Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Bryan Voltaggio: Return of the Mac-aroon

The winning chef talks about competing against his brother and the inspiration behind his crowd-pleasing dish. First, it’s the second episode, but what is your impression of the other chefs at this point?
I am very excited about the caliber of chefs this season. Even though I did not compete in past seasons, the resumes this year say a lot, so I am confident in saying that this year is different. We have several chef’s who have worked for some of the best chefs in the country as well as some who have achieved their fair share of accolades. After meeting everyone at the house and getting a sense of who’s who I still am very confident that I can hang with all of them.

Who do you think your biggest competition are after the first challenge?
The first challenge means a lot in retrospect — once the last plate is served and you finally catch a breath, you size yourself up against the rest of the group, if you're still there. The relay showed who had solid fundamentals, and or who has confidence in themselves. The Elimination Challenge demanded creativity and I saw a few embrace the challenge and some who did not even get it. I think at this time it still is too early to tell who to watch out for. All of the remaining chefs have their own talents and some are very well-rounded. This means the challenges themselves could pose problems and or help some prevail even if I believe they are not a threat. Your brother makes a comment in the episode that you’ve already accomplished what he hopes to — owning your own restaurant. Is there anything you would say that you still want to accomplish that you haven’t that your brother has?
In Episode 1, Michael mentions that he is my biggest fan when we are not competing against one another. I have to say I feel the same way. Michael has accomplished a lot of great things as well. He can claim a Michelin Star, and was part of the opening of the Bazaar that earned Jose Andres four stars — some great accolades. I know that Michael with patience will also open a place on his own.  OK — the Quickfire. It was all about the ingredients in this one, based on pure luck. What was the inspiration behind your dish?
It was a very quick decision. I simply took a classic yet familiar flavor combination and built the dish from that. I chose peas and carrots. Knowing that if I rolled a 10-12, I could add ginger, lemongrass, and many other complimenting flavors. Simple — if I rolled a lower number, peas and carrots are good on their own. Your brother won the Quickfire, but you said he sometimes relies too much on techniques (molecular gastronomy presumably), were you worried that he did that here?
You know that was a clever move. I give him a lot of credit for pulling out the nitrogen first. Scares the rest of the group who has never even seen it, proves to the rest this guy has been around. And with something so simple as gazpacho, he elevated it to the next level. He deserved the win. Onto the Elimination challenge, what did you think of the whole concept of Battle of the Sexes?
Mike I. seems to be the expert on this topic, ask him. (Editor's Note: Ha!) What was the concept behind your dish? How often do you make it?
The macaroon is something that I use at my restaurant a lot as part of my canape course on my tasting menu. The idea is to create a very light flavored shell that is crisp so layers of texture can be achieved with a smooth puree or pudding. Using the idea of a margarita and chips and dip came from the bride. She said one of her favorite places in L.A. to eat was a restaurant with authentic Mexican cuisine. Naturally I thought, "How can I take the tequila shot and change it into a margarita with my dish?" Furthermore, why not add the thought of tortilla chips and guacamole; the combination is classic. I must say that normally these macaroons in the Mid Atlantic using a dehydrator takes about 10 hours to prepare; I took a huge risk trying to pull this off. I relied on the environment, being in the desert to dry the macaroons overnight. Were you worried at all the play on “chip and dip” wouldn’t translate?
I was at first; there was a lot of explaining to do here. But I then thought if I just make it taste good and pair well with the tequila then if the concept did not go over well at first, then maybe I would get a second chance to explain at Judges' Table. That is the goal anyway — the food should just make sense and taste good. Traditionally, food is paired with wine — how familiar are you with pairing with cocktails or liquor?
I like the idea; there are so many different things you can do with a cocktail and liquor. Take bourbon for example, the toasted wood, caramel notes, vanilla, so many flavors to build from. At my restaurant we have a 21-course menu. The table has four seats and is literally in the kitchen. The opening course is a cocktail that changes with the season which is typically built around a classic food flavor combination.

Was this aspect difficult?
No, I thought the challenge was a lot of fun. You had to think out of the box a bit. What did you think of the rest of the food offered?
I try not to get too caught up in other's dishes. I saw a few I really thought made sense conceptually, but taste and the judges' perception is what matters most. What did you think of the judges’ comments?
I thought the comments were well thought out; not trying all of the dishes it is hard to compare critique. However it seemed that they really spend a considerable amount of time deliberating on who is on top and who is on bottom. It gives you a good feeling that it is really about the food!

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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