Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

This Provençal Life

Eric Ripert reveals what he might have cooked for the Ellis Island challenge.

Full transcript after the jump

Hello I am Eric Ripert, chef of Le Bernardin commenting on Top Chef, Episode 12, New York, Season All-Star.

The challenge on the boat is definitely not easy. You don't know how long you have to go to Ellis Island. And on top of it, there's a lot this processed food on that boat, and I'm sure it's very challenging to cook with nachos and chips and junk food. However, they are very creative, and they come back with some good ideas. And I was impressed with how quick they react, and by the results as well.

So then judging a challenge like that, I was kind of laughing about it, because Dan has been a supporter of sustainability about farming, about great quality products coming from grovers and farmers and so on, and then he end up judging a Quickfire where they have hot dogs and nachos. And I thought it was funny.

Mike Isabella's bread soup looks really, really bad. It looks like someone has been sick on the boat. So I really feel bad. I mean, it could have been a great idea. At this point, you know, it's almost the end, they're going to the finale, and I really feel bad when I see something like that. At the same time, you know, it's good television, and it makes me laugh.

I really like the idea of Carla, although Richard thought she didn't work enough. Sometimes, and I think Dan Barber would agree with me, when you have great ingredients, beautiful ingredients, of something fresh you, don't have to do that much to make a great recipe. It doesn't have to be necessarily complicated. So Carla win, and I'm glad that she choose to make some so fresh and simple, using a fruit actually.

So when they arrive on the island, they have their relatives and parents, and it's very emotional, and, of course, it's for them very difficult, I'm sure, to deal with that. It's probably a great motivation, at the same time, it's emotionally challenging. And it's probably messing them up a little bit.

I find the idea of looking into their ancestors with their parents very interesting, and the fact that Antonia is a cousin of Mike, very funny too and surprising as well, I mean for them of course, but for us viewers.

So they are to cook something related to their family or their origin. If I would have had to cook something, I think I would have gone Provençal, because part of my family is Italian, part of my family is from Provence. And I would have probably done a stew, with Provençal influence, and that would have been my dish.

So Antonia wins, and she decided to make a stew with a risotto. And until now, on Top Chef it's kind of a curse on risottos. Whoever tried to make it lose, so she's very courageous. And she goes for it, and makes a delicious one. She's the winner. Congratulations Antonia.

So Mike hasn't cooked Italian food since his grandmother actually passed away. And he's very emotional about it, and I can understand that. He decides to make gnocchis . The dish becomes something fantastic and magnificent, and everybody agrees that he has done a great job. So his grandma would be very proud of him.

So Tiffany has the courage also to do something that Tom doesn't necessarily like: okra. And she changed his mind, so she definitely did something really delicious and fantastic as well. And now Tom likes okra.

I would have loved to try Carla’s dish, the pork shoulder, and also with the cheddar biscuits. That sounds really good. Actually I would have loved to try all of those dishes and be there with them.

Well I love the idea that they all are going to the finale. I would have hated to see one of them going home, especially with their family on their side. And you know, they are only five, and we really get attached to them, they have done a fantastic season, they have seen up and downs, and they have conquered, and I was very happy to see them staying and going to the Bahamas.

So I'm very happy that they are all going to the Bahamas. Actually I may, I don't know, see them there. We'll see. That would be a kind of a vacation for me, I don't know if it will be the same for them.

I'm Eric Ripert, from Le Bernadin, commenting on Episode of 12 of Top Chef New York, Season All Star.

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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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