Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Bait-n-Switch

Tom Colicchio explains that the ultimate outcome may not have been as close as you think.

If you’re left scratching your head after the finale, you’ve come to the right blog. I was actually there in Napa in October, at the table eating the food, discussing it there and at the Judges’ Table, and yet based on how the episode was cut, it had me wondering up until the end whether my memory had failed me or not. It hadn’t. I think that what we have here is a classic case of building drama, of not tipping one’s hand, of leading the viewer (or misleading the viewer!) to keep the suspense till the final moment. Allow me to share a bit of what didn’t make the final cut:

I want to start by reiterating something I wrote last week, something that Kevin actually echoed in this week’s episode. This year’s finale put to the test four outstanding young chefs. None is a finer chef than the others. On any given day, any one of the four could have beaten the others; it was just a question of to whom the day would go that particular day. 

You’ll notice that in keeping with their high degree of professionalism, the chefs all helped each other where necessary. For example, Michael pointed out to Kevin when something was starting to boil over. He just couldn’t help himself: When you’re in the kitchen, whether you’re a chef or a cook, and you see something – anything – going amiss, it’s your responsibility to point it out. So these chefs couldn’t stop for the sake of the competition. They helped one another all the way through. And while they did so habitually, I believe they also did so because while they each badly wanted to win, they wanted their competitors to do their best as well. They wanted to beat their competitors on the strength of their own dishes rather than through errors in the dishes of the other two.

In our first season, when there were only two finalists in the final episode, the judges sat down for each contestant’s meals separately.  With three chefs, this would take far too long. Nonetheless, I do wish the contestants’ dishes had been staggered this season, even by five minutes, rather than presented all at once for each course. Also, I don’t believe four courses are enough for a final challenge; I think they need to be asked to make a fifth.

That said, though, we had four courses to compare and contrast, so let’s.

Kevin’s first course dish was remarkably flavorful and told a great story. To all of us it seemed more like an amuse or a canapé than a full first course, but the puree was really great, the chicken skin was crispy, all the elements were truly wonderful. (I could get more technical than “great” and “wonderful” but those are the terms the dish inspired.) So while yes, he could have worked chicken into the dish as well and made it more robust, in my opinion, it was hands-down the best in terms of flavor of the three dishes presented.

Bryan’s sardine dish was very bland. Apart from the sardine itself, nothing seemed to have a lot of flavor. And Michael’s first course was not his strongest. He tried to stay true to the idea of making a likeable dish of something he hadn’t liked as a child, but the prawns were overwhelmed by the broccoli, and the dish needed acid. I disagree with those at the table who felt the prawns were undercooked – I actually thought they were cooked perfectly, and the broccoli was properly crispy. Everything was well seasoned and well-executed, but conceptually, the dish didn’t quite work. So, for me, Course One went to Kevin.

As for the second course, Kevin’s matsutake mushrooms were a bust. They were far too tough to eat. You must slice a matsutake thin. In fact, it’s often served raw. But other than that, the broth was beautifully done and the rest of the dish was very good. Bryan’s dish looked beautiful and used everything inventively, but there was not a lot of balance. Everything was one-note and very soft, texturally (when you sous-vide fish, it tends to be soft). Nothing really sang out.  It was a solid dish, but it wasn’t exceptional.

Michael’s dish, on the other hand, did sing. I disagree with Gail about the tomato – I thought it was great. The sweet and sour flavor woke up the whole dish. We’d handed the chefs a lot of autumn ingredients. The ingredients, on the whole, were strong for the fish and crab. With that tomato, Michael added that extra bit of acid it needed. Course Two: clearly Michael.

So far: Kevin 1, Michael 1, Bryan 0, going into the third course.

Here was the chef’s opportunity to define themselves as chefs without limit or restriction. And here’s where a fine chef can have an off moment. Kevin knows pork, yet his pork belly wasn’t cooked long enough. And I believe that while it was a fine dish, it needed more – Kevin needed to go a little further with that dish than he did.

Bryan’s venison was his best dish of the night, and it was an excellent dish. The venison was well-cooked, and Bryan extended himself in preparing each vegetable two ways and did so very well. 

However, as good as that venison was, Michael’s squab was just a little bit better. The faux mushrooms were playful, a bit silly.  They didn’t need to be there – why bother, when everything was so fine? That said, though, they didn’t hurt the dish a jot – it was absolutely delicious. Without a doubt, we all felt it even beat Bryan’s venison by a nose. 

Kevin 1, Michael 2, Bryan still 0.

The desserts were all good. Kevin’s seemed like one a chef would make, as opposed to a pastry chef. What we knew but wasn’t apparent to the viewer watching the episode is that he was doing a play on Elvis Presley’s favorite ingredients – bananas, chocolate, bacon. People are putting bacon in desserts a fair bit right now, and it works, as long as the bacon isn’t overly cured or smokey. Michael’s dessert was really very delicious, even though he overcooked the ganache a bit. He knew he had done so, and that was unfortunate, but it didn’t overly harm the dessert, because the cake was still tasty and the other elements of the dessert worked really well. There were lots of little techniques in there that were used to great effect, and, overall, the dessert still worked. Of course, it was Bryan’s cheesecake dessert that was the best of the lot.  It was well-conceived, flawlessly executed, balanced, and great.

So at the end of the day, Kevin won the first course, Bryan won the last, and Michael won the middle two, giving him the ultimate win. The equation is pretty much that simple. 

Don’t be fooled by the fact that Kevin thought the day had gone to Bryan, or that Bryan’s venison dish was strong enough to plant a question in the minds of viewers, or even that we ended with Bryan’s winning dessert, leaving a strong last impression. When taking a step back and thinking over the entire meal, while Bryan’s dishes were certainly solid, while his dessert won and he made a strong showing with his venison course, Michael just hit higher notes all along the way throughout the meal. He just did.

While Kevin complained about Preeti being slow, he was merely blowing off steam. He’d be the first to say that she didn’t compromise his performance or contribute to his loss.

I’m glad the chefs’ moms were there, as I think that seeing their mothers when the chefs were at their peak of stress probably helped them get through it. It was also great that Kevin had his mother there when he realized he wasn’t going to win.

In the case of the four chefs who made it to the finale in Napa this season, I don’t actually think that winning the top prize will necessarily set Michael apart from the others, as I believe that all four will go on to have stellar careers. Now that the season is over, I, for one, am happy to be able to go to their restaurants and eat their food.

All in all, this was by far our best season. Hopefully the show will continue to attract this level of talent, and we’ll have a great Season 7. Thank you all for viewing, for reading, and – to those who have responded to this blog – for your thoughts and comments. Keep ‘em coming next season! Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year.

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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