Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Dear Richard

Gail Simmons dishes on the Bahamas and has a message for Richard. This week the chefs head to the Bahamas. How was that as a finale location?
Gail Simmons: It was beautiful. We happened to be there for over two full weeks, which coincided nicely with two of NY's major snowstorms this winter, so I couldn't have been more pleased to be there. The beaches were gorgeous, the water was beautiful, the weather was completely perfect, and we had a lot of fun. For the Quickfire, all the chefs had to compete against the Top Chefs from their season. What did you think about that concept?
GS: It was a great idea and very intense. There's risks involved with doing a Quickfire like that –- you obviously want the contestants to win since there's more at stake for them. But if the former Top Chef loses, does that discredit them? I don't think it does, and I hope our audience doesn't think that either, because as you know, we judge every challenge on its stand-alone merit. You can lose one day and win the next, and that's what cooking is about. So I thought it played out very well. And a few of them did beat their season's Top Chef.
GS: Mike Isabella beat Michael Voltaggio, which I thought was fascinating and fun to watch. Richard beat Stephanie, and Tiffany beat Kevin. It's important to keep in mind that the finalists are more in practice right now. The past Top Chefs haven't been in the game for a while. And they all had almost no resources, they barely had running water, so I didn’t take it too seriously, but I think it was fun. It was interesting that Hosea felt like he still had something to prove.
GS: I guess there are some haters out there, but at the end of the day he won fair and square so it doesn't even matter. We know the truth and how good a chef he still The Elimination Challenge was to cook for Bahamian royalty, which was sort of accurate…
GS: We actually didn't understand it either at first. We understood the chefs were cooking for the King of Junkanoo, but it was only when we sat down with himthat we realized he was not royalty at all. Either way, we became very intimate with Junkanoo, and we really enjoyed learning about it. And it was very exciting aside from a few kitchen disasters. Right, so the kitchen catches on fire, and the chefs are told that after it was cleaned, they can return to the kitchen and re-do their dishes.
GS: Yes, we had to do that because it would be impossible to force them to get the exact same ingredients again and make the exact same dish, when there was really no way of policing it. It also didn't seem fair that they would have had so much time to sit and think about it. We wanted to give everyone the option to change their dish if they wanted to. I don't think it really made that big of a difference in the end. They still had to cook and execute it, and as you could see, even having the opportunity to change their dishes did not mean that the food improved. The two people who changed their dishes were Richard and Antonia. Antonia was probably the one who took it from a high dish to a low dish. Do you think that was a good strategy?
GS: I think it was good for the atmosphere of where we were eating. The fact that she chose to change the refinement level of the dish is not what was wrong with it. What was wrong with her fried shrimp and grits dish was that the shrimp was overcooked and the meat that was in the grits was a very odd choice and didn't really go with the rest of the dish. It was ill-conceived, and that was why we had a problem it. Overall the dishes seemed weak. What did you think?
GS: I would say that compared to the food we got in last week's episode, at the end of our time in New York which was a high point for the season if not for the entire series, this was quite a disappointment. And there were many factors that led to this. They're now in the Bahamas where everything is new – the location, the kitchen, the ingredients, are not the same as they were in New York. Also, it had been several months between New York and the finale. We shot the season in September and this took place in January, so they had time off, to train but at the same time they were not in the heat of competition, so they were a little bit soft and out of practice. Even Mike Isabella's dish, which won that challenge, was not the best we've seen from him by any means. They were also very limited in the kitchen that day with what they were allowed to cook and how. There were just fryers and flat tops. It was a really hard challenge, but as Tom said, it's going to be hard from here on in. I can assure you, the food does improve on the next episode. Too bad Eric Ripert was our guest judge. We really wanted him to be proud of how far we've come since we last saw him in D.C. and the chefs did not put their besst feet forward, so to speak. Carla ended up going home.
GS: We thought Carla's was the least successful. There were two major problems with her pork: the cooking of the medallions we received was very uneven. Mine was really quite raw in the center, Tom's was undercooked if not raw, although Eric's was cooked well. But we can't judge just on Eric's. We need to judge on what we all received, and inconsistency is a big problem. Even though Carla promised us that everyone else was served a piece that was properly cooked, we also cannot judge on what the rest of the diners got. We can only judge on what's in front of us and mine was quite inedible – I'm not interested in eating raw pork. Eric's problem with it was that there needed to be a counterpoint to the dish, and there wasn't. This is something we talk about all the time with food. For a dish to be successful, there needs to be balance. In this instance there were sweet potatoes, applesauce, and the apple chip. All three components were very sweet, as is the inherent flavor of the pork. There was nothing to counterbalance all that sweetness – there needed to be acid, there needed to be a stronger textural or taste component, to balance the intense sweetness of the dish. Eric said it was almost like a dessert it was so sweet. The sweetness didn't bother me as much, because clearly I am a big sugarhead, but I did understand his point and objectively that is an issue. And Mike won the first Bahamian challenge.
GS: We were really excited. He came to the Bahamas very prepared. Not only were we really surprised how far he's come from Season 6 to now, but he also improved from New York to the Bahamas. It was so impressive. This challenge for Mike reminded me of when Kevin Sbraga arrived in Singapore. That's not foreshadowing, I just remember right out of the gate you could tell Kevin had been training. He had his game face on and Mike does too. We will see if he can sustain it…My other comment is about Richard. His food was good; I liked a lot of it. It had its flaws, but overall I thought his dish was interesting with the turnip cannelloni and the mustard. (Look out for mustard! For some reason in the Bahamas mustard and mustard seeds are a running theme. I don't know why. I love mustard. It is my No. 1, all-time, hands down, no contest, favorite condiment ever. EVER! I am a mustard fiend.) But Richard has to lay-off of the self-loathing. I know it's sincere, and I know the poor guy can't help himself, but come on! Have some confidence or pretend to have some confidence. That's how you get confidence. Fake it till you make it, because if anyone has to see him make a great dish and complain about it one more time, I cannot be responsible for the actions taken by our viewers. And I don't blame them if they're exasperated by it. He's so talented and so awesome, he needs to stop all the worrying. I love him, but I think he could use a therapist.

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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