Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's Senior Editor is a little too excited about the new season.

Yes my little blog all-stars, this season is truly my beautiful dark twisted fantasy. (And I must confess that I'm also listening to Kanye's new album while I write this.) I can't describe the feeling I got when I first heard this season's theme. I got chills. My eyes got wide, and I lost it. For a Top Chef fanatic like myself, there's really nothing more exciting than an all-star season, so it is with great pride and a general 14-year-old-girl zeal that I write my first blog of the season.

I love all these chefs, but I have to admit I was most excited to hear that Marcel was coming back. I didn't watch Season 1 until the finale, but would race home to watch Season 2, and it was because of Marcel. I can fairly say that he is the reason I'm obsessed with the show, which is the reason I'm obsessed with Bravo, which is the reason I applied for a job here. So, I guess you can thank/blame Marcel for that. While many viewers and even some all-stars think Marcel's immature, I've always thought he was misunderstood. But, hey, Pete Campbell is also my favorite character on Mad Men -- are you recognizing a pattern?!

At the start, the chefs all meet at their home-away-from-home and we learn a few things:
1. Fabio's new 'do will probably be polarizing, but I'm on Team Long Hair!
2. Tre is lookin' goooood. (I saw him at the shoot for the new season, and I can confirm he looks as good in real life.)
3. Antonia and Spike may get into it.
4. Marcel and Fabio may get into it.
5. "Interesting? That's the kiss of death." I love Carla. Hootie-hoo!
5. Fabio will probably have the best lines of the season. Here's a quick taste so far:
    - "We're going up, but it feels like we're going to hell."
    - "I'm like the underdog. Italian dog ... good one."
    - "I squashed my balls on Season 5, and that's not going to happen."

Well, I probably could've done without that last bit, but I'll take it. Also, is it just me or does Fabio seem a little more sarcastic this time around? I just want to give him a hug.

So, after all the not-so-pleasantries, the chefs get down to work in their Quickfire Challenge, where they work in teams based on their season, making foods inspired by where their season was filmed. There were only two dishes that gave me pause: 1. Richard's mustard ice cream could've gone either way. While I obviously have all the faith in the world in Mr. Blais, Tom likes simple food, and he could've thought there was no added value in the molecular gastronomy. Luckily for Richard, Tom liked it enough to not only give his team the win, but to call out Richard's component for praise. The New York team didn't fare so well. Their dish sounded sketchy from the start in that the challenge was a team challenge, and the chefs didn't work together at all. I love Jamie, but i was a little disappointed to hear how down she was on her fellow chefs. Oh well -- I guess that's how you win shows! And considering Tom called her element of their dish out specifically as the best part, I guess her instincts are good. I wonder, though, if they had all worked togheter, how much better their overall dish would have been.

Onto the Elimination, which i'm going to assume was difficult for most of the chefs -- literally staring their failures in the face and remaking the dish that sent them home. For some of them, the dish that literally cost them the title of "Top Chef." The twist? The chefs didn't know but they'd be cooking for each other. AND the chefs would be able to hear the other chefs' comments. Yikes! While most of the chefs took it in stride, Fabio and Elia seemed to have particular trouble with the critiques. Elia couldn't even watch it. Apparently Elia knew something we didn't, because her dish was not received well, and she was the first of the chefs to go home. Although she felt embarrassed going home first, I would say to her that it's probably better to be on the bottom of the very best, if that makes any sense. It didn't? Oh well. Fabio landed on the bottom with Elia with a dish Anthony Bourdain found particularly offensive.

I would like to take this moment to talk about Anthony Bourdain for one second. When it was mentioned on an early conference call about the new season that Bourdain might be joining, I nearly had a coronary. The man could probably just go by one name, "Bourdain" -- he's that awesome. Men love him. Women love him. I'm sure most of the animal kingdom loves him too. As a young and naive editor at it was my privilege to receive his blogs each week for posting. Unless I'm re-writing history I think his blog may have been my idea. I figured, hey, I'm a fan and I want to hear more from him, I bet others do too. I am so excited that he's back blogging for the site! Say what you will about his food, which I've unfortunately never had the pleasure of eating, but the man can write. So, welcome, Anthony -- or, as everyone else calls him, "Tony"!
Tony certainly has a way with words. It's entertaining, it's colorful, and usually exactly what you're thinking. But, apparently Fabio didn't appreciate it this week, and spoke back to Anthony at Judges' Table. I don't know that I've ever seen Fabio that pissed. Anthony talks about the confrontation in his blog, and even says he feels bad about it! Read on... I didn't really get the whole pasta on paper thing either, but I actually kinda like crunchy greens, especially spinach. But apparently Fabio's greens were greasy.

Stephen also found himself in the bottom. Stephen cracks me up, and although I felt bad for his problems in the kitchen this week, I found it amusing. He's a little rusty, and just trying to find his bearings in the kitchen. I guess we'll find out if it ever happens for him!

Angelo won the first challenge, which is a big deal on Top Chef. As longtime fans know, many of the winners of the first challenge go on to win the whole thing. I guess we'll see if he can be a part of that legacy.

Jamie also did well, recreating a dish she hated making in the first place. Shooting Eric Ripert's vlog was particularly interesting this week because he had a few choice words for Jamie. Watch:

Remind me to tell Eric how much I love braised celery next time I see him!
Richard was also in the top, but because of those pesky rules, he was disqualified for the win. Eh, seems fair.

And then there was Spike and his frozen scallops. If I never have to hear about the frozen scallops again it will be too soon. It was a bit of a nightmare at the time, and besides, this is Top Chef, not Top Scallop!

I feel like that were a lot of hilarious things that happened in this episode because I remember giggling like a jackass when I watched it the first time, but I'm blanking! Help me out! Also, help me out by leaving comments -- reading them really makes my day.

I hope you're all as excited about this season as I am -- that "On this season of Top Chef..." was certainly intense enough.

Until next week, Happy Noshing!

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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