Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Survivor Mode

Eric Ripert praises the cheftestants use of strategy, and tells us the right way to unshell a conch.

Full transcript after the jump

I'm Eric Ripert, chef of Le Bernardin, commenting on Episode 14, the New York season of Top Chef, the finale in the Bahamas for the All-Stars.

So the Quickfire in this episode is about consistency and about providing 100 dishes that are very much the same, in terms of presentation and flavor profile. And Mike Isabella and Richard decide to do a pasta bolognese, so they make their own pasta, and of course, bolognese sauce. And it looks very similar. They create 100 portions that seem to be good. The people like it. On the other side we have Antonia and Tiffany who are doing a cold seared-beef salad, that is very consistent, and of course they don't even have the problem of temperature, since it's a cold dish. And it's very clever to think like that because you don't have to worry about serving hot food or not hot food. Everybody likes the dish. Ultimately they win, and I think it's well deserved.

So Mike and Richard are not very happy about seeing the ladies winning, and they think they took the easy way. Listen it's a challenge, I mean you have to cook good food, but you have to be strategic. And they did a lentil salad too. They had to cook the lentils and make it good as well. So again, there's no reason to be bitter. They won; they won.

So the Elimination Challenge is a little bit like the Survivor meets Top Chef, and they have to go and swim and go get their own conch, which they do. It's not easy, because it's heavy, and you have to be under the water, obviously. Thank god, they all swim pretty well. And then they come back on the beach. And they have to make the fire, clean up the conch.

And they're not really familiar with the conch; they don't know really how to take it out of the shell. It's a much simpler way to do it, than that, however they used the hammer, and they spent quite some time trying to break the shell and take the conch out of its shell.

I think Mike is the most creative in terms of finding a technique to take the conch out by cooking them. It’s not necessarily the right technique, but it work better than the others.

The way to remove the conch from its shell is to make a hole by the top of the shell where it's very pointy. You make a little hole there, and then with a screwdriver or a knife, you basically go inside, and the shell is attached with a nerve to the flesh. You just cut and then the conch comes out. It's very easy, and very simple.

And sometimes if you don't have the right instrument, you can even use one conch against another conch to break the shell. And then again, it's fairly easy to remove the flesh from the shell.

Conch in the shell in America is not easy to find.

It's almost impossible. Almost all the conch that we find, it's already clean and doesn't have any shell. And it's logical because if you have to pay for the weight of the shell it's so heavy, the conch will be very expensive. So it makes sense.

Tiffany makes conch ceviche, and then she's pouring on top basically a coconut soup. So she call that a conch chowder on top of a conch ceviche. And I'm afraid that the coconut that she used was sweet and not unsweetened, and that may have caused the disaster in her soup, which is the soup is too sweet. And on top of it she served the soup cold, it was supposed to be a hot soup. She doesn't have a winning dish here, and unfortunately we are sad to see Tiffany going home.

So Antonia does a red snapper that really looks like "Antonia Red Snapper." And she's criticized for having her own style. I have nothing against recognizing the style of someone. I think one of the criticisms is that the conch is cut too small, therefore you don't feel the texture of it, and conch has a beautiful texture, so it’s too bad. I think that makes her lose the challenge more than just having something that is really recognizable as Antonia style.

Antonia makes a lobster nage.

Nage, technically, it's basically a very light broth, but very powerful in terms of flavors. It's the equivalent also of what we call a court bouillon, so it will always have a lot of aromatics, and some acidity in it, and usually it's used to cook fish or shellfish. And then sometimes you can remove some of the nage, and finish it and make a sauce with it.

Richard makes sweet potato linguini, and it's very clever of an idea. Tom thinks it's a pasta. It looks like a pasta, and it probably tastes like a sweet potato pasta. And I pay homage to Richard for cooking such a difficult item like a pasta, because it's basically, probably a bit al dente, but at the same time it's soft, and it doesn't break, so it's technically challenging to do that. It looks like it's a great dish.

Richard is psychologically not really doing well. He has a dark cloud on top of his head. And we are of course hoping for him to break the dark cloud and see the sunshine of the Bahamas in his head, because right now he's not happy with what he's cooking, and his food is pretty good.

Mike Isabella has the grouper wrapped in the banana leaf. And then he cooked pineapple to create a salsa, which is savory not sweet. And the pineapple can bring quite some acidity. At the end that dish is the winning dish. I liked the idea of using banana leaves, wrapping it, cooking it like that on top of the fire. And I’m not surprised that he wins.

I'm Eric Ripert commenting on Episode 14 of Top Chef in the Bahamas for the finale of the New York season

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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