Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Hostess with the Mostest

Gail Simmons describes the chefs' new environment in Dallas. How was Dallas different from Austin? 
Gail Simmons: So here we are in Dallas, and it has a totally different feel and vibe, especially this episode because we were in a very “schmancy” part of town. Dallas just felt like a much bigger, shinier city. 

Many exciting things happened in Dallas when we were there. The first thing was that we were staying at the W Hotel across from the American Airlines Center. Well, we had a night off and a bunch of people from the crew and I -- about 10 of us -- went to see a Rihanna concert there. This was her infamous show this past summer when the stage caught on fire and we were all evacuated from the arena, in the middle of her show! There were fireworks as part of one song and the stage literally caught on fire, No one was injured, but it was really pretty amazing. So that is my first impression of Dallas.

While I was in Dallas, I had some really great meals, and went to an amazing gay cowboy bar one night with like 40 members of the crew where we learned the two-step. 

Anyway, on to the episode: I got on a plane to Dallas instead of driving like the contestants did, but the one thing I remember everybody telling me after that Quickfire was that the field they were in was not supposed to look like that. It was not supposed to be a field of mud. They had scouted the location and made all the preparations and the morning they got there, someone, presumably the farmer, had plowed and tilled the land by accident and turned it into an entire field of mud. Yuck! After a difficult Quickfire, we’re onto the Elimination!
GS: Yes! On to Highland Park Village. Another interesting note is that we got ready for that whole day in another house. There was a fourth house, a friend of one of the guests let us use her family’s home. I think it was her brother-in-law’s house that she uses sometimes, which was right in the neighborhood, to get ready. This house was incredible; it may not have been as big as the others but it had the most beautiful modern art – Damian Hearst, Koons, all the big guys. As I got a closer look at the house we realized there were all these pictures of George Michael with another man and a few really good-looking dogs. And then we found out that it was his and his partner’s house! I guess his partner is related to one of the girls that was on the show, and they’re from Dallas and this is their house. Let me tell you, George Michael has aged well. He was looking good. I’ve never heard of a progressive dinner party before. 
GS: It seemed like a fun idea. I had never attended one until that challenge though. I imagine you need a staff if you’re having one. If you’re at someone’s house having appetizers and your house is where the main course is supposed to be, it’s hard for you to be eating in one place and cooking in another. Which is why we had the chefs do it for us!

I think the funniest moment in the whole episode was when I jokingly asked, “Oh did you have like 700 people at your wedding?” and one of the ladies said, “Actually 1,200.” And she wasn’t joking! “Who knows 1,200 people?”
GS: Right?!! I will say they were the sweetest people. We had a really nice day with them. Kim Whitman is the bomb. She was awesome. I loved her. She is smart as whip, and I really enjoyed talking with So let’s start with the appetizer house, which actually had the winning dish which was Paul’s, and Sarah’s, which was in the top as well. 
GS: Yes, Paul’s was the winner because it had so much texture and he used ingredients that the diners didn’t know they liked, but when they tasted it they couldn’t help but fall in love with it. It was the right size for an appetizer. It was appropriate. What Paul said at the beginning I think was so right on: “Listen to the woman of the house.” You are catering an event for a dinner party, and especially a dinner party for a woman like Kim Whitman, who is very particular, entertains a lot, and is considered somewhat of an expert on the subject. Do what she says -- not too little and not too much. The guys will go along with it. And he was right in this instance. He did something that the ladies enjoyed because it had great vegetables, it was light, but it had some depth. The grilled prosciutto was delicious. It was the right size. It was easy to eat. It was absolutely delicious.

I loved Sarah’s artichokes too, and I really liked Lindsay’s salad, but we thought Paul’s just embodied what we asked them to do the most and was done with the most… finesse.

So then we went to the main course house. And the main courses were mostly disappointing. Beverly’s was pretty good. Nyesha wasn’t bad either, but a lot of them were just way too big, way too bulky and clumsy. If there was just one main course or two that would have been one thing, but no one scaled his/her dish to be appropriate for the venue and the challenge. Not a single one of them scaled back the size of their portion or the scope of what they were doing to accommodate for the fact that we were eating four or five main courses. Of course you want it to feel like a main course, but, especially Ty-Lor’s and Chuy’s, were mammoth. I mean they were bigger than massive. Bigger than Texas-sized portions even. And because they were so big, they felt sloppy and disproportionate to everything else. That was our first issue. Our other issue with Chuy’s was ultimately, exactly what Tom said, the dish just didn’t work. If you have to overcook the salmon to make the cheese work, then something in the basic concept of the dish should be reexamined. Salmon should not be cooked that way. It was totally dry, so it was really unappealing. And the goat cheese! I mean, goat cheese and salmon? When you think of cured, cold smoked salmon it could work. Maybe that’s what he was going for. But it was not successful with hot salmon at all. Not only did it not work from a flavor perspective and a texture perspective, but the goat cheese took on this mealy, sort of curdy consistency, which made it even more unappealing. It actually didn’t feel like the rest of the food I’d eaten from Chuy to date. So in the end, we felt that Chuy had to go. Chuy is awesome. He’s like a little ball of fire. He’s super high energy and really skilled. He is really young, and I know he’ll have a long, excellent career, but he made some bad decisions that night. 

And just to touch on the desserts because well, that’s my sweet spot: I liked Dakota’s and I like Grayson’s. Edward’s was just mediocre. But Chris’ was exactly what we all said – overdone, no consistency, and no underlying thought to it. It felt like he just threw everything onto that plate without thinking it through. You don’t need 17 flavors. They don’t go together. There’s no dialogue. It kind of reminded me two dishes from the past. Ilan’s “gluttonous” dish from Season 2, and Stefan’s finale dessert.
GS: Stefan’s dessert in the finale was better than this. It wasn’t good enough to win, but it was better than this. 
And just one note about the other Chris and his appetizer cigar: I want to say that I do applaud him for taking a risk and trying to give us something new and innovative, but he got stuck in the trap that a lot of chefs get into when they are trying to push a modernist concept on a dish. There needs to be a purpose for it. I always say if it doesn’t make it taste better, if it doesn’t make it more efficient in the cooking process, or make it look more beautiful, why are you doing it? Do it not just for the sake of doing it. I think Chris got caught up in the idea of it and lost track of the challenge because of it. It did not fit any of the criteria that we asked for, and it was not appealing or enjoyable to eat at all. But I get his inspiration and appreciated that he challenged himself to do something different. He just was listening to what was in his own head instead of to our clients. 


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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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