Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Cruel and Unusual

Gail Simmons comments on the amuse bouche challenge twist! For this week's Quickfire we have Wolfgang Puck. How was it working with him?
Gail Simmons: How hilarious was he? He's just awesome. He's so enthusiastic and fun, and he knows so much about food. He's the perfect chef for this challenge, because he has such a legacy in the food world. You could argue that Wolfgang Puck was the very first celebrity chef. They each have to pick a classic Quickfire, and Antonia felt like Mike was sticking it to her especially, did you agree with that?
GS: Yes, I did get that. Although I would argue that they all had their pros and cons, it wasn't like there was a good one that was super easy. Especially when the second twist came in. Antonia had to use canned food and work as one person with Carla, Mike had to use one pot and no utensils, and Richard had hot dogs and could only use one hand. It was ridiculous. I think they all had their work cut out for them, but they all did a good job. There was one point though when they showed a shot of Richard's food that looked really unappetizing. I was nervous! Mike actually won again.
GS: I know! Come on, Mike, it's getting rude already! So they all go into the Elimination Challenge, and they're presented with three great chefs – Wolfgang Puck, Michelle, and Morimoto – and they're cooking them their last supper. What did you think of this concept?
GS: Well, I loved the concept. We've done it before with Jacques Pepin and Lydia Bastianich. I think it's really fun. It's great insight into the mind of a chef, and inevitably all of them go back to something nostalgic. They like the comfort and security. I think it's very humanizing, and it forces our chefs to think in a different way. But of course you can't just make any old childhood dish, you have to make it different and special, because you're cooking for these great chefs. Melanie Dunea, who was on the episode with us and is a very dear friend of mine, wrote the book My Last Supper, which is very inspiring. She's in the middle of shooting the second book now, and every time I look at it I get really excited. It makes me think about my favorite foods and nostalgia for food, but it also makes me think about what all of the greatest chefs in the world would eat if they had one meal left. What would your last meal be?
GS: People have asked me this before, but I never really know.  It would involved mashed potatoes though. And probably chocolate ice First we have Richard who gets Wolfgang Puck, and he has to make a goulash, spaetzle, and strudel. I thought this was one of the most difficult because strudel is very hard to make.
GS: Strudel is very hard to make. In fact we did an episode of Top Chef Just Desserts where they had to make it, and it took hours even though they were pastry chefs, and they couldn't get it right, stretching the dough and rolling it with the apples. It's very hard to do, and the dough needs to be so thin. But Richard seemed to do a really great job, although he didn’t use traditional strudel dough. It was a lighter, flakier dough. But that's fine. He took a lot of artistic license. They don't have recipes, and this is not food that he makes all the time. He certainly braises meat, but spaetzle and goulash and apple strudel is certainly not something Richard is known for. He did a great job of incorporating the classic flavors that would satisfy Wolfgang's nostalgic yearnings, but at the same time made it his own. I think that really embodied the spirit of this challenge. Richard did exactly what we hoped all the chefs would do. The other two tried to some extent, but their dishes were not as fully realized as Richard's. Richard's flavors were that of a pure goulash –- paprika, beef, sour cream, spaetzle – all of these flavors that really go together well for a reason and are indicative of Austria. That was delicious. But he put his twist on it. He did a dehydrated sour cream, and he cooked the goulash in a pressure cooker. The strudel had this dehydrated tarragon cream, which was similar to the dehydrated sour cream, it was crumbly and dry, but when you ate it with the apple strudel and it melted in your mouth, it became really creamy, and had lovely texture and flavor. The tarragon I thought was really inspired and fresh. It was a modern element that elevated the strudel itself. The apples were cooked as they should have been – brown and caramelized and soft and juicy. It was a successful, smart way to approach the challenge. So it was obvious that he was moving on.
GS: Yes, it was. He did the best without question. Then we have Mike and Antonia. At first they kind of tied. We had Mike's fried chicken, and Michelle said that she gave him a lot of creative license with this.
GS: Yes, and he chose to take it, which was smart too. He knew he couldn't do biscuits, although I have to tell you biscuits are not that hard to make even if you haven't done them before. But certainly it was smart when you don't have a recipe to veer off and channel her Latina roots with the egg yolk empanada. Then there was that play on the chicken and the egg. There was a pea puree with it and a mustard gravy which also was sort of different, certainly not traditional or Southern, but really tasty. He used whole mustard seeds. This was the second time mustard has come into play in the Bahamas, and I did say two weeks ago to remember the mustard. Mustard seeds were in a sauce Richard did in the first challenge in the Bahamas. The thing about mustard that's great is it adds a sour acidic note that kind of cuts the fat of the egg yoke and the fried chicken and brightens up the dish. The idea for Mike's dish was smart, but unfortunately it wasn't executed perfectly. Because he chose to sous-vide the chicken first and not fry it the old fashioned way, the skin slid right off and didn't adhere very well. Mine was a little soggy. There were two pieces, and the under piece was a little soggy, which is the last thing you want with fried chicken. You want that crispy, salty, crunchy skin. I don't know why he chose to sous-vide. Why do you need to? I'm sure some chef can give me an answer as to why it's great. But in my opinion if it ain't broke, don't fix it. It's not like it takes that long – cleaning, battering, frying, that's it. You fry it on each side for six or eight minutes and you're done. Did you think Mike had the easiest dish? Even Tom seemed to think so.
GS: Well in theory yes, but it depends on what you do with it. It was American, so it's definitely something that most people are familiar with. I would be surprised to find a top chef in this country who hasn't had fried chicken at some point in their life. It was certainly the most familiar. I don't think it was the easiest, because clearly it wasn't perfect. Boy, do I wish Carla Hall was around for this challenge. She would have nailed that fried chicken.

