Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Marcel Mar-so-so's Senior Editor is heartbroken over Marcel's elimination, but still excited about her recent trip to Octavia's Porch.

Hello, my little wolverines! That was of course an ode to Marcel's Season 2 sideburned look. But before we get to my great loss, let's start with this week's exhilerating Quickfire. The chefs arrive at Le Bernardin, the restaurant I have the good fortune of schlepping a whole one block to every week to film Eric Ripert's amazing video blog. Tony Bourdain, Eric Ripert's dear frenemy (seriously, you have to read their Twitter banter; it's genius), was there to meet the chefs and introduce them to Justo, a man he says he devotes an entire chapter to in Medium Raw. I'd like to take this moment to interject and say that we're starting a bit of a foodie book club, and our first selection is Bourdain's Medium Raw, so go get the book, read it by February 14th, and follow @Bravotv for more details! We will do something fun and informative with Bourdain after we're all done reading.

Watching Justo butcher that fish literally gave me the chills. What a man, with such skill. I asked Chef Ripert where he found Justo and he said he stole him from the restaurant next door after it closed! What luck! I was actually nervous for our chefs fileting for Justo. While quite a few of the chefs did a good job, only four emerged on top. They went on to cook a Quickfire dish using the scraps, what most people might throw away from the fish, but this included the collar, which I've heard/read is considered by many chefs as the tastiest part of a fish. Dale feels very confident in this challenge because he grew up cooking this stuff, and sure enough, he wins. He's kind of killing it this season, isn't he?

As a reward for his win, Dale gets to choose the other team's leader in RESTAURANT WARS! (Cue epic music.) He chooses the one chef he can't fathom working successfully with, and that person is Marcel. A lot of you brought up a very good point in the comments about Marcel's behavior last week -- he was drunk. And, yeah, he probably was as he was swigging straight from a bottle of gin, but I'd like to think that at a certain age, drunkenness doesn't excuse bad behavior. And that's saying a lot coming from me becuase I pretty much defend Marcel against everything. Anyway, the lovely people at Magical Elves put together this hi-larious music video about Marcel's plight. Watch:

Marcel had his hands full again this week with his team, the losing team. The chefs just wouldn't listen to him, which I found incredibly frustrating. I think Angelo put it best when he said that he would've fired Mike Isabella for talking back to him the way he spoke back to Marcel. Honestly, at the end of the day, Marcel was Executive Chef. If you have serious problems with the way he's telling you to cook something, problems that could result in a dish being worse, then speak to him about it. But to curse back at him as a member of his team, I thought, was kind of out of line. That being said, I didn't have to work under Marcel, and who knows how I would've reacted, but it didn't seem like Marcel's team gave him a chance at all. When Marcel said at Judges' Table that he, in fact, told his team to do many of the things the judges' criticized the team for, I believed him. Marcel is totally the Kim Richards of Top Chef. Nobody will listen to him! (Did I really just make that analogy?) I actually wonder what would have happened if Marcel fired Mike. I honestly don't even know if that's allowed, but it could've gotten interesting. At the end of the day, all of the arguments aside, not only were Marcel's team's dishes the worst, but it sounds like his individual dishes were too. That dessert really put him over the edge. I was obviously very upset to see Marcel go.

The other team had an interesting dynamic as well. Although Dale was the captain, it was Richard who really took charge in the kitchen. I am constantly baffled watching the chefs this season kind of just listen to whatever Richard tells them to do. Richard really proves the point that many of the chefs tried to expain to Marcel: that if you treat people with respect, and set a good example, people will just follow you. I hope other chefs give Marcel that opportunity someday, to prove that he's worthy of that respect. Richard had such a presence in the kitchen that he actually won the challenge. Well done, Mr. Blais. We put together a little list of superlatives, as voted on by all the chefs, and Richard was chosen as Judges' Pet. I doubt this week's win will do anything to change that opinion.

G-d, I really can't get over Marcel leaving. I'm distraught. I just didn't like the way he went out. Oh well. Nothing a little comfort food can't fix.

And speaking of comfort food (what a segue!), I had the pleasure of dining at new mommy Nikki Cascone and her husband Brad's newest venture Octavia's Porch on Tuesday night. Quite different from what she was doing at 24 Prince, Nikki is serving up global Jewish food, and, um it's f---ing awesome. And trust me, I tested quite a large sample from the menu. After some surprisingly light challah, my three friends and I started with a tasting of the potato and escarole soup, which was perfectly garlic-y since it literally had whole cloves of garlic in it, which I love. The four of us ordered four apps: the kreplach (pictured), the knish, the chopped liver, and the gefilte fish. I don't care for liver, but I tried it anyway, but the kreplach and knish were true highlights. They are both must-orders.


We were actually kind of satiated after all the apps, but obviously ordered entrees anyway. I ordered the tagliatelle as I absolutely needed to eat Ms. Cascone's pasta. It was excellent. My friends ordered the duck, the brisket, and the stuffing, which they all enjoyed. And, what goes better with pasta than a sweet potato? (She says ever-so-sarcastically.) But, the sweet potatoes needed to be ordered, and they were delicious. I struggle every year at my own Chanukah party making sweet potato latkes because sweet potatoe just doesn't bind as well as regular potato, sooo I'm either going to have to obtain Nikki's secrets, or just order them next year and pretend I made them. Even though we were all pretty full at this point (if you're looking for a light meal, this isn't the place for you), we got dessert. We all wanted the challah bread pudding, which didn't disappoint. Our adorable and attentive server, Michael, also brought us the PB&J sinkers which he sensed I wanted. They are little donuts you dip in peanut butter and jelly. Holy s--- they're good. And, although we didn't even order it, I think the drunken apple crumb cake was my favorite. It tasted like the crust of an apple pie, and I coudn't stop reaching over my friend and grabbing bites. The cocktails were great too. I embraced the atmosphere and got the 3rd & B, which consists of rum and homemade cream soda. My friend ordered the egg cream, which actually was much thicker than usual, and I kinda dug it. OK, I'll stop gushing now, but you should really check the place out before it gets super-full. This is a restaurant I will definitely be recommending and returning to. I'm so proud of Nikki!
Also, on another side note, Fay Ann Lee the director of the film I mentioned in last week's blog, Falling from Grace, wrote me a really sweet note on Facebook and told me that Gale Harold not only ate the chicken legs in the film, but is a foodie. As if I needed a reason to love him more. Swoon.

Finally, I see that many of you have requested our live chats to start up again. I'l see what I can do, but in the meantime, I'm going to try and live-tweet -- spoiler-free -- from our @BravoTopChef account as often as I can, so follow us.

Until next week, Happy Noshing!

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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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