Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Human Factor

Anthony Bourdain describes what it must be like in "Marcel Land."

Simply speaking, a "chef" is a cook who leads. I am approached by many proud parents who proclaim that their sons or daughters are "chefs" -- and then go on to describe someone who cooks well. That is a very good thing. To cook well, with pride, and with a genuine concern or even love for the people for whom one is cooking puts one automatically on the side of the angels. It does not make you a chef. A chef is a leader of cooks. Period. 

Years ago, I ran a large and too-busy kitchen in Manhattan. My sous-chef, an old associate who I'd brought along and promoted to help me with delegation and management of nearly fifty cooks, all of them new hires, came to me one day and stated what had already become painfully apparent. "They don't listen to me. They don't respect me. Tell them to listen to me." I told him what every leader, manager, or employer must surely come to know: That nothing I could do -- or was even willing to do -- would gain him respect that he had not himself earned. This is a lesson that one would hope Marcel might someday take to heart. Sadly, I see no evidence to date -- even after the shambles of Restaurant "Etch" -- that he ever will.

But let's begin at the beginning. I'm very proud of the QuickFire Challenge this week -- as I helped design it. And very proud that I had the opportunity to introduce the world to the remarkable Justo Thomas, the legendary fish butcher at Le Bernardin, on whom I spent a chapter in my book, Medium Raw. Each day, Justo butchers anywhere from 700-1,000 pounds of fish from on the bone to three-star Michelin quality, chillingly equal-sized  portions. He is a proud, deadly serious perfectionist and professional, and it was an honor to spend time with him. It was also a singular delight to show the sometimes cocky cheftestants a truly amazing craftsman. When Justo goes away on vacation, it takes three of Le Bernardin's excellent sous-chefs all day, a full shift, working together, to do what he is able to accomplish brilliantly in about four hours! Intimidating.

As I mentioned on the show, this was a rare challenge where everyone knew immediately, exactly how well -- or how poorly -- they performed. You either can -- or can't -- cut fish well. There's simply no debate. So we learned very quickly, and without any doubt, that Marcel, Dale, Richard, and Mike can cut fish. Marcel in particular is very good at it. 

Carla struggled to even finish. Fabio took a chunk out of his thumb. Tiffany did not do well. And Antonia, shockingly, Dahmer-ized  her two sea creatures. They looked like they'd been gnawed on by raccoons overnight. In part two of the challenge, I asked the top four to do what every good cook, in every great cooking culture -- what talented home cooks, grandmothers, street food vendors, chefs, and hungry people struggling to make something delicious out of not very much -- have been doing since the beginning of time: make something delicious and enticing out of those pieces that the wealthy, the lazy, and the entitled often consign to the garbage. This is exactly what defines a good cook -- throughout history. And if you look at China, Brazil, Spain, Italy, France -- anywhere where people were compelled historically to make the most out of every little bit -- the ability to make the tough, the ugly, the bony, and scraggly into something loved, respected, and even revered --
is the fundamental engine of good cooking. In the annals of cooking, people learned to cook well -- more often than not -- because they had to. Those who understood this and who embraced this challenge, performed exceedingly well. And in the end, it was a tight, three-way race for immunity. Ironically, many of the dishes and preparations that have come to be known as "Nose to Tail" cooking, have been recognized over time as actually better than the easy stuff. The Chinese, for instance, the Portugese, and many other cultures have come to understand that the head of the fish is actually the best part. This was an opportunity to shine -- and to their credit, Mike Isabella, Richard, and Dale "got" it right away. Dale made a winning sashimi with the meat from along the fins with a brilliant sauce made from the fluke's liver. Also, a very tasty fish collar in bacon dashi. Mike Isabella did a pan-roasted fish belly with charred collar in olive oil, highlighting the different flavors and textures of the subtly different parts.
Richard made a schnitzel of cod belly. All three highlighted not just the flavors at hand, but the wonderfully different textures.
Marcel, as he has done so many times, put his considerable skills to work in the cause of his own brilliance -- and ignored what makes these elements so distinctive and wonderful. His dish was very, very tasty (and yes, I did taste the excellent broth), but rather than take advantage of the variety of textures at his disposal, he muscled the ingredients into submission, running them through a sieve and basically, turning them into mush. Good flavor. Texturally? Insipid. He missed, typically, the whole point: all those crispy, sticky, slippery, cartilaginous, buttery, meaty differences right beneath his nose. Dale, who seemed happiest with this challenge, demonstrated why: he took to it as if he'd been waiting his whole life. Richard and Mike made very fine, well thought-through dishes. But Dale's really creative, superior offering won him immunity. It was, as someone pointed out, however, a horse race.

And then, it was on to Restaurant Wars, everybody's favorite Elimination Challenge. I know I look forward to it. Here's an opportunity for the chefs to show us everything they've got -- all the qualities one looks for in a Top Chef: speed, skill, strength, creativity, smarts, maturity -- and leadership.

