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.

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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