Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Culinary Crossroads

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

Culinary Crossroads

Did you know eating was Singapore's national pastime? 

The District of Columbia has been a great host city for Top Chef this season.  It’s been eye-opening to spend a block of time in the seat of our nation’s governance, to be surrounded by and have our brief intersections with makers of domestic and foreign policy.  Even reading the Washington Post was a treat – they cover the goings-on on the Hill in far greater depth on a daily basis than other newspapers do.  It’s also been very interesting to be in a stand-alone city that is not under the larger jurisdiction of a state.  So it made good sense to me that the finale for such a season would “go international”…and that it would be held, of all places, in a City-State.

Singapore was the perfect choice for a Top Chef season finale.  It is a well-known axiom that eating is Singapore’s national pastime.  To the last of them, Singaporeans are passionate about food.  And knowledgeable, though none more so than our guest judge K. F. Seetoh, author of Makansutra, the definitive guide to everything from street food to fine dining in Singapore.  He explained that there was a time when people prepared food in their homes, brought a hibachi to the streets, and cooked and sold what they’d prepared, but that about twenty years ago, the government recognized that this could be a health hazard and organized the hawker market, assigning spaces, rigging running water, inspecting regularly…and the hawker market of today was born.  Seetoh was a lot of fun to work with and very knowledgeable.  On our second day there, he took us around to all of the markets, where I stumbled upon a very interesting preparation of pork: It had been compressed into sheets and grilled.  I brought some back to the States with me.  I have said before that a chef can’t help but be inspired by the foods s/he tastes while traveling.  My time in Singapore – especially that day in the hawker markets with Seeto – made its way into a dish I made for a dinner party in my home shortly after I returned.  I made a cuttlefish dish in which I grilled the cuttlefish, cut it into pieces, and mixed it with that pork, along with cilantro, chilies, sugar and vinegar (It was a hit!).

This is why Angelo was not at an advantage going into the finale.  You might have thought that he would be, because he’d traveled in this region and worked with some of the cuisines that have made their way into that of Singapore.  But he truly wasn’t; nor was Kelly at a particular disadvantage, even though she did wind up being eliminated.  Nor was Kevin remiss for failing to practicing his wok skills before he arrived, as Padma suggested (I thought he answered her well – he was busier tasting the flavors of the region, which would spark his imagination).  As I’ve stressed regarding prior challenges, the chefs are not asked on Top Chef to recreate authentic dishes of various cuisines – such dishes would be mere forgeries anyway.  Rather, the chefs are asked to take the flavors and indigenous foods, be inspired by them, and make from them a dish that celebrates them but that is the chef’s own.  If one is a good cook, accustomed to layering flavors adeptly, one can adapt and layer new flavors well, too.  At Cafe Boulud, Daniel has devoted a whole section of the menu to travel, to dishes inspired by cuisines of the world.  Eric Ripert wrote a cookbook about food inspired by a place he was visiting.  Any chef that travels finds that the foods encountered along the way make their way into his/her own repertoire…but with the chef’s own twist.  A full three or four months after a trip I’d taken to the northern regions of Spain, a dish popped into my head and onto my menu:  stuffed squid with Italian kale served over black rice with a spicy tomato jam.  I wasn’t surprised.  We just can’t help but be influenced by where we’ve traveled and eaten. 

In this challenge, that’s what the chefs did.  They honored the many cuisines that made their way into the cuisine of Singapore.  As the crossroads of trade in Asia, Singapore has become a culinary crossroads as well.  This bode well for our chefs, who could do most anything with Indian, Chinese, Thai and Malaysian palates to select from and still be fulfilling the challenge they were given.

And they delivered what was by far the best food of the season to date. Kelly wasn’t sent home for bad food.  She cooked very well. It’s just that the others did an even better job.  The banana with chili dish that Ed made was incredible.  It was one of those things you taste where you instantly think, “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?!”  You’d think that being granted immunity would cause a competitor to kick back and relax, but when someone is passionate about their craft, as Ed is, it can do exactly the opposite – inspire a chef to take a huge risk.  That’s precisely what Ed did here, and it paid off in spades.  Kelly’s dishes, on the other hand, while very good, were a little timid.  Her curried shrimp dish was not a standout in an evening of standout dishes, and the texture of her fish in the soup was problematic.

A quick word about Kelly’s elimination:  I was unpleasantly surprised that someone on Twitter suggested we were racist for eliminating Tiffany and, this week, sexist for eliminating Kelly.  I don’t think Tiffany or Kelly would have wanted special dispensation for being minorities. When Stephanie Izzard was interviewed about becoming our first female Top Chef in Season Four, she said that she didn’t care about that – she wasn’t a ‘female chef’, she was just a chef.  Nor do we care about it.  In fact, I think it’s offensive that it was even suggested.  Do you think Gail and Padma were being sexist?  Might I point out that both of our senior executives at Bravo, Lauren Zalaznick and Frances Berwick are women, as are Nan Strait and Liz Cook, two of the executive producers at Magical Elves and Jane Lipsitz, another executive producer and one of the two partners at Magical Elves? So really.  Let’s all just stop right there.  Enough.

Let’s all stay focused on the food.  As our chefs did.  All four did beautiful work, and it was exciting to be judging them. This is just what we hope for on Top Chef – a competition in which fine chefs cook their hearts out and we, in turn, find ourselves genuinely challenged to ascertain the most and least excellent of the selections.




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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