Dale, given the advantage of choosing the opposing team's captain,  shrewdly (and at one stroke) rid himself of any possibility of having to work with his arch enemy -- and rolled a ticking time bomb straight into any team he might face by picking Marcel, notoriously the worst leader of the bunch, a man with truly awful -- some might say pathologically bad -- people skills.  The Greeks say, "The fish stinks from the head," and from the very beginning, from the first moments of menu planning for Restaurant Etch, the enterprise was clearly doomed. The team struggled to even agree on a name. And in what way the resulting menu reflected Marcel's "Mediterranean" concept, I have no idea. The stench of disharmony wafted over the dining room. You could feel, it, smell it. The judges actually stood there at the hosts' stand, waiting like lummoxes to be seated. Tiffany exuded an air of desperation as she cajoled diners into momentarily believing a good time was possible. Look at the contrast with Bodega. A tight,  well thought-out, clever, integrated idea. A good (if momentarily hotheaded) leader at the top -- and capo-regimes below. Dale led conceptually. Richard led creatively. Fabio showed extraordinary leadership on the floor. Everybody behaved and played together like adults -- while on the other side, it was like the day care center in Toy Story 3.

"It's about assembling a team," said Marcel, having packed his team with blood enemies. "One voice," said Richard. Before going on to demonstrate that principle in action. Bodega offered tight, well-managed service, a delightful and consistent concept that fit right in with its New York City locale, a riff on stoner food, a high-end run down to the corner bodega: a "bag of chips". A play on the classic hangover breakfast of bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll… pork shoulder and grits… a "can" of tuna. "Chicken fried" codfish. Blueberry pie. And a "coffee" -- an amaretto cake with cappuccino mousse that was thrilling. The food was great. Fabio was quickly everybody's favorite neighborhood maitre d', striking the perfect balance between keeping customers happy, being charming -- and managing any crisis that came his way. He made it look easy while discretely averting a potential blow-up when The Return Of Angry Dale threatened. Bodega was fun. The food tasted good. So good that the judges were able to forget for a few moments that we were even on television.

Etch offered flavorless asparagus with invisible chorizo, a crudo from Angelo (boy, does he love his raw fish!), occasionally undercooked lamb, a potentially great braised pork belly with octopus, and a mushily textured monkfish from Marcel that suicidally included -- yet again- - FOAM (!!!) There was a somewhat salty and over-reduced oxtail ragout with excellent gnuddi from Antonia, and the death blow: the final insult, a "reverse "amuse" dessert from Marcel that (wait for it…) included, yes… more FOAM. Served on a ludicrous bed of smoking dry ice. A "duo of peaches" with coconut "powder" and foam... on dry ice. Has foam ever worked on Top Chef? More to the point, has it ever worked for Marcel? Did it, in any way, make anything better? Marcel seems incapable of asking himself these questions and rushed to the gallows, fiddling with  the instrument of his execution to the detriment of service. I tell you, it's a mystery to me what goes on in that talented young man's head. I can only guess that in Marcel World, it's always 1998, the sky is filled with magical ponies who shit foam -- and appreciate Marcel's rap stylings -- and everybody does exactly what Marcel thinks they should do -- perfectly. And if things go wrong, everybody agrees instantly that it's certainly not Marcel's fault. In Marcel Land, Ferran Adria never existed. Nor did Wylie Dufresne, or Heston Blumethal, or Grant Achatz. He thought all of that stuff up himself. In Marcel Land, what everybody wants is more foam -- they can't get enough! And liquid nitrogen. And gels and powders. Restaurant dining rooms are packed with beautiful women, shuddering with desire and anticipation for foam, foam, and more foam and hardened Crips shrink from his approach.

Antonia, who seemed to be the lone adult in the kitchen of Restaurant Etch, once again the erstwhile skipper of a ship heading straight towards a reef, said it best. Analyzing their performance after service, she immediately proclaimed it "a shitshow." As, of course it was. Marcel, still riding the magical pony in his head, Rome burned to the ground around him, in a beautiful moment of Rumsfeldian denial, refused to even do  what they call in the language of addiction, "recognize there is a problem." Back on earth, an absolutely overwhelming majority of 76 to 17 diners voted their preference for Bodega. An even cursory look at the judges faces would have told the story of how we felt. Stabby.

A chef is a leader. But a chef is also responsible for creating something that pleases. That makes people happy. Chefs, ultimately, are in the pleasure business -- not in the business of proving -- above all other things -- their unique brilliance. Marcel's seeming inability to understand that simplest of equations -- that his first responsibility is to make food that makes people happy, drove the final nail into his self constructed coffin. His equally destructive inability to understand or get along with or inspire others -- his obliviousness to the human factor -- made his elimination an easy decision. In the end, his team turned on him, joyously, a pack of gleeful attack dogs, finally let loose from their cage. Having poked them with a stick repeatedly, he handed them the key, rolled himself in meat juice for good measure, -- and let loose the dogs of war. This is a very skilled cook. Chef? Not judging from what we saw tonight.

It was a difficult decision agreeing on who to give the win. Dale did a superb job. If ever a candidate deserved to win Restaurant Wars for service alone, it was Fabio that day. But ultimately, it became clear that Richard was a deciding factor in Bodega's excellence. Notably, his fellow teammates took pains to let us know that, going out of their way to acknowledge his great work, his creative input, his steady hand. Congratulations Richard. THIS was your week.

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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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