Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Center Will Not Hold

Anthony Bourdain pinpoints the moment Angelo "lost it."

It is a hard thing asked of these contestants. Penned up for weeks at a time in a bunker, largely incommunicado, with only each other, boxed wine, and gallon jugs of Wolfschmitz for company, TV cameras always hovering, waiting to pounce at any moment of conflict or stress and fix them in their timeless glare. Sleep is a sometimes thing -- and likely to be interrupted at any time by Padma in a shocking print, rallying them to prepare a three-course meal using the contents of a vending machine. These contestants are tired. Isolated, sleepless, subjected to "stress positions" for long periods at a time, running on a schedule that changes capriciously and without discernible patterns, this kind of fiendish punishment can create in a subject, a weakened and vulnerable state of mind. Dick Cheney would blanche at some of the awful things we do these chefs. It's enough to crack anyone.

In the last few weeks of Top Chef, we have observed as extraordinarily gifted, experienced professionals have:

Won an Elimination Challenge with a bowl of steamed mussels.
Completely f---ed up an entire pasta course that any Italian nona could have won with a handful of boxed pasta, some good olive oil, a clove of garlic, and a few chili flakes.
Been sent home for botching a CHEESEBURGER.
Won an Elimination Challenge with a grilled cheese sandwich.
Been given the chop for screwing up what was basically a  liquified version of a baked potato you'd find made better at TGI McFunster's.

What's going ON here?

One need only look at Angelo's face in the stew room. He seemed a shrunken version of himself. Yet to  face the judges, he appeared a condemned man, waiting, ready and resigned to his fate.

These chefs are exhausted. The stress of the last few weeks has visibly ground some of them down them down to virtual nubbins. I felt sadness and enormous sympathy during the EC action, watching Carla wander through that enormous Target's empty aisles, 3 a.m., a a headless chicken blinking under the cruel, fluorescent lights. Tiffany, falling back on some hideous prepared seasoning from childhood as if drowning -- grabbing for it like a life preserver. Angelo and Mike seeking solace and security in each other's company, clinging to their fellow inmate for solace. Given their post-Gitmo state of mind, and the conditions at Camp Top Chef lately, it was an unexpected delight to see the Muppets earlier in the show. Ordinarily, I hate goofy challenges like this: fuzzy, silly, tweenie, or personality-driven guest judges. As a general rule, I'd like to see Joel Robuchon, Eric Ripert, and Grant Achatz sit in on every challenge. But this was, I thought, one of the more unexpectedly delightful QFs in Top Chef history. I tried to resist -- curmudgeonly inclined as I am -- but who among us, what hard-hearted monster could not be charmed by the sight of Richard Blais, explaining himself to Elmo? Angry Dale being heckled by furries, fighting a natural instinct to curse at the Cookie Monster? As a dad -- all too familiar with Elmo and Mr. Noodle and friends -- I was fascinated by the varied reactions as the chefs were confronted by the fact that they'd be judged by Muppets. Blais thought instantly of his own child -- and how cool he'd look later having hung with Elmo. Tiffany and Carla seemed amused. Antonia thrilled and bemused. Isabella took it in stride. Dale was understandably dismayed -- but impressively enough, went on to snatch victory from disgust. It was the expression on Angelo's face, however, that was the "tell." When he first spied the Muppets popping up from behind the table, his face fell as if punched. He looked like someone had just taken a dump on his lap. My theory is that that was the precise moment where Angelo lost it. His will to go on disappeared. From the first second he looked into those three sets of pitiless, googly eyes, he was a defeated man. He had seen the Beast. And it was brightly-colored and fuzzy.

I should interject that no one was more excited by the Great Muppet Adventure than Tom Colicchio. It was all he could talk about after. I've never seen or heard him so excited about any guest judge -- ever! And I understand now. I put off watching the QC until the very last moment -- but was  immediately charmed. And bizarrely enough, no challenge has ever shown us so unblinkingly the true characters of our contestants. As I've said, these are enormously talented people, doing a very hard thing -- under ridiculous pressure. It was great to see them have a laugh. It was great to see a few unguarded moments -- children again.

End of the day, Angelo went home. He may have been a better all-around cook than some. But his soup was far and away the worst. Top Chef is like the baseball play-offs. Doesn't matter who the better team is -- or who has the best season stats. One bad day, one booted slow roller to short, and it's all over. Richard's arepa, while ugly (and its appearance was not a factor in the judging in this case) was only slightly less tasty than Dale's soup and sandwich. Antonia's courageous and delicious soft-cooked eggs were only a hair behind Richard in their wonderfulness.

But Dale? His dish tasted the best. Was executed skillfully and innovatively. And once again, hit that sweet spot with the judges as Dale figured out just right what four jaded palates might crave at 3 a.m. in an empty Target store in New Jersey.

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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