Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Chinese Rock

Anthony Bourdain explains that the chefs' performance during dim sum service was inevitable.

This episode was loads of fun for us. Not so much fun for its victims.

Big trouble in Little China for our exhausted warriors tonight, many of whom seemed to stagger blindly  into the meat grinder of a busy dim-sum restaurant kitchen already  looking like injured animals, seeking only to be put out of their misery. Like a late '70s Dee Dee Ramone, (who wrote the classic tune referenced above), they moved like sleepwalkers towards an unarticulated but ever more desperate need for oblivion. And when the end came, when the judges' cruel gazes settled finally on Casey, the survivors looked surprised -- and even a bit disappointed. They're tired and cranky, these survivors. They've been pushed hard. And it showed. And as in so many situations where people find themselves in moments of extremis, circumstances brought out the best, the worst -- and the most insane of behaviors. The episode began on a giddy note. Who among us was not thrilled and delighted to see Tom Colicchio step up and challenge the young 'uns to a head-to-head Quickfire Challenge? Who did not delight in his ballsy and  unexpected demonstration of how, exactly, the old school  motherf---ing professionals do it? Let me tell you friends: the magic of editing can do a lot. But it can't dummy up moves like that. Fast. SO fast. Focused. Smart. And demonstrating the kind of brisk, sharp, economy of movement you only get after years and years of working at places with only the very highest standards. In eight and a half minutes of cooking, Tom showed the contestants, the audience, and any doubters, all the qualities that separate the big kids from the grown-ups. Qualities, by the way, in which nearly every contestant was lacking during the hideous, all-time Chinese clusterf--- that followed.

To be charitable, it was clear that no one -- even before the Elimination Challenge -- was at the top of their game. The strange but very talented Angelo, after having been told specifically to avoid doing a tartare or a raw dish, broke right out of the starting gate and blundered into a crudo like a doped but lame  thoroughbred. Jamie's single clam sat forlornly at the bottom of a bowl like a dried turd.  Frankly, I think they should have put her out of her misery and sent her home right there. Even the mighty Dale managed only to unravel a lonely strand of tragic "pad thai" noodle that the judges examined as if it were a  prolapsed intestine.  Marcel, however, demonstrated uncharacteristic good sense and gained valuable time for himself when rather then follow the crazed herd to the refrigerators, he walked right over to Tom's leftover mise-en-place and worked with that. In spite of his quick thinking -- and what was apparently a good dish --it will not be Marcel driving down the street, sipping on gin and juice in a spanking new Toyota.  It will not be Marcel, flashing faux gang signs and come-hither smiles at the ladies from the drivers seat of a shiny 2011 Prius. No.

Mike Isabella won the car. 

In the most entertaining way possible, what followed was a slaughterfest. The worst, ugliest, most traumatic, mass meltdown in the history of Top Chef.  And let me tell you, whatever sadistic freak, whatever evil genius designed this particular challenge really knew their business. This person -- whomever they are -- knows the meaning of pain and humiliation. They are probably wearing head to toe latex, right now, strangling a kitten with a mailed glove. They knew -- they had to know -- what was going to happen. They built, after all, the perfect mouse trap.

You'd have to have been to a Hong Kong "tea house" -- which is where you get that kind of traditional dim sum service over there -- to understand what was likely to happen. To be sure what would happen. You'd have to have seen first-hand what it's like on a busy weekend brunch service, a huge dining room of 250 Chinese customers, all clamoring for food from a score or so of passing food trolleys. What happened (in the dining room, anyway) during Elimination Challenge was NORMAL. Hell, these customers were well behaved! In Hong Kong, you'd see little old ladies elbowing full grown men in the kidneys to get at a too-scarce dish of favored dim sum. Plates clatter, men smoke. They drink gallons of tea until tweaked out on caffeine like meth heads at the end of a three day jag. They push and shove themselves into crowds by the kitchen doors, unwilling to take a chance that their favorite dishes might not make it across the giant dining room. They actually walk IN to the kitchen and yank bamboo steamers filled with dumplings off the stove tops! It's a mosh pit, a scrum, where the only rules are: you get what you want -- by any means necessary. And that seldom means sitting quietly at your table waiting for the waiters to come by. Imagine a hockey-themed restaurant. Where everybody's on skates -- and hungry. The New York version, in Chinatown, or in Sunset Park, while lacking the same potential for ultra-violence in the cause of lunch, can get rowdy as well. This was a tough crowd. The toughest.

