Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Ice Ice Baby (Too Cold, Too Cold)

Gail Simmons explains why Sarah Grueneberg's dish's flaws didn't get her sent home.

Bravotv.com: Now we are in Vancouver.  
Gail Simmons: The Quickfire was at Bao Bei. We ate there away from the cameras as well, and it was one was one of my favorite meals of the trip. That’s a great place.

Bravotv.com: The chefs seemed to think the “fire and ice” theme was really open to interpretation. 
GS: We said they could leave it open to interpretation, which was fine. Fire can come in many forms -- heat from temperature, heat from spice -- we were totally fine with that. And the cold? It didn’t need to be frozen. We were happy with interpretation. We just wanted to see that there was an effort and an idea behind the two in some way. Did I think that they knocked it out of the park in terms of the fire and ice component? No. But some of the food was really good. 

Bravotv.com: Paul won with his king crab and sunchoke dish. That Paul loves a sunchoke!
GS: The cocktail was great, and it had a little bit of heat in it too. I love chili in a cocktail, and I think it just cuts the alcohol so well and it has such a great, fun flavor. This was also his second time cooking with crab, King crab. He did King crab in that ice block challenge, and he did sunchokes in the mentor challenge, but that’s OK because it was delicious. I mean, the dish was really aromatic as it should be, that lemon snow had a lot of flavor, and it was really smart. That was his ice component. Bravotv.com: Padma commented that it wasn’t hot enough, but they had also gotten him in the Quickfire for putting too much chili in it. 
GS: So he played it down, and that’s a delicate balance obviously. You don’t want to blow peoples' mouths out because heat is not a flavor. Chili has flavor, but it also has power and you need to be very careful because you don’t want it to be so powerful that you can’t actually taste it, and it just kind of dulls everything else and you can’t taste anything in the dish. But the dish was really balanced and it was really lovely as we had hoped.

The circumstances were a lot harder than they seemed from the outside. First of all, it was freezing in that room because they kept all the doors to this event space open, this old salt factory that they were cooking in. We were actually in Olympic Village where all of the Olympians stayed, and now they are converting them to really nice condos. And we were in this old salt factory; it was really cool. But they were cooking in a very makeshift kitchen behind the event space, and most of the people who were at that party were chefs from around town, chefs from Vancouver, as well as people from Canada Tourism, a lot of really well-traveled, well-versed people in food, so it was actually a really good group to cook for. It was just freezing in there, which did not help the contestants when they had to carry the food from across the event space into the party. So that also was sort of a challenge in itself. But I thought what Paul did was smart -- it certainly showed a range of flavor and technique. 

Bravotv.com: Next we have Sarah’s dish. 
GS: Sarah’s dish was really fantastic. The pasta, of course, was, for me, the best part. She’s really a master when she makes fresh pasta. She does it so well; it’s flawless and soft and melted in your mouth. The greens had tons of flavor, it had the chilies, the garlic, but I also wanted to see way more heat. I didn’t really get the fire in this dish. And I actually, of all of us, had the most issue with this dish from Sarah with the frozen sformato. She put it right on top of the pasta, and it was frozen into a block. So when I used my fork to push down into it, to cut it, not only was it very difficult to cut, and so frozen, but it also pushed down on the pasta and squished out all the filling from the pasta which I think actually was a flaw in the conceptual presentation of the dish. That said, once you got the sformato into your mouth, it was so flavorful. It had some spices in it, it had a curry flavor, it was delicious, it was creamy as it should be. It really was more like a semi-freddo than a sformato even though it was partially frozen. And I know there was an ice challenge, but you still have to make it work in terms of how the dish feeds and I don’t think it was totally successful which is why she didn’t win, but her flavors were so strong and the balance of the ingredients was so great and her cocktail was excellent too, so that’s also why she didn’t lose.Bravotv.com: And then we have Lindsay, who did go home, with her halibut.
GS: Lindsay’s dish was sort of interesting to me. It was very complex; there were a lot of elements. When I first started eating it I really enjoyed it, but then when I started looking at it more closely and taking apart the individual components, there seemed to be too much there. Too many layers that didn’t quite go together. And then her cocktail was a little weak. It was a Bloody Mary, which I’m all for, but it was a little watered down, it didn’t have the punch it should have -- we wanted more heat, we wanted more flavor, and a little bit more personality. The other two dishes were very unique -- a Bloody Mary is something that we see everyday at home. 

Bravotv.com: So we have two left. 
GS: It’s the final showdown between Paul and Sarah. Who would ever have known it would come to these two? And the next episode is just straight-up  cooking as they were meant to cook -- we are leaving the fire and the ice and the gondolas and the guns behind us and you will see some pretty extraordinary food from these two chefs. 

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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