Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Reservations about Risotto at Rao's

The Rao's challenge and the Italian dishes the chefs created struck a personal cord for Tom Colicchio.

In New York, where Chinatown abuts Little Italy, it stands to reason that where there was a Chinese food challenge, one featuring Italian-American fare could not be too far behind.

And what better place for it than Raos? As anyone in New York will tell you, Rao's is the quintessential Italian-American restaurant. But from most of them, it'll be hearsay. That's because its famously nearly impossible to get a reservation at Rao's. Rao's has been in the same location since it first opened in 1896, it has only 10 tables in the entire place, the restaurant does one seating per table per night, and for many decades now, the tables have been spoken for every night of the week.

Now, those with standing reservations know that if they're not using the table on their night, they'd best get friends and family to stand in for them those seats must be filled. And they do. So when you call the reservation line, you will likely get a recording telling you that the restaurant has no reservations available for the coming year call back again next year. I ate at Rao's once prior to this Elimination Challenge, when a table for six was auctioned off at a fund raiser and the winning bidder invited me to join the party.

It was good Southern-Italian fare (i.e., as made by Italian-Americans, as I'll discuss shortly), reminiscent of that of my childhood, both at restaurants such as Spirito's and DiMartino's in Elizabeth, NJ (and even Chestnut Tavern in Union, NJ, the second restaurant in which I ever worked), and at home.

Our presence at the dinner table was required every night when I was growing up, and most especially on Sundays, when family around the table expanded to include aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Sunday dinner was served between three and four in the afternoon and always included three courses. We started with a salad of some sort, an antipasto. We'd next have gravy and macaroni (we never called it sauce and pasta), and we'd then have the meat that had been cooked in the gravy as our third course. We wouldn't deviate from that, be it spring, summer, fall or winter.
So this was very close to my heart, this whole challenge. I was glad to be back with the owners and staff of Rao's, as well as with Lorraine Bracco, who had judged our first finale, and Tony Bourdain, and I was looking forward to seeing how our chefs would approach this challenge and what they would serve.

When I was growing up, chicken cacciatore was one of my mother's staples. She made it every two weeks or so and she made a good one. Fabio did, too. The flavors were great. That said, Antonia's dish was simply better. So much so, in fact, that it was the unanimous choice, not just of the judges, but of every single person at the table. Everything about it came together perfectly, and it was great. Truth be told, I don't even care that much for mussels. They're OK, but I have never been a big fan. And yet, that said, I felt definitively that Antonia's dish was the best of the evening. Anyone who writes to challenge the decision clearly did not taste the dish. Not only was Antonia's dish executed beautifully, but it also captured the spirit of the challenge of evoking family at the table in a simple and unforced way.

Fabi'os comment that mussels are French missed an important point and was, therefore, off the mark. The chefs were not asked to make Italian food, but, rather, to be inspired by what generations of Raos and Pellegrinos have done at Rao's, which is homey Italian-American food. When my father's family came over to the States from Italy, absolutely no one was importing Italian ingredients. His family had to incorporate into their cooking traditions the foods available to them here. As a result, the dishes have changed over time. People are invariably surprised when they go to Southern Italy and first sample the food, saying, "Oh, the foods very different!" Of course it is. My grandmother's family tried to bring seeds back with them from Italy, to grow the produce they knew, but largely they adapted their recipes and created new family favorites. Torisso, a new reaturant on Mulberry Street in New York, is an homage to this very aspect of the Italian-American experience. In a nod to our parents and grandparents, two Italian-American chefs, both French-trained, decided to do an Italian restaurant using only American ingredients.

Being from Italy, Fabio could not appreciate this fact when he asserted that Antonia's dish was French. But the three owners of Rao's, the manager, the chef, and the bartender of 40 years begged to differ with him.Some of our chefs understood the challenge and rose to it. Even Mike understood it; his problem was one of execution. He treated the pasta he made as though it hadn't been put through an extruder. It was going to take a very long time to cook. What saved Mike from elimination was the flavor of his sauce, which was good.

Dale's dish didnt work either. I believe it wasnt kneaded enough, and the ingredients didn't come together. With his mushrooms and brussels sprouts, Dale would have been better off using dried pasta, as it has more semolina, which is a harder wheat and holds up better. He could have tossed the ingredients with olive oil, and the whole dish would have turned out better. I think a lot of people who say they don't like pasta have been given too many dishes like Dale's. Even so, though, neither his dish nor Mike's was as bad as Tre's.

Unfortunately for Tre, he wound up creating something that many people think risotto is supposed to be. About 15 years ago, for whatever reason, people tried to mold risotto into a ring stand. This is simply wrong. Risotto should be soupy. If you go to Italy, you'll be served it that way; ditto, a good Italian restaurant here. Tre's risotto wasnt even creamy. The starch should go into the stock and the risotto should run on a flat plate and not hold its form at all. Furthermore, risotto continues to cook and harden further after you stop cooking it, so you need to be even more careful when cooking it to make sure it's creamy. And, finally, the flavors should be integrated into the dish, not heaped on top of it, as Tre's were. Tre made a dish he didn't understand, and we couldn't give him a pass for the fact that he was taught incorrectly. Both the texture and the flavors were way, way off. Just as it was clear to all that Antonia's dish was the evening's best, it was clear that Tre's was the evening's worst. I wish him all the best he was a gracious competitor from start to finish.From here on in there is nobody left who doesn't have a huge fan base. Every time we send someone home, I know we'll be getting a lot of flack.

So it goes. There can only be one Top Chef. That's why youre watching, right? That, and, as Tre said in his exit interview, to win a lot of knowledge, a lot of good friends, and to become a better chef. Have a good week.

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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