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!

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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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