Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

OK, So Jamie’s Gone: NOW What are You Mad at Me For?

Tom Colicchio reveals that he's been asking for a fishing challenge for years.

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows anything about me that fishing is one of my grand passions. I’ve been campaigning the producers of Top Chef for a fishing challenge for ages, and I was so excited to finally get one this season, in Montauk, no less, where I love to fish. I can’t tell you how lucky we got that day. It was a perfect day to fish, as perfect as it gets. You must understand that when we set up a shooting schedule for the season, that’s it –- it’s set and unmovable. If the weather had been nasty and uncooperative, or had there been one or more of the various factors such as the phase of the moon that adversely affect whether the fish will eat, the challenge would have failed the chefs.

We lucked out. As I said, the conditions were perfect, the chefs caught a variety of fish, and they caught a lot of them. As for Dale’s fish, I don’t think the editors quite realized what a big deal that catch was. That fish weighed 37 pounds. It was a trophy fish –- the catch of a lifetime! When folks have a good day on a boat, the captain justifiably considers the catches his/her catches, too, and believe me when I tell you that folks throughout the area heard about that fish –- the captain of Dale’s boat spread word about it!

Kerry Heffernan was the perfect guest judge for this particular challenge. My friend of 20-plus years and my fishing partner, Kerry probably knows more about fish than just about any chef out there. He’s very, very knowledgeable about the various species, about fish conservation, and, of course, about their preparation. It was a treat to have him judge this episode.

As soon as we were through introducing the challenge and the chefs had gone out on their two boats, Kerry and I headed out to a different area to fly fish for false albacore, which you don’t eat –- you throw them back unharmed. And periodically we would head over to the chefs’ boats to see how they were doing. Some of the footage of them was shot from a crew on our boat.When I’m fishing for food, though, I am sure only to keep what can be used. One of the reasons I wanted a fishing challenge is that when you catch and then take the life of what you eat to feed yourself, you have a very different respect for it than you might have had previously. You realize that something shouldn’t die and then go to waste. You also realize that conservation is so important. Back when I was fishing with my grandfather in the '70s and '80s, striped bass such as the ones caught by our chefs were in such decline. Ironically, it was the rise in PCBs in the Hudson that helped bring them back here. General Electric was dumping PCBs in the Hudson to the point where the level of PCBs in stripers was too high for them to be eaten. Robert Kennedy, Jr. was very active in bringing about the reduction of PCBs in the Hudson by prosecuting corporate polluters.   The striped bass continued to proliferate all the while they weren’t commercially viable, though, and their numbers came back. Meanwhile, regulations were put in place to further protect them.  In New York State below the George Washington Bridge, you’re prohibited from keeping anything under 28 inches long. So we just don’t keep the smaller ones. I personally will keep one striper, knowing that I will keep some for myself and my family and will give the rest to others.

I thought the challenge was great and that the chefs overall did a very good job. Did you notice the chefs’ enthusiasm about the farmer’s market? They were so excited to be buying produce that had just been picked that morning. This is Chef Geekdom on display –- this is what jazzes us. Angelo was on the mark when he said that the market’s offerings were dictating what dish to create. Once you’re an accomplished cook, this is how you cook. Chefs don’t work from recipes; they’re just cooking. It’s not about the recipe –- it’s about the produce, about what’s in season. The yield will speak to you, and if you know what to do with it, a great dish will emerge.

Part of knowing what to do with your options is knowing what you’re cooking for. This was a beach challenge, with the very freshest of fish and produce. The dishes need not have been overly complicated, as Richard, Marcel, and Fabio’s was. The dish was overly complex, to its own detriment. With fish that fresh, you want to highlight the fish.Jamie professed to want to do that, but when you’re cooking with minimal amounts of ingredients, everything has to be really good. The food must be seasoned perfectly –- you can’t hide behind anything, can’t mask anything with a saucy sauce. The fish was pristine; it must then have been properly fileted, cooked, and seasoned. Jamie’s was just bland; it was waterlogged. The cucumber water didn’t do anything for the fish. She needed to add some sharp acid, and to brighten it up with some herbs. The fish wanted it, but she didn’t do it.

Tiffani’s dish just disappointed. It went too far in the other direction: Far from bland, it was far too fishy because she left in the bloodline. I tried to point out her mistake to her during my walkthrough, asking specifically, “You’re leaving that in there?” but it went right over her head. This is probably why most people don’t like bluefish –- most places that serve it probably mistakenly leave in the bloodline. I’m surprised that Tiffani is gone so soon –- I thought she would have gone a lot farther in this competition. I did think her comments in her exit interview were very gracious and showed real growth, and I know she will continue to do very well as a chef as she goes forward.

Contrast with Richard, Marcel, and Fabio’s overly complex dish with Antonia’s Po' Boy. It was my favorite dish of the evening. It was just what you’d expect from a great fried fish sandwich, with beautifully fileted and prepared fish and a good amount of acid and relish. Once again, a chef in this competition has proved that if you give us a great rendition of a simple dish, it will resonate with us. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just good. As Richard, Marcel, and Fabio showed, fancy but less than good doesn’t fly. It wouldn’t have, even had we not been on the beach, seeking beach-appropriate food.Dale’s taco was conceived in the spirit of the circumstances, and, like Antonia’s Po' Boy, was beautifully executed. But Carla’s clever take on New York’s smoked fish and a bagel edged out Dale’s taco. Bluefish has enough fat in it to carry the smoke flavor –- smoking that fish was a smart way to go, and then Carla took a smart idea and elevated it to witty… and her perfect execution cinched the win.

For more about Top Chef and other topics, follow me on Twitter:  tom_colicchio.

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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