Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

TC/DC

Bravotv.com's Senior Editor talks about her trip to D.C. and breaks down the season premiere.

We're back my little cherry blossoms! My, how I've missed all of you so much. I hope you're as excited as I am to start another season together, dishing on the competition, and all the behind-the-scenes info I'm allowed to share.

First, let me begin by saying that I had the pleasure of going to D.C. a few months ago for Hypefest -- this is Bravo lingo for the time where we all get together for a couple days to do photo shoots, shoot on-air promos, video extras, etc. We hadn't announced where this season would be yet (although some might say it was the worst-kept secret in TV), so I couldn't share all of my fun foodie experiences at the time! But now I can! I finally got to enjoy some delicous burgers and shakes at Spike's Good Stuff Eatery. Spike's super-sweet sister, Micheline, met us and pretty much let us try whatever we wanted, so we obviously went a little nuts. Here I am with our West Coast video predator (that's producer/editor) Galen Newton indulging in the delicious Toasted Marshmallow hand spun milkshake. Yummy!

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I also got to ham it up on the Top Chef on-air promo set, which was truly a highlight:

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As you can tell I really geeked out while I was there. I had also hoped to make another trip to Bryan Voltaggio's VOLT, but unfortunately time didn't allow for it. Next time! (If you remember from last season, I can't go an entire blog post without mentioning Bryan.)

OK -- enough about me -- onto the show! Can I just say something about the opening credits? Did you notice the Food & Wine magazine cover used during the prize description? It's BEAUTIFUL! I know that sounds nuts, but it was the cover from a couple months ago with tacos on the cover. It was literally so pretty I sent an e-mail to Gail Simmons after mine arrived in my mailbox to tell her how striking it was! And now, it's on the show.

OK -- now really onto the show: we really didn't waste any time this season, starting with the Mise en Place Relay Race, and it looks like we decided to keep the High Stakes Quickfire Challenges inspired by Top Chef: Las Vegas. This one was worth $20K. Besides Amanda cutting herself, there were no major injuries, except to people's egos. It quickly became clear that Kenny and Angelo were the ones to beat. After peeling potatoes, chopping onions, and breaking down chickens, the chefs had to create a dish from the ingredients. My parents used to make a killer potted chicken dish with just these three things ... and maybe some paprika. You can make the best one-pot wonders with just some chicken, potatoes, and onions. Our chefs went the more refined route, and Angelo won over Tom's palate. I actually have yet to eat at Angelo's sandwich shop, Xie Xie, right here in Manhattan. I'm sure that will change in the next few weeks! Also, Angelo's kind of a looker. For some reason he reminds me of Pat Monahan, lead singer of Train. Anyone else? Just me?

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs had to cater an event and create dishes inspired by their hometown. This was a great challenge because it reflected the chefs' personalities, and where they're from, which honestly is helping me remember who's who! Meeting helped me with this as well, but, again, if you've read this blog before you know I love to mix up cheftestants, so please don't yell at me about it. It hurts my feelings, and it's not intentional. I kid, I kid -- yell at me all you want!

The Elimination was also interesting because the top four Quickfire chefs had to choose the chefs they would compete against, dodgeball-style. Except, instead of choosing the strongest chefs to compete with, they would select the chefs they deemed the weakest. Mean.

I won't go through every single dish, but let's talk about the ones that stood out. Well, first, let's talk about John's, which unfortunately got him sent home. John's a really, really nice guy. I'm sure you could tell when he congratulated Angelo on his Quickfire win even after Angelo selected him to be one of the easier targets for the Elimination. This guy is a sweetheart and his hair is really, really long. He made maple cream puffs inspired by Michigan. Is it wrong that I had no idea Michigan was known for their maple syrup? Oh well -- you learn something new every day. Not only were the judges not able to taste the maple, but John didn't make his own pastry. Didn't he watch Chef Academy and learn how to make choux pastry? Guess not. Farewell, John.Jacqueline landed herself in the bottom by attempting to make a low-fat mousse. Um. This seemed like an oxymoron to me and to Eric Ripert (we'll get to him in a sec) and, well, all the judges. She might have been able to pull it off, but her mousse was grainy. Timothy also found himself in the bottom, which shocked him. Apparently his sauces were bland and the skin on his fish shoudn't have been there. Timothy and Chef Ripert have actually worked together before a long, long time ago, and Timothy does a fairly amusing Ripert impression. Stephen Hopcraft also landed himself in the bottom with his potato-crusted ribeye. I love potatoes. I love ribeye — it's probably my favorite cut. But this didn't look too appetizing. Eric compared the presentation to a chicken nugget. As much as I love a good 10-piecer, this wasn't a compliment. One word on Stephen: he is HILARIOUS. We shot another Slice and Dice Showdown video series this season (will be up on the website later this week), and he had me cracking up. I wonder how much of that side of him we'll get to see on the show.

