Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

I Have No Soul.

Bravotv.com's Senior Editor didn't cry once this episode.

Hello my little Statues of Liberty! Thank you for all of your comments on last week's episode. I fear I may have incited somewhat of a comment riot against Mike Isabella, but I guess there's no going back. I will see him at the reunion taping, and I'm just hoping that he doesn't read this! I can just see it now. "So, um, Monica, you think I'm grimey?" And I'll be all "Whatever, whatever." But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

For now, let's focus on this week's challenge: the one where I didn't cry. Not one bit. At all. And where I learned that I have no soul.

For the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs get on a boat traveling towards... Ellis Island (!), and are tasked in creating a dish out of the concession items laying around. They were cooking for none other than Dan Barber, one of the most recognizable figures in the world of sustainable cooking (and you know how much I enjoyed Blue Hill when I went.) The irony of Chef Barber having to eat basically nothing but preserved food was not lost on me, so, yeah, it was funny. While Tiffany and Antonia sorta stuck to thinking inside the box, Mike Isabella went for the disgusting with his bread soup. It literally looked like something you'd see at a camp lunch table. Like, at the end of the meal -- when little kids mix together all the leftovers with whatever bug juice is laying around and make the grossest mixture ever. Richard innovated the common hot dog, but Carla's orange salad prevailed. Probably should've figured it would since it seemed to be the only fresh dish offered. Richard "Debbie Downer" Blais didn't look too pleased with the defeat. He never does.But there was no time to dwell because the chefs' ultimate destination was Ellis Island where their family members were waiting for them. All of the chefs -- the exhausted chefs -- were emotional. I wasn't. But, I did enjoy seeing the private side of the five chefs. Then, they were surprised with information about their genealogy, and we learn that Antonia and Mike are related. I mean, that's just crazy. What are the odds?! Probably pretty good I guess. The chefs have to create dishes based on their background. We did this for Heritage Week in third grade, and I made a Persian rice dish. See? We can all be Top Chefs! Anyway, the judges sit at the dinner table with the chefs' families. This reminded me of the Season 6 finale where Kevin, Michael and Bryan's moms' joined the judges at the table. This seemed a little more intense, though. These relatives knew how to talk about food! Richard tweeted during the show that his wife should be at Judges' Table, and I thought, "Um, yeah, she should." She speaks so intelligently about food! I was also struck by Richard's conversation with his wife after the meal which was all about getting intel about the judges' comments. We know Richard's intense, but I guess his wife (whom I've actually met, and she's kinda gorgeous) is too -- he even mentions that she's an athlete who wants to win. They're a power couple! Um, and Carla and her husband met on Match.com?! Does that mean there's hope for me?! Maybe I should have Carla write my dating profile....

And then there was Mike's heartbreaking revelation that he doesn't cook Italian food because it reminds him of his grandmother. And, again, I didn't cry. Everyone else cried -- Gail, Andy, my editors. But not me. And I always cry! Maybe I'm still mad at Mike about last week's Quickfire? Either way, I'm a monster. It's official.

All of the chefs did such a good job that no one went home. Antonia's mom joked about a final five, and she got her wish. All of the chefs are going to the Bahamas! Although, Richard might be going with a few extra gray hairs, because Padma made him believe he was going home. Good one, Padma! All of the dishes sounded pretty hearty and delicious, but I, like Tom, don't like okra. Just the other night my best friend made gumbo with okra, and I ate around it. It was actually frozen okra, so it wasn't slimey, but something about knowing that it was once slimey, I just couldn't get behind it. Maybe I need to try Tiffany's! As I said the sign of a great chef is one that can make you like foods you thought you didn't, so I think Tiffany really proved herself with that dish.In fact, they all really proved themselves. What I found most interesting about this episode is that all of the chefs were essentially forced to cook with "soul." Cooking with soul is something that has been a sticking point with many of our chefs throughout the seasons, most notably with Hung Huynh in Season 3. Sure, the judges always knew Hung could cook, but he was criticized for not having soul, for not showing his roots. Obviously, he got over that in the finale, and won, but I wonder what would have happened had he had a challenge like this week's before the last episode. Hmmm...

Something to think about before we head to the Bahamas next week! Until then, have a nosh!

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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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