Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Full Circle

Lee Anne Wong explains how difficult it was to prepare for the first finale challenges, and shares her thoughts on each dish.

I filmed finale a little over a month ago. To me, it was slightly sentimental, as I hadn’t been back to Napa since I had been eliminated four years ago, and this was to be my last two episodes as the culinary producer for the show. On Team Culinary, I had Weezy and Peder, Angie would be taking over for me so she was down in L.A. prepping for Top Chef Masters 2 while we were filming finale. Louise and I were both super-psyched to have Peder on board. He was with us in N.Y., and soon after got a job with Grant Achatz at Alinea. He was our guy who would eat all the worst Quickfire food from the N.Y. season for $3.

Napa’s a nice place. I used to visit wine country all the time (that last episode for me was technically the only time I’ve ever been kicked out of Napa). We set up home base at the Meritage and spent the next few days scouting locations, organizing the equipment we had shipped from Vegas, sourcing ingredients, and getting the order together for the final two episodes. Our first challenge was to build grape mountain on the Napa Valley Wine Train. This was not as easy as you would think. Apparently it had been torrentially pouring for two weeks in Napa and most of the local grapes had already been harvested and what was left was starting to rot and mold. There were no grapes to be found in Wine Country by pure chance of Mother Nature. Let me say, it was truly the perfect time of year to be in Napa with the leaves beginning to change color, but the overpowering stench of rotting grapes reminded me of what a nasty bar smells like in the morning after a busy night.

Anyways, I went to extreme measures to get a wide variety of grapes, including getting Crimson, Autumn Royales, Golden seedless, and Ruby Globe grapes. I had Chef Kelly from the Wine Train order both red and green Thomson grapes, as well as concords and a large variety of grape products including grape juice, jams, jellies, vinegars, wines, vines, leaves, vincotto, cheeses, and raisins. I sent Louise and our PA, Darren, to grab Kyohos, green globes, black grapes, and other grape-based products. Chef Sheamus Feeley of Long Meadow Ranch managed to sneak into some backyards and snip me some Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, and Nebbiolo grapes. It ended up working out, but it all happened within 24 hours. I shopped at Whole Foods in Napa to stock all of the extra proteins, dairy, produce, and products for the train.

We stashed all of the groceries and equipment at the train’s base Commissary kitchen the night before, which is about a mile down the tracks from the station where we picked the contestants. We had to get all the stuff on the train the next morning at 6 a.m. We started by getting our pots, pans, appliances, and tools on first and setting up the kitchen and pantry. Next we styled out the dining car train, grape mountain, and the food display, lastly bringing on the seafood and meat and setting it up on ice. By noon, we were all ready to go and the contestants boarded the train to start cooking. I remember peering out the window of the train as the Prius rolled up outside. Cars for Quickfires. Ridiculous.

Food porn: Kevin’s fromage blanc mouse was way too sweet and one-note. The honey overpowered the grapes and the entire dish lacked texture. Mike V.’s stuffed grape leaf was very good, having utilized the grape the most: the grape leaf, raisins in the couscous, the grape vine, grapes, and the Minus 8 reduction (I ordered the stuff cuz it’s the bomb.) Bryan’s hen was indeed overpowered by the bacon, but it was tasty. If you ask me, based on taste alone, I would’ve chosen Jen’s dish. I ate it about an hour after it had been sitting around in food porn. It was ice cold and still delicious. The clam and verjus broth was unctuous, and the rich chicken livers were complemented by the sliced grapes and mushrooms. It was a perfect dish in my opinion. When Chiarello was on Masters, he shipped down some grape leaves and grape vines when we had our signature dish swap challenge, so I think he really appreciated Mike’s integrated use of the grape product.

