Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Antonia's Last Supper

Childhood memories surface as the three remaining chefs cook Michelle Bernstein, Morimoto, and Wolfgang Puck's "last suppers."

Hello my little spaetzles! Anyone else having serious heart palpitations from this episode? Seriously, what a roller coaster! Let's start with the Quickfire, which was just impossible. Each chef had to complete a different classic Quickfire. This actually felt very Masters to me, but, hey, these guys can handle it, right? Mike gave Antonia the canned food challenge. Richard got the hot dog challenge and that left Mike with the one pot wonder. Antonia thought that Richard's choice to give Mike the one pot wasn't a smart one because it wouldn't restrict Mike from any specific ingredients. In the end, she was right. Of course in the middle of the chefs' cooking, they were presented with three twists. Mike couldn't use any kitchen tools, Antonia shared an apron with Carla, and Richard had to cook with one hand tied behind his back. At this point, I can't even say what was the hardest. These chefs are probably so nervous and delirious that any little change seems like the Apocalypse.

In the end, guest judge Wolfgang Puck, not throwing any donuts this time, gave the win to Mike. And Mike's winning streak continues!

In the Elimination Challenge, the chefs are met by three culinary heavyweights: Michelle Bernstein, Morimoto and, of course, Wolfgang. This was Morimoto's first appearance on Top Chef, and I was pretty psyched to see him. I smiled at him at our Season 7  finale party, and that's my anecdote about him. Good story, right? Want me to tell it again? So, the chefs are paired up with a legend and have to cook their "last suppers." We've actually done a challenge like this before back in Season 5 with guests like Jacques Pepin and Lidia Bastianich and Marcus Samuelsson. I think I cried during that episode and I cried a little bit during this one. Just hearing the chefs talk about their childhood memories of food got me choked up. I'm sure this has much to do with the amazing food memories I have of my late mother's cooking, but no need to talk about that here. I wil say though that this episode did make me think about what I'd want my last meal to be. I think I've mentioned this before, but I thiiink I'd either want an everything bagel with scallion cream cheese and nova or chicken parm with extra cheese on the side. Growing up my mom always put extra shredded cheese in the pan for me, so when it cooked it was just this extra blob of melted cheese, and it was amazing. What would you want your last meal to be? Tell me in the comments below!Anyway, Michael chose to work with Michelle Bernstein. I found it amusing that he said when he chose her that it would probably be the least challenging, but then later told Antonia that he chose Michelle for the challenge. Antonia quickly called bulls--- on that. I will say though that Michelle may have seemed like "the easiest" choice, but the easiest dishes are the ones whose flaws are most obvious. But let's get back to Mike and Antonia in a moment. Let's talk about Richard's dish first. He had to make traditional Austrian food for Wolfgang Puck. He said he was very comfortable with goulash, and it seemed the tough spaetzle was the only real complaint. The strudel was a winner. The only knowledge I have of how difficult it is to make strudel is based on the Quickfire Challenge in Top Chef Just Desserts where the chefs -- pastry chefs! -- had to make strudel and had quite a bit of trouble keeping it together. So, I was actually fairly shocked Richard had a seemingly easy time with it. He moved on to the finale. Mazel tov, Richard!

Mike and Antonia vied for the second spot. Let's start with Mike: He decided to tweak the traditional dish a little bit, and was given that creative license by Michelle herself which was pretty cool of her. He sous-vide the chicken, which ended up not being the best idea, and made an egg yolk empanada which I thought sounded freaking delicous. As much as I love a Pillsbury biscuit (I eat it layer by layer), I would love to try one of those empanadaas. Growing up in a Jewish home, I was really amused by Chef Bernstein's story. We never made fried chicken in the house, but we had our fair share of KFC. I remember begging my mother to cook for her once -- she usually wouldn't let me because I made a mess (still am) -- and I made fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and crescent rolls. I recall getting rave reviews, but I haven't made it since. Ah, memories.

On the opposite end of the culinary spectrum, Antonia had to make traditional sashimi and rice for Morimoto. The look on Antonia's face when Morimoto was explaining his childhood was just priceless. She looked positively terrified (and confused). But I loved hearing about Morimoto's baseball past, and how his mother worked in the fish market. So, Antonia made a bento box, which is usually my go-to at any Japanese restaurant because a) it's filling and b) it lets you sample a few different things from the restaurant. She nailed the rice and some of the pickled vegetablees. but the star, the tuna, didn't go over so well. Although Antonia wisely changed course once she realized the hamachi she originally wanted to use wasn't good (thank G-d she tasted it), she mucked up the subtle tuna with too many things, and apparently the scotch bonnets (holy heat!) were just too much. The judges however needed one more challenge to decide who would move on with Richard. I was exhausted just watching the episode to this point, so I can't even imagine how the chefs mustered the strength to keep cooking. But, they did. They had to cook one bite! Although both looked a little big to me, I wanted to try both of them. Antonia stuck with a grouper dish and Mike made surf and turf. It was close, but Mike prevailed. I'm sad to see Antonia go -- I really enjoy watching her, but she's very talented, and I know she'll be just fine. Mazel tov to Mike! His winning streak in the Bahamas thus far is fairly epic, and he should be proud (and exhausted!)

Next week we see Richard and Mike go head-to-head for the ultimate win. The episode is insane, and possibly even more heartwrenching than anything we've seen yet, so grab some blood pressure medication and a box of tissues because it's a wild ride.

Until then, Have a Nosh!

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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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