Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Balls to the Wall

Sure, Dale Levitski and Stephen Asprinio went home, but Anthony Bourdain explains why they both have a lot to be proud of.

The sound you hear still echoing through the halls of the Top Chef studio, the loud clack of large, titanium steel objects, is the sound of recently departed chef Dale Levitski's impressively huge balls.

Throughout previous appearances on the show, every time Dale presented a dish I'd often find myself thinking back to my Yankee hero , the home run-hitting Reggie Jackson. Back in the day, when Reggie would step up to the plate and see what looked like his pitch, he'd almost always take an absolutely  gigantic swing at the ball. Reggie had no interest in chopping one over the second baseman's head for a clutch single or an RBI. He wasn't looking to squeeze out an extra base from a hard bounce off the center field wall. Reggie was looking to cream that thing, pulverize it, drive it out of the park, over the cheap seats, beyond the stadium and into the East River -- farther, if possible, than any ball had been hit before. More often than not -- baseball being baseball -- he'd miss, and his massive upper body would seem to nearly tip him over. You usually don't  look good when you take a big swing and miss. You look awkward and off balance and even a bit silly.

But I guess that's the risk you take when you're constantly swinging for the moon. It's why I admire Dale Levitski and why I'm sorry to see him go. His insistence, time and time again, on not playing it safe, on not modulating his ambitions speaks well of him. There was something heroic -- if occasionally foolhardy -- about it. Of all the contestants in all the seasons of Top Chef, no one has ever been so consistently, relentlessly fearless. "Dazzle or Die Trying" might well be the Levitski credo. Good was never enough. And as a result, when he was successful, he was amazing. When he wasn't? He made French toast -- with peanuts, popcorn and veal. It was a disaster of a dish this week. But with Dale, it might just  as well have been a home run. As has been seen in his past season, sometimes when you're ready to count the guy out, he reaches deep and comes up -- seemingly out of nowhere -- with something truly extraordinary. You don't get that from a chef who takes the safe route. That kind of character and spirit of innovation, that kind of willingness to take chances is what distinguishes truly creative people from the rest.

It also makes for good television. Dale will be missed.

And while we sing the praises of departed heroes (and testicles) let us acknowledge the underappreciated Steven, who was also sent home. Steven has been playing out of his league since his first episode. As he readily admits, he's a front-of-the-house guy. It is a hard -- very hard -- thing being
asked of these contestants. But like Dale L., he has never allowed himself to be intimidated by either the challenge, the competition, or the judges. His incisive self-criticism, his ability to analyze what went wrong, his composure at JT, are to be commended. His technical skills -- when he's on familiar turf -- are excellent. His salmon on this episode was perfectly, exquisitely cooked. But as he realized himself, his enthusiasm for the challenge outpaced good sense. There were elements of his mise en place that should have never made it into the dish. His lack of back of the house/mosh pit experience allowed him to get flustered. He knew how to make a great dish, but he listened to an evil little voice in his head and
went further, much further than he should have with his aromatics -- and fatally lost his way. His dish might have left an aftertaste of hippie. But Steven, too, should be recognized for having some serious cojones. Maybe the word "balls" is inadequate -- inappropriate even -- when trying to describe the qualities of strength, fortitude, audaciousness, fearlessness. Particularly since these attributes appear in abundance with most of the women chefs on Top Chef. Antonia has generally been rock solid, rarely wavering -- regardless of the situation. (Last week's  undercooked fritatta being a rare misstep). She's consistently cooked smart, kept her head when all around her is chaos -- and, at least in my experience, made delicious food.

A strong, strong contender. Her peas and carrot riff this week was just right for the setting, getting right in the spirit of David Burke's Townhouse without sacrificing flavor for cleverness.

Casey's "Scallibut" was also smart, clever, and very tasty. Carla was faced with maybe the steepest hill to climb at wd~50, a restaurant and a chef with a style of cooking as far from her own as could be imagined. She dug in her heels, fell back on her strengths -- yet managed to honor the spirit of the place to great effect. Tiffany Derry continues to play strong and smart. She may get weepy at Judges' Table now and again, but I'm pretty sure you could take you in a fair fight. The recently departed Jennifer Carroll, though she had a disastrous night last week, was certainly lacking in neither ability, strength, nor -- for lack of a better word -- balls.

This week's challenge was everything a serious Top Chef fan could hope for: It was all about the food and the application of all the chefly virtues. It was a New York challenge that could only have taken place in New York. It included four of the most important chefs and restaurants in the country. It was fiendishly difficult.There were no tween idols, oversized plush toys, projectile vomiting children, or frozen meals factoring in.
To be asked to walk into David Chang, or David Burke, or Michael White, or Wylie Dufresne's kitchen -- and then cook an original dish for them --evocative of their styles? Terrifying.

Other than Carla, the other chef who found himself at the polar opposite of his comfort zone was Fabio. He clearly had no feel for what Chang does. And said so. Sitting at Ma Peche, looking at the cuisine he was expected to riff on, he looked like a man who'd just seen his dog run over by an ice cream truck. His lamb chops were clunky,muddled in concept -- and he inexplicably didn't wrap the exposed bones before grilling. The result was by no stretch of the imagination a Changesque dish. But it didn't taste bad at all. Hell, I'd eat it again. Whatever it was. Marcel found himself right where you'd think he'd want to be -- in the kitchen of Wylie Dufresne, whose work he's been duping for years. Rarely have a contestant and a challenge been so well matched. To return to the baseball metaphor, if ever Marcel had his pitch -- this was it. And yet  he played it safe. For such a brash young man, he really dialed it back this week. His comment about Tiffani's melon dish, that she was "showcasing technique just to do it,"  was both absolutely on target -- and something he's chronically guilty of himself. But not this week. This was a relatively restrained Astro-Boy, playing it safe just when he had his best chance--and best audience (one would think) for a shot at greatness.

Richard, in his wisdom, recognized his own tendencies to overreach -- and like Marcel, reigned himself in. Maybe too much.

Jamie's tomato soup was weak -- but unobjectionable. Make that very weak. She may as well have gone back to the hospital to check out those stitches. Angelo's contribution was everything you'd expect of Angelo at this point. Creative and generally excellent.

Tre's swordfish was impeccable though less inspired than Dale Talde's contribution. Dale's winning dish brought home how much he's grown since his "Angry Dale" period. Or should we now call him "The Artist Formerly Known As Angry Dale"? He did everything right this week. He identified who he was cooking for (Wylie) -- and even more shrewdly, what he loved. (Eggs.) He acknowledged his own strengths and weaknesses -- realizing that "molecular" was not his area of expertise -- but managed to pay brilliant homage to the Dufresne style in spirit. He executed his dish with flawless technique, making something that managed to be creative, fun, pleasurable to eat, and supremely delicious. In short, he used his head, heart,  senses, and skills to maximum effect.  This week, he was truly the Top Chef.

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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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