The Elimination Challenge had to be set up in two stages. During finale, I don’t have a base kitchen so we are usually working out of a cube truck and the production office. Our first challenge was to build an outdoor farm stand, which you saw on camera. I worked with Sheamus and Avia, Long Meadow’s manager, to order all the product for the market. Everything was sourced within 50 miles. It took us all morning to build and set up the market, styling everything out in baskets, boxes, and in coolers.  We started at 6 a.m., were ready to go by 2:00 p.m. and after finally pricing everything out and creating master price lists for the Long Meadow staff, we had built this beautiful outdoor farmers' market. The producers showed up with the contestants, camera crews and the rest of the production. We filmed arrivals and then the contestants shopped for 45 minutes. And then we tore it all down in about an hour. (Build. Destroy. Build. Destroy.) We had to pack all of the food back into their boxes and move the food back into the Long Meadow cooler because we’d be picking it up two days later to bring it to the final challenge. A good culinary producer always watches her budget. While we were doing this, Louise went with the producers and contestants to Brix to supervise the storage of their ingredients until the next day.

Early the next day we trucked all of our equipment into Brix and simultaneously set up the kitchen and the back lawn/service area with the assistance of Brix’s kitchen manager, Guillermo. For each chef’s station outside, we provided them with three electric burners, a cutting board, bus tubs and soap, serveware and cutlery, and two of the gorgeous Steelite chaffing dishes. The contestants had 4 1/2 hours in the Brix kitchen and then at the end of that time they had to be outside setting up their station for the last half hour.

Let’s talk food: Kevin’s dishes were good, but not perfect. I found his beets and carrots to be just a tad undercooked, but other than that, the dish was simple and striking. Now, the brisket situation perplexes me slightly. I know what he was trying to achieve, but he opted not to use the pressure cookers we provided, and even though the meat was not done, he tried to shred it. The muscular fibers of brisket are long and stringy, so I think he may have been able to achieve a more appealing level of “toothsome” had he sliced the meat thinly across the grain, as you would traditional brisket. The collagen would have still been springy, but at least it wouldn’t be like trying to chew through rope. His pumpkin polenta was tasty but his marinated root vegetables were unpleasantly raw.

Mike V. and his re-circulated eggs. I never shy away from a runny yolk, but undercooked egg whites? Not so much. While his egg dish was a wonderful combination of flavors, I agree that it was lacking in texture. His foie gras dish however, was ambitious, sophisticated, and well-executed.

Poor Bryan. He wins an Elimination Challenge again. Doesn’t even get a set of Napa-style knives.

Bryan’s ravioli was far and away the best dish of the night in my opinion. He stuffed it with Bellweather Farms’ sheep’s milk ricotta, and served it over a delicata squash puree with my absolute favorite mushrooms in the world: Hen of the Woods. Sure, it could’ve used a pinch of salt and pepper, but it was near perfect. The fig-glazed short rib was very good, and also could’ve used a pinch of salt. I agree that I wish there had been some more representation of figs on the plate but the meat was tender and the other components married well flavor-wise. Poor Bryan. He wins an Elimination Challenge again. Doesn’t even get a set of Napa-style knives.

And it was a sad but inevitable end for Jen. The minute I tasted the goat cheese mousse, I knew it had to be her going home. It was so salty, but beyond that, the radishes were not pickled but cooked in oversalted water. Her duck dish was flavorful, but really limp in texture. When the coals started to go out she could’ve added more. We showed them where the wood and charcoal was in the kitchen, so theoretically she could’ve still grilled the duck. Jen joins the No.4 club, six seasons and growing. She’s super-skilled and is far and away one of the most talented females I’ve had the pleasure to watch cook. Afterwards she had said to me that she was most afraid of disappointing Eric (Ripert), to which I responded, “You’re crazy. Eric’s already so proud of you.” Jen’s got a great attitude, and while she’s disappointed, as we all were, she knows she’s got nowhere to go but forward, and I hope I get to cook side by side with her one day.

Next week, (sniff!) my last…. In the meantime, check out my exploits to the Stone Brewery:

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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