Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

From Beef Tongue to Burgers, Chicken Pot Pie to Cheese Sauce

Tom Colicchio explains exactly why Fabio Viviani was eliminated.

Many people wanting to experience New York while they’re here will decide to take in a taping of a late-night talk show. Who were we to deny our chefs the same opportunity? Oh, but we don’t do things half-way at Top Chef. Why stop at seats in the studio audience when we could send them all the way on-stage and right into the middle of the action with no warning whatsoever? Our chefs are well used to being in the spotlight by now, though, so as you saw, it didn’t faze them a bit.
Jimmy Fallon was the perfect choice of late-night host to serve as a judge for this episode of Top Chef.  I first met him years ago, when I was chef/co-owner of Gramercy Tavern and he was a regular there. He has long been really into food. He’s also a huge fan of the show.
This wasn’t the first time I’d hosted a party for Jimmy and his family. He’d bought just such a meal by me at a charity auction, which I did some time ago, and I enjoyed it every bit as much as I enjoyed this one. Jimmy’s parents are great –- when you meet and get to spend any time with them, you see exactly where Jimmy gets it all from. This challenge really didn’t feel like work –- we were all having a lot of fun together.
Speaking of having fun with people, Jimmy decided to have some fun with everyone prior to the episode, tweeting, “Is it possible to put too much paprika in something?” Folks began tweeting that he was surely giving away the episode (as you now know, he wasn’t), until I finally tweeted, “You people are reading way too much into this!” 
Jimmy was looking for the basics. With all of the dishes on his list, all of which was basic, simple fare, there is a standard of what each dish should be. A chef can then put a twist onto the dish, can elevate it, but only as long as s/he has first just satisfied the standard. 

Two of our three bottom dishes failed to do so. I’ll discuss them in a moment. Before people get up in arms that we didn’t send Dale home for over-salting his dish, let me remind you that everything is a question of degree. When Jen was sent home for her overly-salty duck in Season 6, she was one of the final four, the other three dishes showed incredibly skill, and hers was salted past saving. It was inedible. Dale’s was not inedible, merely too salty. The flavors were great, and the whole dish well-conceived. Had Dale not forgotten that the pretzels were salted, the dish may well have sung.  People could eat and genuinely enjoy it for a time… until the salt eventually got the better of them. It was salty enough to land Dale in the bottom three, but in this particular challenge against the other dishes we were served, it was not enough to get him sent home.As for the two other bottom dishes, as I said, they didn’t meet the criteria expected of them: Tiffany made a decent enough soup, but it was more of a tortilla soup. It’s OK to take liberties with a dish, but hers was a complete departure from the task she’d been given, and so she wound up in the bottom three. The irony is that she knows how to make a very good chicken and dumplings! So we were quite surprised to be given an altogether different dish.
And Fabio’s “boo-ger” (he had fun with that word!) wasn’t a burger at all. He even said at the meat counter at Whole Foods that he was going to make a meatball instead. So he, too, departed from his assignment in this particular challenge. But then he stopped short of going all out with that, tried to do something halfway in between, and failed to execute what he set out to make. Gail correctly said that when you bite into a burger, you want that juiciness that is the hallmark of a good burger. What he gave us was too heavy on the breadcrumbs and was utterly dried out. This is why Fabio lost: we expected a juicy experience, so the standard of what a burger should be was not met. And the cheese was not “cheesy.” I don’t know what happened to his cheese sauce –- whether he scorched it or what (I didn’t care to explore it enough to find out), but it was grainy and really, really bad. Being a well-rounded chef means not only being able to make high-end food, but also how to make a burger. I serve complex dishes in the dining room of Colicchio and Sons and burgers in the front tap-room. We kept hearing from Fabio, “Asian food isn’t my thing… Burgers aren’t my thing…” You can only go so far in this competition by doing just “your thing,” what you know. Fabio was asked to make a burger and fries. He opted for something closer to a meatball, but with a cheese sauce on the side. And both components were poor.
Contrast these with the top three: Antonia was dealt the hardest hand of the challenge. She had never prepared or eaten beef tongue, but, unlike Fabio, didn’t say, “This isn’t my thing.” She found out not only how to prepare it, but also how to handle the brevity of time. Beef tongue would be tough if not cooked long enough, and she found out how to speed up the braising time by using the pressure cooker.  I think it was generous of Richard to advise her about that. Beef tongue is traditionally found in delis, but it’s become more popular lately as people have learned more about small farms and local offerings and sustainability, and have wanted to take greater care not to waste good parts of the animals they’re eating. When prepared correctly, beef tongue can be really delicious. Once cooked, it lends itself to many different preparations. It can be sliced cold for sandwiches in traditional deli fashion, served warm in braising liquid with vegetables, diced as a garnish in various dishes…. We have lamb tongue in the lamb loin dish on my menu at the moment, in a lamb tongue, chickpea, and spinach ragout, and it’s a personal favorite. Antonia did a terrific job with her dish and was right to be pleased with the outcome.  Angelo’s pulled pork was a great example of meeting the standard of a simple dish that I mentioned above, and then putting one’s stamp on it. His stamp came in the form of the Asian twist, and it worked out well. The pork was nicely cooked, tender, nicely seasoned and had just the right slight amount of heat. 
And Carla’s dish exceeded the standard. You surely noted the visceral reaction of everyone at the table when we tasted Carla’s chicken pot pie. I couldn’t answer Padma’s question about the dish because I was too busy savoring it. Other jokes to the same effect were flying around the table, as everyone clamored for as much of that dish as they could get. It was the unanimous favorite. She was excited and inspired from the get-go, and she communicated that in her dish.
Let’s see what the Muppets make of the food in next week’s challenge. Have a good week.

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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