Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Monsters and a Monster Store

Tom Colicchip gets personal about the Muppet Quickfire Challenge, and reveals a professional connection to the late Jim Henson.

I don’t think I’ve seen our chefs more excited to meet a guest judge in all my days on Top Chef than they were this week when they met Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Telly Monster. And not just those chefs who are parents. All of them were thrilled, since most of the chefs competing grew up watching Sesame Street. And don’t get me started on the crew, who were so happy to show up for work that day!

I admit to having been excited myself, even though I was just a bit older and “past it” when Sesame Street first hit the airwaves, so I didn’t discover Elmo and friends until my older son began watching the show. That boy loved Elmo with the reverence my grandmother saved for the Pope. And now my toddler, who calls Elmo “La-La” (because of Elmo’s theme song, in which “la-la, la-la” is the chief lyric), is a raging fan. He’s unimpressed when he sees Daddy on TV… but loses it with joy when La-La’s on the screen. His two favorite items are firetrucks and La-La. We actually found him a Firefighter Elmo which he calls “Woo-woo-woo-woo La-La.”; So cute it hurts. A friend’s three-year-old was excited to dress as Elmo to attend a Halloween party this year… until he entered the room and every other preschooler acted like teenaged girls at a Justin Beiber concert. He narrowly escaped the stampede and couldn’t get the costume off quickly enough. I could go on and on. It’s crazy, the hold Elmo has over the tiny tots.

…Or so I thought until I got to spend time with him in person (in muppet?) on Top Chef. I no longer find it crazy at all. The outsized charisma of that little furry red monster is utterly disarming. Kevin Clash, who plays Elmo, David Rudman, who plays Cookie Monster, and Martin P. Robinson, who plays Telly Monster (and looks like him, too!), were so much fun to hang out with, and even more fun to watch at work. They’re ambassadors of happy, leaving a trail of joy wherever they go. I don’t normally have to be at the set for tapings of the Quickfire Challenges, but there was no way I was going to miss this -- I brought my toddler and the two daughters of dear friends, and we had a blast hanging out with them in the green room. They have great senses of humor and of fun. Even the muppet wrangler was fun, whose tasks include making sure the muppets fur is fluffed just so.   

It was amazing to watch Kevin Clash, David Rudman (Cookie Monster), and Martin P. Robinson at work. These puppeteers are so adept at what they do, are so very talented, and make it all seem so fluid and effortless that folks almost forget it’s not the muppets themselves talking, despite actually watching the muppeteers in action. It was astonishing. Kevin Clash can actually make it seem as though he and Elmo are talking simultaneously -- I've never seen anything like it. Watching their exit from the table after the Quickfire Challenge was so cool -- they were hilarious. It was far and away one of the best days we all have ever had on Top Chef.Parenthetically, I knew Jim Henson -- he lived upstairs from Mondrian when I was there, and was in the restaurant all the time. In fact, he ate there the night before he died. He was a great guy, and he really loved food. I couldn't help but think it was only fitting that the descendants of his first muppets wound up on a food show.

Oh, yeah, I should probably discuss the Elimination Challenge, shouldn't I?

It was a fun but difficult challenge. We showed up at about midnight and worked through the night. The Target we were in was a super-sized monster store, and our chefs were running back and forth -- it was physically challenging. I was surprised that most of the chefs did not approach the challenge as they would the planning of a professional restaurant. When planning the kitchen of a new restaurant, a chef first must ask, "What kind of restaurant am I doing, what kind of food am I serving, and, thus, what do I need?" A restaurant serving Chinese cuisine will need more woks, a steakhouse will have more grills than other restaurants. I would first have checked out the food aisles to determine what I would be cooking; only then would I have made my way to the kitchen supply aisles.

People may quibble with our having awarded the win to grilled cheese and tomato soup, but they should understand that it was a very, very good version of grilled cheese and an equally good version of tomato soup, prepared smartly given the parameters of the challenge. As I've always said, food need not be fancy to be well-made. The soups certainly weren't attempts at haute cuisine. The chefs understood that this challenge didn't require of them that they prepare high-end food. Dale made smart choices and his dish reflected them.

Once in a while, we have a challenge where we judges know immediately who will be sent home. This was just such a challenge. There was no need for discussion this week, and there was certainly no debate. Of course, this being a television program, we couldn't just walk up to Angelo the moment we tasted his soup and inform him that he would be going home, even though we knew at that moment that his was the weakest dish by a mile. Given the structure of the competition and the show, we needed to bring the chefs who'd made the bottom three dishes to the Judges' Table to discuss all three dishes. But none of the judges could get past the first bite of Angelo's soup. Unlike Dale's dish last week, which was saltier than it should have been thus yielding diminished returns as we continued to eat it, but was still tasty and otherwise well-seasoned, Angelo's was simply inedible  Its level of saltiness far exceeded that of Dale's. And where it comes to amounts of salt, that is an apples and oranges difference.Angelo knew it, too, and accepted the judges' decision with humility and graciousness. We are at the point in this competition at which it is hard  to see anyone go, and we were sorry to tell Angelo to pack his knives  It will just get harder from here on out. By the same token, though, there is less and less room for error by the chefs. They will need to stay focused and on their games, and perform under constant and increasing pressure.  Stay tuned….

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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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