OK -- now on to the good stuff: Kevin's lamb dish sounded tasty. Although I tend to steer clear of meyer lemon anything because I find it cloying, I think the pistachio in his marmalade might have swayed me. Kenny's trout dish got criticism for being complex, but I probably would have ordered it. I tend to order dishes more for what they come with than the protein itself, and I'm all about a good polenta. Then there was Alex with his borscht. I honestly don't ever think I've had borscht. I've been around it since before I can remember -- my parents would order it at every meal at Kutschers up in the Catskills on family vacations (where my Long Island Jews at?), and my mom would keep a bottle of it in the fridge. It just never appealed to me. But, I've recently developed an affinity for beets, so I'll let you know when I finally try it. The judges seemed worried about Alex attempting deconstruction, but he pulled it off. I think he had the best idea of the bunch. And, if you haven't noticed, I base a lot of my judgment on whether or not I would order the chefs' dishes at a restaurant; I am a paying customer in the end. Finally, we had Angelo's artic char. Being from Connecticut I had no idea what would inspire him. Nothing instantly comes to mind when I think of Connecticut, but Angelo talked about stream fishing and went for it. He wowed with his artic char which seemed to have tapioca caviar similar to the one we saw from Andrew quite often on Top Chef: Chicago. Angelo probably would have won me over with the bacon froth. Even though he wasn't in the top because of how the teams worked out, according to both Gail and Eric, Arnold's Kaffir Lime dessert was a hit too. I'm a big fan of Kaffir lime anything. Just a couple weeks ago, I had the Kaffir Lime Margarita at Top Chef Master Anita Lo's newly re-opened Annisa. You must go eat there, and you must get that drink!

So, if you look at the trajectory of pretty much every other season, Angelo seems to be the one to watch, but I I dont know — think because of how the first teams were chosen we didn't see some strong chefs in the top because they weren't necessarily the best in their team, but would have been overall. Anyway, I think we're off to a strong start, and I'm excited to see how the next episode shakes out.

Before I leave you for this week, I just want to say how much I'm enjoying Eric Ripert's presence. I gotta say, I liked Toby — he was a pleasure to work with and his blogs cracked me up. But Eric is certainly a welcome edition. I have the joy of filming him weekly for his new video blog, and he is gracious and professional. I was almost a little starstruck him when I first met him in D.C., but that has obviously subsided. I hope you all find him to be a welcome addition to the Judges' Table.

So, tell me: Who are you rooting for? Where have you been eating?!

Leave your comments below, and if you care to stalk me a bit and find out where I'm eating, friend me on foursquare. (And, of course, friend Bravotv on foursquare too!

Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Hugh Acheson weighs in on the finale showdown between Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet.

There is always a Top Chef winner but obviously some seasons have a less experienced assemblage of chefs, while others have veritable US Olympic-caliber culinary practitioners. (Congrats to Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or competition by the way! Silver! Silver!)

This particular season of Top Chef could have been a contest of mediocrity, but it bloomed into something very skilled and mature, which is good for judging, but makes writing a blog with poop jokes and rap humor very difficult. I have to say, I was a little worried at the beginning that the whole chef squadron was a little shaky. But early retreats by chefs with bigger egos than culinary skillsets allowed the true talent to rise without being malevolent fools. And that talent really was there. By mid season we were eating their visions on the plate, while watching them battle it out over the food and just the food.

The two most successful chefs of the season made it to the end, and they are ready to rumble in the most respective way they know how. One will plate most of their food on the side of the plate, incorporating Korean flavors and modern technique into the vittles, while the other will weave a more classic story and put food more in the center of the plate like regular people. Should be a good show no matter what, because at the end of the day, it’s just hard not to be really enamored with both of them. They are good people.

