Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Straight Up Yummy's Senior Editor explains why this week's episode was a treat for a NYC foodie like herself.

Hello, my little eggheads. I can tell from your comments that you're all still pretty revved up about last week's elimination, but, well, I don't know what else to say on that topic.

I have a lot to say about this week's episode, however, which I thought was one of the most relatable and relevant episodes we've ever done, at least for a self-proclaimed NYC foodie like myself. Before we get to my reasons for thinking so, let's start with the rousing Quickfire Relay, a Top Chef classic.

As Eric Ripert says in his vlog this week, I too was slightly confused by the change to this season's race until the first team got to start cooking. That being said, I get confused easily. Like, I never understand the rules of The Challenge on MTV. Anyway, usually, each team goes head-to-head to see who can finish one task at a time first. This time, each team had to do a bunch of tasks at a time, and the time in which they finished their mise en place determined how long they would get to cook a dish made from those ingredients. Although Angelo's team finished first, their dish was on the bottom. Who didn't see that one coming? I think Marcel's team's dish could've gone either way. The didn't finish early, but they were smart about making a carpaccio and almost got the win. Too bad Richard's team's dish was better -- they had me at "Artichoke cooked three ways." This reminded me of a dish Bryan Voltaggio made his season, on which I'm totally blanking (I think it was his Bocuse d'Or dish, though) where Tom commented on the fact that although the dish looked simple, the amount of technique that went into it was incredible. So, kudos to the team!OK, now I can sink my teeth into the Elimination. See, one might say the best episode of Top Chef: Miami, was the chefs' trip to New York, starting with a Quickfire at Le Cirque, and then a legendary challenge at the FCI. The skill level at that point was high, and the chefs were in (arguably, of course) their most esteemed company that episode. But the thing is, no New Yorkers I know goes to Le Cirque on a regular basis (or at least I don't.) I'd like to think that place is reserved for special occasions. And some could certainly argue that this week's restaurants are expensive and fall in the same category, but as someone who spends the majority of her paycheck on food, well, it's different. Marea, Townhouse, Ma Peche, and wd~50 are foodie havens ... all the time. All the chefs, especially Quickfire guest judge David Chang are foodie gods in New York, and so this episode actually felt the most New York to me so far. Now, I don't want to sound too much like Stephen, offering unwanted commentary, and the truth is, I only offer food advice if asked (usually), but I can still remember my tasting menu at wd~50, which I did almost two and a half years ago. Not only can I remember it, but I still have the menu, which arrives at the table in an envelope (or it did -- not sure what they do now.) It has actually been sitting on my work desk this whole time. (Please excuse my appearance -- this is the morning after the Bravo Holiday Party.)



I remember my favorite course being the "Eggs benedict." It was so whimsical and delicious, which makes total sense, knowing, as Dale Talde did, that Wylie is an egghead. Although I have yet to make it to Marea or Townhouse, I have been to David Chang's Ssam Bar and frequest his Milk Bar more than I care to mention, and can't wait to finally make it to Ma Peche. (Plans to dine there have always fallen through.) So, this week's episode was comfortable and personal. We'll start at Marea: Poor Stephen. The guy is a sweetheart, and although I'm sad for him, I think he knew as well as we did it was his time to go. I'm going to assume he actually got farther than he thought he might, considering he's never really in the kitchen anymore. It was nice to read in Bourdain's blog that Stephen's technique is still in tact, cooking a perfect salmon, albeit a losing one. Although Stephen came off as a bit pretentious the last couple episodes, I think his heart was in the right place, sharing his knowledge of Marea with Tre. It's so funny -- what annoyed Tre is exactly what always drives my sister nuts -- when people say, "Try this, you'll like it." Well, they might not. And although I can say with almost complete certainty that my sister is surely less adventurous with her food than Tre, it is equally as annoying for them. This is all moot of course since Tre's dish won his group.

On to Ma Peche, where Fabio certainly seemed to be the most out of his element. On the flip side, Angelo was totally in his element. And while the judges seemed wowed by his use of white chocolate with fish, and I don't want to take anything away from that, we've seen it before. Richard Blais and Dale Talde. Season 4. Salmon. 'Member?!

Over at David Burke's Townhouse, Dale Levitski seemed to be the front-runner, but his lack of editing was his downfall this time, and he went home. I kinda knew Antonia would win her heat -- if you will -- because her "peas and carrots" premise just sounded so inspired. Her peas cooked perfectly this time.

And finally over at wd~50, I really, really wanted Marcel to win this, but I knew it wasn't meant to be. Dale cooked what he knew, but did get inspired by Wylie Dufresne's aesthetic. I would have loved to have tried that egg dumpling -- maybe it will end up on the Buddakan menu one day. I was worried for Tiffani, but I didn't feel like it was her time to go home yet, and for some reason I think the judges felt good about her recognizing what she did wrong, and how she would correct it next time.

Can we go back to Marcel for one sec? I know most of you don't understand why I like him, and if this episode didn't change your mind, nothing will, but he is just so passionate about cooking, and it's such a pleasure to watch. As opposed to some of the other chefs who complain about everything, I cracked up when he said how much fun he was having during the Relay Race challenge. He just loves being in a kitchen, loves the challenges, and loves the competition, and I think it's so refreshing. So, no matter what you might think of him, he loves what he does. And I love that.

I've already peeped next week's episode, and it's kind of awesome, but first, tell me what you think about this week's! And, as always, Happy Noshing!

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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