Which is to say that as soon as it was decided, in whatever House of Pain at Bravo Central, that this week's challenge would take place in a large dim sum joint, with Chinese customers, the contestants were doomed. There would be blood. And shame.

As so often happens, some contestants declined to wait to saw their own heads off,  rushing at warp speed to make the Worst Possible Decisions imaginable.

Jamie, having failed time and again at scallops, chose to stick her tragically injured hand straight into the fuse box -- again -- and make -- wait for it…  scallops (!!!) --this time with the added value of putting them inside crappy, store-bought dumpling wrappers. This for a crowd of Chinese,
for whom dumplings are nearly a religion. She later complained that "service is a pain in the ass." Something she might have considered before choosing the restaurant business as a vocation.

Tiffani made … salad. Something you see in a dim sum house about as often as BBQ pork ribs in Riyadh -- and about as welcome.

Tre made something sticky and gooey -- in a halved out orange, counting on it to freeze up and stay cold -- while being wheeled around a giant dining room filled with 250 people for indefinite periods of time.

But it was Casey who made the most spectacularly bad -- if bizarrely noble and audacious -- decision to prepare CHICKEN FEET. I like chicken feet.  And I admire anyone who dares serve them -- outside of a Chinese night market, dim sum house, or street stall. It's a beloved dish in parts of Asia, and Latin America, a comfort food that often reminds one of earlier, harder, more austere times. They're bony, gnarly, gelatinous, and cartilaginous. And that's when they're good. They are, for most, an acquired taste. Most people who do  like chicken feet like the chicken feet their mom would hand them in the kitchen when they were kids. But when you're not a dim sum expert, not Chinese, and certainly NOT anybody in the dining room's mom, it is a dish that good sense would tell you it's best to avoid. They have to be prepped and cooked just right. One of the more painfully hilarious moments of the night was watching poor Casey, standing in front of a huge bus-tub heaped with chicken feet, painstakingly trimming off the nails. Having decided on making perhaps the single worst dish one could choose for a Top Chef Elimination Challenge (other than maybe durian souffles -- or balut over-easy), Casey hastened her rush over the cliff by then turning this thing over to someone else. The results were inevitable.Of the carnage and recriminations, the filth and the fury that followed, I will speak little. Antonia, once again, became the repository for all the world's sins, left, it appeared, to cook nearly everything single handed. What a Trojan! She's like John Shaft -- always willing to help her brotherman, demonstrating a generosity of spirit that nearly doomed her. Had her own shrimp toast not been delicious, it might well have been her head on the block. For much of the show -- whether because of the edit or not, it looked like she was the only person moving in a kitchen full of stunned carp. As at the aftermath of a violent bar fight, the others present creeped slowly and stealthily away from the horror, unwilling to get blood or hair on their shoes. But she hung in. And at Judges' Table, when confronted about her central role in this greatest of face-plants, she stood up under brutal interrogation  like a hard case career con refusing to put the much guiltier Casey in the soup. She made Sammy the Bull Gravano and Whitey Bulger look like punks. In the same situation, I suspect, the guys would have been jostling each other to drop a dime on each other.

It was so bad that teacher had to show up. Tom Colicchio, in a rare appearance in the kitchen, Ramsay-like, descended into the fray to see what the major malfunction might be and chastise the guilty. But there were too many offenders to single out one offender. Guilt was everywhere.
He looked around the beleaguered crew and saw only the faces of the doomed.

Who among them emerged from this sea of ordure unscathed? No one. Even Dale, the winner of the day, whose sticky rice impressed the customers, the judges and even guest judge Susur Lee, was heard to comment: "I feel like I robbed a bank." Yes, Dale. Yes you did. And good for you. It is a terrible thing, the worst thing ever for a talented chef, to go home after a really, really awful night, knowing they  did a lousy job. That their  customers left unhappy--that they failed, screwed over a dining room full of people who came to them with empty bellies and hearts filled with hope and expectation. One has disappointed not just  room full of strangers, but oneself. And having been in that lonely, dark place, I feel for the contestants -- all of them -- who endured this most difficult challenge.

But Casey should know that she showed us all how to go out with grace. That she owned up admirably to having "left in Antonia's hand" a ticking time bomb. That she showed us how to lose -- nobly, audaciously, and with style.

You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet

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

Read more about:

You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet