Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Bryan Voltaggio: The Good Son?

Bryan talks about his and his brother's relationship with guest judge Charlie Palmer. Charlie Palmer as guest judge: What was that like for you?
The first thing that was on my mind was the fact that the other chefs all know that both Michael and I worked for him. I was concerned that the chefs might be indifferent about the judging. That, however, was motivation for me to be sure that I brought my best game. I also wanted to be sure that I did not let my Chef down. I worked for him for almost 10 years; he gave me plenty of opportunity to grow in my career. He gave me the tools, inspiration, and confidence to open my first restaurant, VOLT. Having all of that on your mind also made me pretty nervous during those challenges. You said you thought Michael thought Charlie didn’t like him — why do you think that is?
Michael has always has said that. I think it is a little of the sibling rivalry showing. Michael worked for Charlie at Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg. Michael's style is a bit different than Charlie's so I know that they had many discussions about menus. There may have even been a "Hey, why don't you be a little more like Bryan?" every once in a while. However, Michael may be reading this for the first time, there were plenty of compliments from Charlie regarding the work Michael did in Healdsburg. I heard it a lot when he came to town in D.C. Michael is a good cook and Charlie saw that in him. Michael is just pretty stubborn sometimes and Charlie does not put up with a lot of crap. That can also sometimes create great things; differences of opinion breeds ideas. Hey, a Michelin star was awarded. Not to speak for Charlie, but I am sure he is proud to see both Michael and I here and where we have gone with our careers.

There may have even been a "Hey, why don't you be a little more like Bryan?" every once in a while. Pigs and pinot — how comfortable are you with pairing? Why did you choose the pinot you did? Michael shook his head at your choice; why did he do that?
I am very comfortable pairing wine and food. I had the opportunity when opening Charlie Palmer Steak D.C. to work with Keith Goldston. He is one of few Master Sommeliers in the country and we worked together on many dinners featuring wine makers where we paired multi-course menus. I am a student of wine as well. I spend a good amount of time researching, if you know what I mean. At my restaurant wine plays as much into our menus as the food; both have equal importance and are respected as so. So when we sit down to plan the Kitchen Menu where we pair beverages we put a lot of thought into the process. My Sommelier Neil Dundee has a knack for finding both fun and very food-friendly wines. We even keep a somewhat regular after-service blind tasting challenge between the two of us. Keeps us in tune and also sometimes lightens one or the other's wallet!

As for the choice in Pinot, when working for Charlie, I was introduced to Rochioli wines on the list in D.C. The list was all 50 states so there was a heavy concentration in California wine. So when I saw the Pinots I was very comfortable in the flavor profiles of most. For example Mischief and Mayhem is listed as a vertical on my list at VOLT, so I was familiar with that wine as well as most of the others. Rochioli however is very highly allocated so it was not on my list at the time. Proud to say it does now! So I went with a familiar wine that I also never get the chance to drink anymore!

I can answer the last part of the question pretty easily. Tom Rochioli and Charlie are friends, pretty much neighbors in Healdsburg. Tom has even been Charlie's boys' baseball coach as I remember. But keep in mind, Michael wanted that wine too. He just did not get the first choice! Everyone is just sooo anti-Robin at this point, but you seem to stay out of it. What was your relationship like with her?
I came here to cook is my position behind my behavior with the other chefs and the challenges. In my kitchen I don't let personal feelings get in the way of my goals and the goals of my team. Why would I change that now? I also believe that all of the chefs on this season deserve to be here. The experience levels are very different amongst the group; some push the envelope and don't succeed, some play it safe and stay under the radar. That's the game and I see a few of the chefs letting that part overwhelm them and it fuels confrontation. My relationship with Robin was good. I do respect her for her strength in overcoming her illness and keeping in under her control. It takes a lot of a person to do that. She should be proud of what she has accomplished so far. I do, however, know we have completely different views when it comes to cuisine, but that only makes our food different, not better or worse. Your brother said his food is riskier than yours — what’s your take on it?
Michael's food is different in some aspects yet similar in others. I believe we both have a great handle on fundamental technique. We are both classically trained and have worked in similar style kitchens during our careers. Michael uses the term risky. I don't believe that is the best way to describe the differences. Michael for example in the dessert challenge used flavors that did not seem to fit in with the challenge. His dish was great, I tried the ponzu and he dit it spot-on, really well balanced. I don't call that risky. I also know how to make a great ponzu. I think more into the guest's experience and sometimes leave my personal preferences off the menu. That could be the differentiation between our styles. Michael said he knows exactly what buttons to push with you and Kevin thinks Michael manipulates you — would you agree?
We know how to push each other's buttons. He just brought it up first. Remember, we have known each other for 30 years! Kevin's impression of our relationship is a little misguided. Michael and I support each other in all aspects of our careers and our personal lives. We are friends before brothers. Like I said about Charlie and Michael's relationship, sometimes opposite views foster more creativity, makes you think harder about the topic or issue. Just because we may have different views on things and Michael may express his opinions more openly does not necessarily mean I agree and or take his advice. I'm simply more reserved, take it all in, then process my own decisions. Anyway, why is Kevin so caught up in what we're doing? Would it have meant more to you to win this challenge behind judged by Charlie?
It would have meant a lot to win. It means a lot to win each challenge. The pigs and pinot event is something I am very familiar with because I worked for Charlie during the creation of the event. I would have liked the opportunity to go to Healdsburg and participate.It's a great event and my wife would have loved to opportunity to get back to wine country for a few days. How upset were you to see the exiting chef go?
Ash was fun to be around. He had this comedic approach to almost every challenge that just kept you laughing to yourself or sometimes uncontrollably out loud. I must say after the Picasso comment he might have checked himself out. I thought it was a great compliment but it seemed he was not expecting to go much further. I would not say I was upset more realizing that some of the people that I have become friends with will also have to go. Who do you think your biggest competition is at this point?
Myself. Why did u remove the bones from the ribs?
I removed the bones thinking I would present a small square block of braised pork rib. This would not only be easier to eat during the event with a fork especially accompanied by the puree and mostarda. The bone serves its purpose during the braising but could be left off the plate. I wanted to also take something that traditionally is served on the bone and plate it in a different more refined presentation.

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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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