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!

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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