Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Least Best Dish

Gail Simmons reiterates Tiffany's comment about being "outcooked." The Quickfire Challenge was all about consistency -- what did you think of that concept?
Gail Simmons: I liked it a lot. I thought it was very much an exercise in cooking for a banquet. That's how chefs work when they cater a big event, which happens a lot. There are always private parties and large-scale events in the restaurant world. I thought it was a really useful exercise because it made these chefs think in a way that they usually don't have to think on this show when they just have to prepare two dishes at a time. Even when they have to prepare 20 dishes at a time, it's different than preparing a hundred portions of a small plate. And we're never tasted more than one consecutively, so I don't know if mine tastes just like yours. If I'm a customer and I come two nights in a row for example, I want my favorite thing on the menu to taste the same both times. It's an important thing for chefs to know how to do. The women won with their cold dish, and the guys were kind of bitter. Do you think the girls took the easy way out doing a cold dish, or do you think they were just smart?
GS: I think it was smart. You don't get points for taking a risk if it's not as good as everyone else's. Although the boys' dish was more complicated in the preparation and the cooking process, the girls' plating process was more complicated. They had three different components. First they laid down the sauce on the bottom, then they laid down the salad, and then they placed the beef over it. So it actually took three passes to plate. They had different challenges, and while the girls' food may have been simpler in preparation, we weren't judging on complexity. That wasn't the challenge -- consistency was the challenge. When I'm in the dining room and I order a complicated dish for the main course, and you order a simple piece of grilled fish with a vegetable for your main course, do I like mine better because it's more complicated? No. On to the Elimination Challenge, which was a little bit Survivor-style. The chefs had to make a conch dish, but they had to catch their own conch. What did you think of that?
GS: It was awesome! I thought it was hysterical. I thought it was fantastic and perfect for a deserted island. It added another element for them to work at and was really fun to watch. It was interesting for us all to actually see where conch comes from and see them pull it out of the shell, which chef never has to see when they buy it and just pulls it out of the freezer. The island was over an hour boat ride from the mainland. The location was beautiful. There were rocky cliffs and gorgeous water, and all these little islands in the distance, Gilligan's Island-style. Our guest judge Lorena, who's on America's Next Great Restaurant, was super fun to work with. I've never worked with her before, and she had this great energy. I loved listening to her talk about food. We were so worried about how they were going to cook, because we only gave them fire and boards and food, and not much else. They had a big variety of ingredients, but the fact that they did not get sand in the food was sort of a revelation. That never happens. It reminded me a little bit of the episode in the desert on Season 6 when they were cooking over an open flame; that was a disaster. Mostly because on top of it all, it was 110 degrees. We were really impressed overall with the food in this challenge, especially coming off the last challenge where the food was pretty weak. We worried that we were in for a very sad finale. But I think they were energized by swimming for the conch, the atmosphere, and by the challenge itself. I was really proud of them; they did a fabulous job. They each did very different things. Mike did a banana-wrapped grouper. The method that Mike chose to cook it with was really great and made all the difference. He grilled it, and the flavor of those leaves is really interesting. They have a smokiness and a nuttiness, and by grilling them he brought out the flavor even more, which I think was smart. On top of it, what was inside complemented the conch so well. That smokiness from the leaf penetrated into the fish and also into the sauce that he made, and of course the braised pineapple. The pineapple for me was just amazing. It was sour, and it had this great texture. Because it has so much acid in it, it really played well off the fish. I thought it was so delicious. His use of conch was also interesting because it was in the vinaigrette. We never said the conch had to be the star of the plate, and everyone used it in very different ways. With Mike incorporating it into the vinaigrette, we were still able to taste it, we were still able to get the texture of it. It was an exciting way to work with the ingredient. The comment about the butter was true, when you think about tropical climates you definitely don't think about butter and butter sauces. Colder climates generally tend to warrant that type of cooking. But it didn't bother me. It gave it a richness that again, because of the really intense acidity of the pineapple, I thought all went together well. It was an inspired dish. It's rare that we taste something on the show that is so completely new. And this is just a flavor combination that was new and fresh, unlike anything I had ever tasted before. Richard made what Tom thought was pasta, but you had to tell him it wasn't!
GS: A lot of people thought it was pasta. I thought that was kind of amazing. It was really hard to tell. It was very subtle, and the way that Richard described it wasn't totally clear. I think he said sweet potato noodles kind of in passing, but that could just mean that he combined sweet potato with the flour, like how you can make gnocchi with potato. People were genuinely surprised that it was just pure sweet potato ribbons. I tasted a bit of a crunch, which was how I knew it was a sweet potato, not a pasta.  And I loved that idea of it being like linguine alla vongole, clams and linguine. It's one of my favorite pastas. I think he did a great job with it. It was so interesting, but we didn't feel that he could win because there was that piece of undercooked lobster that threw us a little bit.

I want to be clear here, because I don't want people to be confused or upset about the fact that we sent Carla home last week for uncooked pork. In regards to Carla's uncooked pork and Richard's undercooked lobster, Carla's pork was really raw in the center of my dish, and Richard's was just slightly undercooked. The difference is you can't eat raw pig, but you can definitely eat raw lobster. There's lobster carpaccio, lobster sushi. It may not have been exactly how we wanted to eat that lobster, but it's completely different than raw pork. You could tell that Richard cooked the rest of them, so there was an inconsistency there, speaking of consistency. But it was worrisome in the same way. Antonia turned around Padma's criticism that she always makes the same thing into a positive by saying that's her signature culinary style. do you agree?
GS: I don't know if she was trying to turn it around or if it was just true. It's not as if she usually does very complicated dishes and this was a departure for her. I just think that in terms of presentation it was very standard –- a piece of fish with the salsa and conch on top. It wasn't as much of a reach as the other three dishes. The other three dishes had a real uniqueness to them. However it was one of the best in regards to taste. Everyone loved it. If you think back to the Quickfire Challenge, she did the same thing where she did simple food, but did it well. I would rather have a perfectly cooked piece of fish with a delicious salsa than something very complicated that doesn't have any depth or technique to it any day. The reason Mike won was that he managed to do both. Unless it's going to be perfect, I'd rather you go Antonia's route and give me great food. There's a delicate balance between us wanting to see the chefs stretch themselves, which is how the competition is won, and cooking well consistently to your best ability. Antonia's dish was really well developed, the flavors went well together, the tartar of conch was really fresh. The size of the conch didn't bother me; I still thought it was flavorful. Finally we have Tiffany who went home. What did you think was the ultimate weakness of that dish?
GS: There were a couple of things. We try not to judge on temperature often, because during TV production you can't really account for that. But her hot soup was not hot at all, and in terms of a soup, that really changes the mouth feel. For soup it really makes a difference if it's hot or cold, and I didn't really want to eat cold conch chowder; it becomes a bit slimy. The flavors were relatively good if a bit sweet. This is how it always ends up happening: it wasn't that it was terribly bad, as Tom said they all did a good job, but we need to choose someone. Either there's a clear loser that we know we're going to send home or everyone did well and you have to just choose the "least best" dish. That's what happened with Tiffany. Hers was the least interesting, the least flavorful, the least technically perfect. It wasn't that it was bad, it just wasn't the best in the context of those dishes. On this day, on this challenge, we were all the least excited by Tiffany's food. And that's all you have to judge on when everything's good, right? And that also came from our diners too, we all agreed that she had a great idea but it was not a great choice for the circumstances and the atmosphere. I'm sad about Tiffany. We love her very much. She's a great, great chef. But she said it best: she was outcooked.

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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