Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Public Humiliation

Gail Simmons describes what it felt like to be a diner during the dim sum disaster.

Happy New Year!

Let me start the first blog of 2011 by saying this: The only scenario more stressful and uncomfortable than sitting in a room full of angry, hungry diners for hours on end and not being able to serve them is sitting in a room full of angry, hungry diners for hours on end while you are served food and they aren’t. That just about sums up how this challenge played out for us. But I am getting ahead of myself…

It began as a relatively straightforward idea: Drawing on the immense influence and historical significance of New York’s Chinatown, we challenged our chefs to create and execute dim sum service for a few hundred local diners at famed Chinese restaurant Grand Harmony. We asked each chef to prepare at least one dish, but also requested that they work together as a team to serve the meal on traditional dim sum trolleys in the massive dining room. As the winner of the Quickfire Challenge Mike Isabella had immunity (and a new Toyota Prius), so he agreed to expedite. Casey and Carla selflessly volunteered to work the dining room trolleys. For anyone wondering, dim sum is a Cantonese term referring to a family meal made up of small portions on plates or in steamer baskets, served from breakfast to midday, usually with tea. Having grown up in Toronto, another North American dim sum capital, I have come to love the leisurely ritual of dim sum on weekends with a large group of friends and family, and dozens of dishes stacked up in front of us. Sadly, there was nothing leisurely or friendly about our Top Chef dim sum experience.

Right away we realized the task at hand was more formidable than it initially appeared. The first issue: Our chefs had to shop at a traditional Chinese market for their food, forcing them to seek out and use unfamiliar ingredients. But that’s part of the fun, right? Then there was the question of the enormous –- and foreign –- kitchen they had to use. Not only was it one floor below the restaurant’s dining room, requiring them to rely on a system of dumbwaiters, stairs, and trolleys to get the food up to the dining room, but it was stocked with equipment mostly alien to our crew of fine-dining cheftestants –- full of giant steamers, deep fryers, and colossal stockpots –- no ordinary pots and pans, no high-efficiency ovens. To top it off, our highly skilled group of chefs apparently could not get out of their own way to save their lives! From what I was told by Tom when he visited the kitchen, along with what I garnered from speaking with the chefs after the fact and watching the episode, they could not help but plate their food as if they were in an upscale restaurant, not a fast and furious dim sum palace stuffed to the gills with ravenous customers. Our chefs seemed to plate one or two dishes at a time, gingerly placing each piece of watercress just so, carefully drizzling each individual sauce in perfectly symmetrical dots, and slowly garnishing each fried dumpling with just the right number of sesame seeds or Chinese chives! Looking back, it’s a wonder they got anything accomplished at all. They were completely out of their element and we definitely felt it upstairs. We waited. And waited. And waited… for food to arrive. Finally a few plates surfaced and were brought to our table to taste, but getting through the masses of confused and infuriated diners was no easy task. Several guests attempted to take the food right off the carts as they passed. When the dishes were set before us, it got even worse! Hundreds of eyes glared down on us as we ate and discussed what we were served in hushed voices, worried a riot would ensue at any moment. It was, to be honest, humiliating. I have never felt so awkward and hope to never again.

Perhaps we would have been able to excuse all the waiting and disorganization if the majority of the food produced that day was superlative and delicious. Sadly, it wasn’t. Most of it was uninspired and rather bland, like Carla’s pedestrian Vegetable Summer Roll & Lemongrass Dipping Sauce or Antonia and Jamie’s soggy Long Beans with Chinese Sausage. Tiffani F’s Crispy Curry Chicken with Cilantro & Sesame Salad was also disappointing. It was overdressed and lacked any authentic flavor. I am certain she is capable of much better. Tre also let us down. His Orange Ginger Dessert with Freshwater Chestnuts, Toasted Pine Nuts & Thai Basil was messy, watery and disjointed.

The most upsetting dishes of the day were easily Jamie’s Scallop Dumplings with Water Chestnuts & Chinese Chives and Casey’s Chinese Chicken Feet & Scallion Pancake, a play on Southern Chicken & Waffles, which could have been amazingly clever had she cooked the chicken feet properly and ensured the pancakes were crispy and light. Of the two dishes we disliked the most, we felt Casey’s was the most flawed, given that the chicken feet were cooked so poorly you were not really able to eat a full bite in order to gauge its flavor. Although Jamie’s dish was undercooked and bland, at least it was edible.

I believe Casey’s downfall was not an inability to cook her food well, but the fact that she simply took on too much in the name of the “team” and at her own expense. Had she JUST decided to focus on the chicken feet dish and not also volunteer to work the trolley in the dining room, putting the finishing touches of her dish in the hands of Antonia in the process, she probably would have succeeded. She took two risks that day, which was one too many. That is often the problem with being the martyr. You may be remembered for all eternity as the one who suffered for the greater cause, but in the end you are still the one who is sacrificed. She only has herself to blame for letting that dish slip from her control. But if there is one thing I know about Casey, it’s that she is more than just a sacrificial lamb. She’s an honest, hardworking and talented chef, dedicated to her craft and committed to making great food. She will always be an All-Star in my book.Thankfully, there were a few bright moments in the otherwise dreary meal that day. Fabio amazed us with sticky, tender Soy-Honey Glazed Spicy Pork Ribs, a much needed departure from the gnocchi streak he had been on. Dale and Angelo together made outstanding Cheung Fun with Shrimp, a traditional loose rice noodle roll that has always been my favorite on the dim sum menu. Individually, Angelo also made a Spring Roll that was packed with flavor, crunchy vegetables and large, juicy pieces of shrimp and pork. Dale’s rendition of Sweet Rice with Chinese Bacon Wrapped in a Banana Leaf was by far the most exciting, tasty and innovative dish we tasted. Of course, that is somewhat expected, as he makes a great deal of dim sum in his kitchen at Buddakan every day. Nevertheless, he proved not only is he a whiz at it but that, in all the mayhem and chaos of the Grand Harmony kitchen, at least a few bites of balance and pleasure could be found. For that we were all truly grateful.

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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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