Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Most Exciting Restaurant Wars to Watch

Gail Simmons might not have been there, but she loved watching this week's episode from the comfort of a couch.

Bravotv.com: What did you think of the Quickfire Challenge this week?
I thought this was really difficult and clever. I think it proved the point that to build up to Restaurant Wars you have to understand the importance of relying on your team and trusting the people you work with. Ultimately, as much as this competition is about one specific chef, running a restaurant is about a team. If you don't have a team you can rely on, you're lost. The challenge was a really fascinating way to prove that point in the extreme. I think it really woke up the chefs. It forced them to understand how vital that really is. At first I thought it was ridiculous, but in the end I thought it was a smart exercise.

Bravotv.com: Jen's team wins and they have the choice to keep the money.
I'm sure they regret their choice but I'm glad they did it because it's a game and what's the point in playing it safe? You gotta be in it to win it!

Bravotv.com: What did you think about Rick Moonen as a guest judge?
Rick has been cooking in this country for a long time and he's a champion of sustainable seafood. He's a seafood guy first and foremost. He was the chef at Oceana for years and really brought that restaurant it's fame and glory. Now he's in Las Vegas with RM Seafood and he's been an advocate for sustainable seafood in America. It's easy to find out what fish is the best choice locally and aren't on the brink of extinction due the human hand, and make those choices accordingly so we can eat and live better. You want to choose fish and seafood that's good for you as much as good for the earth. I thought he was a good judge for this challenge and I thought it was great that they highlighted that. 

Bravotv.com: Let's talk Restaurant Wars. This year they didn't have to be in charge of the décor or building the restaurant itself.
That was something that needed to happen. They just get too stretched to the maximum when they have to concentrate on building the actual restaurant. If we could give them a week it would make sense, but every year that becomes the issue that takes too many cooks out of the kitchen. The point is to have them work on the line with a concept and to build a menu together and serve it to a room of staggered service. That's way more important. Having it take place in an established restaurant with all the facilities had the same effect because you still had to direct service, manage reservations, seating, and everything in the front. You did not have to deal with building the physical space, which has nothing to do with the real competition.


Bravotv.com: Let's start with Revolt. First of all, what did you think of the name?
The name was horrible. I understand that it signified a revolt or a revolution but everyone else was just thinking of the word revolting. Revolt is revolting. You're not judged on your naming abilities though.

Bravotv.com: First course was Michael's Chicken and Calamari Pasta and Smoked Arctic Char.
They loved the chicken dish. It sounded delicious! People get down on chicken but it's making a comeback. In the time where people are looking for simplicity, chicken is a satisfying choice and it's a versatile meat. Don't be hatin' on the chicken! They did a great job. The char seemed a little bland. Yes, that was Eli's dish, but he didn't plate it and that's the complicated part about being in that role. This is exactly where their Quickfire came into play.  The same thing may happen when you are on the line in the heat of service. There are going to be moments where you need to relinquish control a bit and let someone on your team finish your dish even though it may not come out exactly how you would have liked. You have to trust the people you are working with and communicate so you are all on the same page for the end result.

Bravotv.com: Michael got a little testy with Bryan in the kitchen over the cod dish.
When you're working in a stressful situation in a team with a competitor who is also your ally it's really difficult. If one of them happens to be your brother you can sort of take licenses with each other, but you can also get angrier because the little things they do might bother you more than other people. You also love them unconditionally so you might treat them differently than other people, and that's a really interesting dynamic. They're both really strong personalities and there's a lot of ego in the history there.

Bravotv.com: Then we get to the dessert.
That's where Robin and Michael had their little face-off. They're both to blame. Michael was being especially harsh on Robin because he was annoyed with her and he couldn't help himself. She had her back up against the wall, was probably already feeling like people were coming down on her, and wanted to prove herself. Her mistake was that she picked the wrong time to prove herself. The moment a dish needs to go out to a customer is not the time to stamp your foot and say me, me, me.

Bravotv.com: Did you think it was risky that Bryan made that Ganache?
I think it wasn't very creative that he chose to do the same thing he had done in a Quickfire, but he knew he could execute it well. 

Bravotv.com: Tom said it was the best restaurant in all six seasons of Restaurant Wars. What do you think about that?
It was the most exciting Restaurant Wars to watch. They're always exciting, but the most exciting part is that you saw two really balanced teams and it was very fair. You really had no idea how it was going to turn out. You saw them do so well, and you just felt so great about it, or at least I did! It's hard because I wasn't a judge in this episode, but it seemed they put out solid food and a restaurant they could be proud of. That is a huge feat because they did it in an enormously stressful and limited period of time. It's an incredibly difficult challenge.

Bravotv.com: Let's talk about Mission. Jen was responsible for both fish dishes.
That's her specialty and I don't think she did herself justice. She made some errors because she ran out of time. Her first dish, in theory, could have been a great dish. But she steamed the mussels and clams to order and that wasted an enormous amount of time. That took time away from everything else she had to do and it was a mistake. Her seared trout just seemed to totally fall apart. It didn't look appealing, so I can't imagine it tasted appealing either.


Bravotv.com: Tom made a comment that Chef Ripert wouldn't have been pleased.
You know, she has set that bar really high, and that's one of the reasons why we were disappointed in her and this team. At the end of the day we have expectations and we want them to succeed. After all, this was a team of four solid cooks. When they all make mistakes like that and the judges know they are capable of better it's an even greater disappointment and I think that really showed on this challenge. Jennifer's a tough cookie and she admitted she was broken. They knew before Judges' Table that they had a lot to explain.

Bravotv.com: Do you think that part of the problem was lack of leadership?
I don't think that was the problem here. I think they probably could have communicated with Laurine better though. The issue wasn't really about leadership, it was an issue that stemmed from other things. Their cooking issues had nothing to do with that. I'm sure Jennifer and Laurine could have communicated more, but I don't think it would not have changed the results. It was Laurine that ultimately went home.

Bravotv.com: Judging purely as a viewer, do you think it was her time?
I'm just a viewer in this. I don't really know how long they waited for their food and all that. We didn't see all of service, but it sounded like she was pretty frazzled. She placed the food on the table and walked away, barely checked on them. Eli was so present and eager, and he took the time to explain things. She should have been on her game and she was overwhelmed. Again, it was an even playing field here. Eli's team had the same amount of diners, same circumstances, and the same amount of time. All things considered, when they're laid out side by side, Laurine just did not do a good job. It’s too bad because she is a good cook. She will missed.

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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