And then there was Antonia. She had a tough challenge because she had to appease a great sushi chef with sushi. That's what he cooks for a living, and every element that he asked for were things that he makes in his restaurant. It was definitely far out of Antonia's comfort zone and Japanese cuisine, because it's so simple, really needs to be precise. It is a subtle cuisine, a very delicate type of food. Morimoto explained that his mother would sort the rice grain by grain, making sure they were all uniform, and would all cook together correctly. She had a big challenge for sure. She did some of it well; and some of it not so well. Her rice ended up coming out pretty well all things considered, and that was impressive. Some of the pickled items were beautiful, there were pickled mushrooms, pickled eggplant. There was a pickled Asian pear that was really nice. I'd never had that before and I thought it was a playful piece. Some things were strong and overpowering though. There were two flaws to her dish in my opinion: Her miso soup was not just salty, but to me had a distinctly off flavor. Not to say it was bad, but it was heavy handed in all of the seasonings. It was strong, it wasn't balanced, it just wasn't a great miso soup. And her tuna sashimi – she went overboard with it. Sashimi should be subtle, delicate. If you're going to put things with it, there needs to be balance, because sashimi is raw fish, unadorned. Nothing else. If you're going to add seasonings, you don't want to lose the fish, you want it to be fresh, clean, and simple. I don’t know why she mucked it up so much. It's not like her, she's usually good at stepping back when she needs to stop. For some reason she got ahead of herself. So then Mike and Antonia had to come up with an amuse bouche.
GS: It was so cruel. Not only were we making them do this when they thought they were done and could relax, but it was the moment that really mattered the most. They had to dig deep to find every ounce of energy inside and impress us. It was a challenging moment: Give us one bite to save your life. And you liked Mike's better.
GS: Yes, but it was really hard to choose. They both had good and bad qualities. Antonia did a piece of grouper with a very strong vegetable curry underneath, and it was good, but it was very powerful. The coconut lobster broth with curry, yam, dill and apple was very good, and flavorful, but there was a part of me that thought it could have been more focused. It didn’t need so many components. It overwhelmed the fish. Grouper is a pretty sturdy fish, it's meaty and it can stand up to a significant amount of spice. But I think it got a little lost. Keep in mind, we're talking about miniscule details. It was a good dish, and I would be happy to eat it again if I were served it. But if I had to choose which one to eat I again, I would go with Mike's. They were both good, and that was the only way we could choose. We were split down the middle. It came down to Wolfgang, honestly. Mike's dish with steak tartare, potato, lobster tail tempura, and chimichurri sauce was interesting because it had a lot of textures and temperatures. Cool, raw beef tartare with hot lobster tail and the spicy potatoes, which mimicked the texture of the beef. And then there were the two sauces, for me it was the two sauces, which brought it together. I didn't like the olive caramel at first, it was too sweet and kind of cloying. On it's own it didn't make sense. The beef tartare, and the savoriness of the olives, and the caramel implies that it's reduced down like you would onions to bring out those natural sugars making it sort of like a jam, which is really what it was. It was sweet, and it was sticky, and I didn't understand it when I first tasted it in relation to the rest of the dish. I thought it would be too strong. I thought it would be strange with all the textures. But when I took a bite of the potatoes, beef, and lobster with it, it totally worked. It balanced against them and enhanced their flavors. It felt right. And then the chimmichurri, which is a Latin American sauce that has a lot of garlic and parsley and chili in it, was a really good counterpoint. It added a burst of herbaceous freshness. And it was excellent. I don’t think either dish was perfect, there was a piece of Mike's that was totally bland. But when I took one bite I thought it was a smarter, more interesting bite of food. Last but not least, mazel tov on the James Beard nomination!
GS: Woo-hoo! I'm psyched. I'm actually hosting the James Beard Media/Journalism Awards this year, so I hope I get to accept one too!

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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