Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Shot with His Own Gun aka The Best Laid Plans

Anthony Bourdain thought this episode would suck, but as he admits, he was wrong.

Anyone for tennis?

I was watching from home this week and I'll tell you straight off: I thought this episode was going to suck. Early on, as I got the idea that somehow "tennis" and "Swanson" were going to be involved, I reached blindly for the bong. Tennis is about as interesting to me as golf. And I find golf as deeply fascinating as what a Kardashian might say next. Coming up bong-less, a Louboutin Barbie (those spike heels hurt if you don't pick up em just right) snapped me back to reality. Wrapping my wound, I dug in for what I assumed would be an hour of painfully obtrusive corporate tie-ins and silly themes: "Using only a hot plate and the thawed contents of these Hungry Man Dinners, you have 20 minutes to feed 200 drunk-ass tennis fans -- and special guest, Bindi Irwin!"

How wrong I was!

Instead, it was classic Top Chef! A slaughterfest! A high pressure face-off in which the tennis theme served as model in only the best possible way: chef against chef. And in the end, only skill, ability and endurance --not strategy, not guile, not luck --prevailed. The best food won.

Instead of the worst -- this was in fact the best kind of Top Chef: Skill-based, gimmick-free, requiring the cheftestants to draw on all their talents at cooking, work under pressure, and at end of day, (hopefully) make smart, delicious food that tasted right for the situation.

What we got to see -- as we do in only the best challenges -- is who these chefs really are. We got to lift their skull-tops and peer inside for a second, examine their true natures (and how deep their skills). This was a very revealing episode. There was heroism, drama, cowardice, bloodshed, suspense, and conspiracy. And at end of day, an unexpected victor emerged from the carnage, clambered out of the rubble with a knife between her teeth to claim victory.Was Marcel wearing a "Members Only" jacket in the confessional? Are they coming back? I'm confused.

Casey made what can only be described as a "deconstructed" stuffing, a decision that would have worked only if Santa Claus was a communist.

Carla's "Un Done-tay" quinoia was certainly an inauspicious beginning to the day. But she managed to bounce back (big time) from this hilarious mea culpa in Elimination Round.
Fabio improvised a polenta and cheese stuffing by grating cheese on a wire rack shelf, congratulating himself while doing it by commenting "That is genius!!" No, Fabio. Actually, that is "clostridium perfringens," the third most common cause of food poisoning.

Tre's Southwestern, cornbread stuffing won the QF -- immunity and $20K. I, of course, (as the father of a little girl) was rooting for him from afar. Two girls? He'll be needing that money.

Things started to get really interesting after the Elimination Challenge was announced. Spike suddenly reverted to Sneaky Spike of years past, enlisting his team on a High Security Secret Mission to outwit, outflank and out-strategize the opposing team. Of tantamount importance to his Master Plan, however, was that Jamie -- who it was assumed would make a crappy dish -- would go first, putting her presumably lame-o offering up against one of the opposing team's stronger efforts, thereby causing them to "waste" it. One would think that Jamie would feel slighted by the near instananeous assumption by her teammates that she was incapable of coming up with anything worthwhile. But no.

"Whatever," says our hero. "If I can avoid fighting, I'm going to avoid fighting."

Jamie might actually be the most brilliant of all the contestants. At the end of this episode she will have survived THREE weeks without cooking anything other than a quick tomato soup. Her strategy seems to actually be: "If I can avoid cooking, I'm going to avoid cooking." And it appears to be working. As the tension mounted, The Artist Formerly Known as Angry Dale doubted Carla's spicy peanut soup. But she persisted. Then she neatly whacked off half her fingernail. Let me tell you, I've had the same injury on any number of occasions. And that f---ing HURTS. But Carla, unlike the previous patient, tells the medic to shove off, wraps her finger up and soldiers on -- referring to her wound as "an inconvenience." I need not pursue this subject, I think. Res Ipsa Loquitor. The thing Speaks For Itself. Carla? Rottweiler. Jamie? Malingerer.

First match-up and suddenly, Jamie refuses to even go in the tank for her team. Her chickpeas aren't cooked. As anticipated, she has nothing to serve. According to Spike's master plan, she was supposed to take a dive, but now, she doesn't even manage to make it into the ring to take one for the team. It doesn't matter. Fabio triumphantly beats Casey with his gnocchi -- taking what looks like a victory leap over the net. Nice to see Fabio so unabashedly happy for a change.

Tiffany F. whupps No-Longer-Angry Dale by a mile.

Marcel, dutifully doing the producer's bidding by jacking up the drama quotient in confessional, describes walking out on the tennis court by saying he "felt like a gladiator entering an arena." To which I'd suggest, "Not in that jacket."

Angelo, whose mackerel has gone mysteriously slimy, tries to beg some salmon off of Tre, who wisely rebuffs him. He then edges Marcel with some borrowed tuna -- possibly because Marcel has chosen to put cream in his tuna dish.... Other than vitello tonnato, I'm having a hard time thinking of a tuna preparation that is improved by the addition of cream. But I guess anything is possible.

Tiffany Derry falls to Antonia -- who I like more than ever since her remark early in the show that her chosen sport in high school was "smoking a lot of pot." At which point we arrived at one of the more epic, nay -- Shakespearean -- moments in the history of Top Chef: The moment where Spike was defeated by himself, where the dark prince and conniver fell victim to his own web of deceit, the puppetmaster overwhelmed by his presumed puppets.

I underestimated Spike after his first appearances on the show. I applauded his guile, his stealth, his craftiness. He seemed -- then -- to make up for what he lacked in cooking skills with shrewdness, cleverness, and tactics. But I have since come to learn that he is also a very, very talented cook (and businessman). So far this season, he's been straight up cooking -- and doing mostly very well. He outwitted himself this week in the confusion of battle. Too busy looking at the big picture, he allowed the hyperactive Angelo to roll right over him. Suddenly, Angelo was lovingly inserting some unwanted "yuzu gelee" into Spike's dish -- and Spike, preoccupied managing the Eastern Front, perhaps -- or blinded by the Fog of War -- let it happen! In the end, he outsmarted himself. How did this happen?

I'm sure Spike will be asking the same question of himself for some time. God knows the warning signs were there. When Angelo starts talking about putting something "in" your food, it pays to be wary. He's always going on about putting "love" in his food -- and I've never been entirely convinced there's not actual penetration involved. The fault, dear Spike, lies not in the stars -- but in ourselves. Forget about strategy. You should have just cooked. You're good. Not that that's gonna make you feel any better. You will have to console yourself, I guess, with a wildly successful and rapidly expanding business empire.

What made ME feel good this week was the seeing chronically underestimated Carla walk away with the Big Win. Against all odds. Against the advice of those who doubted her choice of dish, who doubted her, she stuck with her plan. Never wavered. While sporting a painful finger wound that would have sent lesser mortals running off to the hospital, she showed us all what a professional is. Nicely done!

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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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