Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

“And the Title Goes To...”

Gail: Mei's Menu Was Almost Flawless

Make Top Chef Mei Lin's Winning Dessert!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Make Mei's Sushi Style Guac!

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

Make Melissa's Mom's Egg Custard

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Make Mei's Inspired Duck a l'Orange

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

“And the Title Goes To...”

Tom Colicchio breaks down the courses dish by dish, revealing Kevin as the clear winner.

A not-so-famous person famously said, in regard to the Best Actor category in the Oscars, “[i]f you want to know who the best actor is, let them all play Hamlet. Otherwise, it doesn’t make any sense.”

Makes sense to me. And so Eric Ripert and I hit the food markets at the crack of dawn to pick proteins for the chefs to play with in this final challenge. We wanted a whole fish to feature in the fish course. The rouget was small and very fresh. We selected the slipper lobster because it’s a crustacean that most Americans have never cooked with. Of course, there’s nothing all that different about how it needs to be cooked, so it was a bit of a red herring (metaphorically!!!). I was hoping someone would pair the cuttlefish with the duck, but no one did. The duck was the most interesting of the proteins –- one could roast or confit the leg and roast the breast. Or one could make a stock, if he chose to remove it from the bone. The pork could have been used with the second or third course (but Angelo’s choice to use it with the first shifted the focus to the pork, featuring it instead of a vegetable, a poor choice). So there were plenty of options with these proteins, and plenty of opportunities to be highly creative in designing the courses, much as three different actors could have delivered three entirely different –- and equally valid and interesting –- interpretations of the Danish prince.

Let’s break it down course by course: As I mentioned above, Angelo’s first course did not actually complete the challenge. I liked that he made the noodles, but no matter how you slice and dice it, pork belly and noodles do not a vegetable course make. Ed’s corn dish was good but not great. Whereas Kevin took a relatively standard dish and gave it a lot of flavor. It was extremely well made, and hands down the best of the three, with Ed’s in second place.

So, the first course standings: First place: Kevin. Second Place: Ed. Third Place: Angelo.

The second course also went to Kevin without a doubt. He prepared the rouget perfectly, used the clams well to flavor the broth, and employed an interesting technique with the tagliatelle of cuttlefish (Michel Richard was the first to use this technique, by the way). Kevin even used the ink of the cuttlefish in his dish. Angelo used the veggies in a nice way in his dish but it didn’t rise to the level of Kevin’s. And both the slippery lobster and the rouget were slightly overcooked in Ed’s dish.

Second course: First place: Kevin. Second place: Angelo. Third place: Ed.

Though Kevin’s duck was slightly better cooked, Ed’s creativity in creating a sausage of sorts from the duck neck gave him a slight edge in this course. The dish showed skill, talent, and ingenuity … and it was simply delicious. Angelo’s shooter was just weird –- it should have been a sauce. The marshmallow was too sweet for the dish, even though the cinnamon worked in the larger context. nd the whole dish came with far too many instructions, which is antithetical to a relaxed dining experience.

Third course: First place: Ed (by a nose…or a neck). Second place: Kevin. Third place: Angelo.

Angelo’s dessert was good, but was bordering on savory. Ed’s dessert might have gotten him by mid-season but was by no means a winner for a finale, where the chefs are supposed to be cooking the meals of their lives. Kevin’s, on the other hand, was sensational. He hollowed out the base of the dragon fruit and placed a perfect panna cotta there, he made a gorgeous sorbet of the dragon fruit, he diced the other exotic fruits small and served the whole thing ice-cold. It was really, really great.

A word about desserts: I simply cannot understand why, season after season, chefs like Ed do not arrive at the finals with a dessert up their sleeves, ready to be pulled out, not requiring much in the way of pastry skills, and second-nature enough not to require much thought. Even something as simple as a great chocolate soufflé, something they know they’ll be able to execute well. I believe that Kevin did exactly that – he arrived with the know-how to dash off a great panna cotta and found a way to integrate it into a dish, allowing himself to be inspired by the fruits he found. It was smart. In fact, it was sensational.

Fourth course: First place (by a landslide): Kevin. Second place: Angelo. Third place: Ed.

Need I tally the results? They’re clear. And it was clear that night, too. In fact, the winners of the prior seasons all said that they knew as the evening progressed that Kevin was the clear winner.

Now someone is sure to gripe that perhaps working with Michael Voltaggio gave Kevin an advantage. No. Kevin got lucky in being paired with Michael because they knew one another and had enjoyed working together in the past, but that’s the extent of it. One could just as easily argue, for example, that Angelo got lucky in being paired with Hung, who worked quickly and efficiently while Angelo was flat out. Folks will also argue that Angelo was disadvantaged by being sick. Surely. But would he have won had he been well? I don’t think it would have made a difference. Kevin’s food was the best we’ve had in any finale. It was exciting.

Truly. All three of these chefs won some challenges and lost some along the way. Perhaps this is because they were the strongest among weaker contestants and were playing to the level of the whole crowd. Maybe it was gamesmanship. I don’t know, but clearly they stepped up their game coming into the finale. I’ve nitpicked here to explain why certain dishes succeeded over others. But they were all great dishes, well prepared by talented chefs. It’s just that Kevin’s dishes edged out those of his competitors that night.

Remember: It’s a game. People think there’s some perfect way to determine “the best chef,” whatever that means. If we just wanted to ascertain who was the best chef, we could simply go to their restaurants. That’s not the goal here. The goal is to determine a winner to a game, and we’re playing according to the rules of the game at hand. In this game, one dish will send you home. It’s a game that includes cooking skill, creativity, gamesmanship…and timing. You might have the weakest dish on the winning team one day and stay, while a stronger dish is the weakest of the losing team, so the chef that made that one goes home. You might have an off day – oh, say, perhaps, that your mussels freeze and they were a key component in the dish you’d planned –- and you go home. That’s the game. All three chefs cooked their hearts out at the finale, but everything came together for Kevin, and he won the game.

After a season in which the cooking perhaps was not as consistently high caliber as that of last season, this was an incredibly exciting finale, and, I’ll say again, Kevin’s food was the best we’ve had in any finale ever. Congratulations to our three finalists and an extra congratulations, Kevin.

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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