Gregory and Mei start out on a hot air balloon ride, because that’s how I like to start every day in Mexico. The country looks beautiful to me even if you are in a basket hoisted hundreds of feet into the air by hot air. The hotel I stayed in was the Casa di Sierra Nevada, which was AWESOME, so if you are looking for a vacation, go there. It's no party town, but it is plenty fun. Great food scene. And to put safety into perspective, I felt safer wandering around St. Miguel than I do my hometown. Anyway, the balloon ride looks like fun and allows for that finale moment of almost tearful reminiscence and contemplation.

So their balloon ride lands in a vineyard, and Tom and Padma are waiting to put a halt to this sentimentality. The task is put forward and the challenge, this final culinary joust, is to create a meal that is the meal of their lives. They pick their two sous chefs per person; Gregory picks Doug and George, while Mei picks Melissa and Rebecca.

They prep their menus after a good night’s sleep. The prep I will not talk about too much, but suffice it to say that each team seems very pro and super on top of things.

Traci des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, Gavin Kaysen, and Donnie Masterton are dining with us, all of them amazing chefs. Like amazing amazing. The kid’s table, at which I am the head, is made up of Sean, Traci, Gavin, and Gail. It is a super table. At the table I decide to hold true to the tourist warning of not drinking the water. I thus only drink wine and the phenomenal beauty of Casa Dragones tequila, a concoction that will make me sleep soundly (but probably by dessert) on the table.

Mei hits us with an octopus that I really, really like. It resounds with flavors of coconut, avocado, and fish sauce. It is deep. The only flaw is that maybe it is a bit over done. The over cooking made it kind of crunchy and she could easily have been cooking it to that point on purpose. Second course from her is a congee, with peanuts, carnitas, egg yolk, and hot sauce. It is so f----ing delicious. Like stylized comfort food that you just want to eat all the time. Comfort food, when perfect, is perhaps the hardest food to cook, because it is by definition food you are very familiar with, resulting in people having a lot of preconceived notions about it. This congee would have silenced all critics on congee. It was that good.

Mei is gliding through this meal. She has palpable confidence, but is still a nicely soft-spoken leader. In my years of watching people lead kitchens, I have always been more taken with the allegiance that soft-spoken leaders cultivate in their staffs. Her third course is a duck course, and like the congee, she has cooked duck at least twice this season, but in entirely different ways. This duck has kimchi, braised lettuce, and huitlacoche on the plate. Huitlacoche is corn smut, a term I just yelled in a coffee shop, making everyone uncomfortable. It is a good plate, but my refrain about duck skin continues. It was a bit chewy. All in all, the dish just was texturally challenged. It needed a crunchy texture. But it was good still. Her last is her version of yogurt dippin’ dots with strawberry-lime curd, milk crumble, and stuff. It was blow-you-away amazing. Very complex, but very successful. Tom says it is the best dessert on Top Chef he has ever had, and I definitely concur, though he has tasted many more than I have. The toasted yogurt base was amazing.

Gregory steps up with a brothy octopus with cashew milk, fresh prickly pear, and also xoconostle, which is the dried version of prickly pear, kind of like a prickly pear fruit roll up. It is a strong dish, and may be the winner in the Octopus Olympiad. His second was a strange soup that was redolent with flavor until you choked with a shrimp head lodged in your gullet. Strange and a little unrefined for me, and pretty much everyone else. It was a wanted textural element, but made a rustic soup weird. The whole dish needs to be compared to the comfort food of Mei’s congee, and in that context it is no contest.

Third course from Gregory is a bass with carrot sauce, tomatillo, vegetables, and pineapple. It is a strange dish. I am worried for Gregory at this point. It is not like the dish was bad, but the dish was just not a winner winner. Well, let’s not rest on that notion, because his next and final course is a stone cold stunner. Simple short ribs in mole with sweet potato. It is purity on the plate and equal to the idea of Mei’s congee in nailing comfort food. Kudos. He’s back on track. This is a close contest.

Judges' Table comes and we deliberate. I am not going to mince words and hold off on this: It is really close, but this season’s winner is definitely Mei. Well deserved. Gregory is the consummate pro in placing second and is going to be a force to be reckoned with in this restaurant world. His win versus addiction and his success in cooking shows one tough person with oodles of talent.

Mei. Mei. You rock. You are a chef’s chef. You make food that excites and makes us ponder. You are a leader and a super cool person. You are the winner and will always be a winner. Onwards.

Until next season. I loved this season. Thanks BOSTON. And thanks San Miguel di Allende. You are awesome places to work.

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