Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

If it Grows Together, It Goes Together

Gail Simmons explains why the reasons Grayson went home were actually three-fold. So, Pee-wee Herman as guest judge!
Gail Simmons: I loved him. I spent a lot of time with Pee-wee as a child on Saturday mornings. So did everybody I’m sure, but my older brother and I always watched Pee-wee Herman on Saturday mornings together and would make the voices of the characters. I loved Chairy. He loved Terry the Pterodactyl. Looking back, it was such a memorable part of my childhood, so it was an honor and pleasure to have Pee-wee with us for a couple of days.

Oh! I think the best thing to come out of this entire episode is that he put me on his Christmas card list. He makes the best Christmas cards I have ever received in my life! So we’ll start with the Quickfire. They had to make pancakes, and we had a lot of extremes, from super whimsical to a little more elevated.
GS: I have to say, watching the Quickfire made me really hungry for pancakes. And I never eat pancakes. When I eat breakfast or brunch I am an egg girl. I’m a savory girl in the morning. But I really was craving pancakes coming out of that Quickfire. It seemed like they all did a great job and were very creative. Even just looking at the list of flavors – blueberries, raspberries, bacon, champagne dipping dots, peach compote, cocoa nibs, whipped cream, marcona almonds -- it just all sounds delicious. And Edward won with his little bits.
GS: Yes! His actually was the one I was most skeptical about, until I saw that it was the best pancake that Pee-wee had ever had. That was On to the Elimination Challenge. I thought this was the most difficult challenge, maybe we’ve ever had.
GS: I agree. I think it was definitely the most difficult challenge we’ve ever had, certainly this season and we’ve had some pretty tough ones. There were different skills required. If I look at other difficult challenges like the overnight BBQ challenge, which was certainly physically demanding in its sleeplessness and the quantity of food, that challenge was really about long term endurance and quantity/volume. This was completely the opposite, in terms of what we were asking the chefs to accomplish. This was much more about flexibility, adaptability, thinking on your feet on the short term. Even though the quantity they were preparing for was only four people. They were given a bike and a hundred bucks, and had to literally scavenge for their food and scavenge for a place to cook and then get it all to the Alamo for lunch! They also had to take into consideration Pee-wee’s likes and dislikes and the fact that it was lunch. We gave this challenge to the chefs at this stage in the game because we knew that with only five left they are the strongest five and they could do it. We’d never have given this challenge in Episode 4. It would never have worked. There’s method to our madness. And they all really did succeed. All five of the chefs gave us great lunches. We were choosing the least best to go home, as opposed to the worst. I think the person that went home has a big fan base.
GS: Yes, she certainly does. It’s going to be a hard one. And I also have to say it’s going to look like we sent her home because she put tomatoes and squash on the plate. But I think that all three (Sarah, Ed, and Grayson) that we put in the bottom, made mistakes, were flawed -- although not by much. We were kind of splitting hairs as we always say. The problem with Grayson’s dish was actually three-fold, I thought. First: the flavors didn’t meld so well. People might not understand why Tom was hung up on that idea of tomatoes and squash. They’re grown in distinctly different seasons so they don’t make for a great flavor combination in terms of all the vegetables she could choose. With tomatoes you think Mediterranean. And with squash you really think a colder climate, a colder season. As we love to say, “If it grows together, it goes together.” And those two just don’t. So there was sort of a bit of a disconnect there, but that wasn’t her greatest issue. Second: Her portions were massive. Her dish was disproportionate to everyone else’s in size. Third: she made a specific claim that she purposefully took the skin off her chicken to make it healthy, because Pee-wee likes to eat healthy. (He’s actually incredibly fit. He rides that bike like nobody’s business.) But at the same time she stuffed her chicken with egg yolk and gorgonzola cheese and drizzled it with bacon vinaigrette! So, for us, it was a real discrepancy in her conception of this dish. You have to remember that when you make decisions, like taking the skin off chicken, there’s a reason that people cook with the skin on the chicken, because it gives it moisture, it gives it flavor, and it helps to cook it properly. Without it your chicken risks being dry and flavorless. But then she put all this fat in it afterwards, but at that point you can’t change the doneness or texture of the meat. That’s not to say they weren’t a great idea and they weren’t delicious, for a different challenge. But if you’re trying to give Pee-wee Herman a healthier dish by taking the skin off. I would have much preferred to eat the fat of the skin then bacon, gorgonzola, and egg yolk. It was a conceptual issue, that to us didn’t sit right.That’s not to say that everyone else’s was perfect and hers was terrible. It still was a good dish, and I guarantee that if she had made this exact dish five episodes ago, she would never have gone home for it. But that’s where we are in the game.

I wanted to mention Lindsay and Paul's food too. What we loved so much about Lindsay's was that she set herself apart. She was the only person who didn’t do chicken or egg. She used beef. Her dish had a ton of flavor, despite her difficulties in getting to the Alamo. Conceptually she thought a lot about her dish. It was very appropriate for lunch. The portion was right. It was easily transported because she chose to use these very substantial squash "boats," as Pee-wee liked to call them. That made it very contained. Very easy to transport, which is very much part of what they had to do, and then easy for us to eat. It was totally appropriate. It was just a well-conceived dish for the challenge. We really felt that it fit both.

Paul’s dish really was beautiful too, a little on the sweet side, not quite as balanced, which is why he didn’t win. He knew it. But it was also a great concept, and we loved that he took into consideration that Pee Wee likes spicy food. It felt a lot like Paul’s personality, Paul’s style, very refined but fun and understated.

Ed and Sarah both made good food but also made mistakes. Sarah under-seasoned her food, which is critical at this point. And Ed made a mistake of execution, choosing to poach the chicken in beef fat. I just don’t know why he needed that step. Poaching chicken is OK if you’re doing it let’s say for a soup or a stew. But poaching it for this purpose was just an added step that didn’t actually add anything to the flavor or texture in a positive way. Instead it made it sort of rubbery. Of all the ways to cook chicken, I could think of 17 that would have been better. That said, we still liked it more than Grayson's over all.Grayson’s a great young chef. I love her. She’s a super fun chef. And she’s a totally sunshiny, bright, wonderful person. She makes me happy. Although we sent her home, she’s going to go far in her career. I just know it.

Next episode is a tear-jerker. I will say this: it is the most emotional challenge, to date. We’ve done really emotional challenges before -- cooking for families, the armed forces. We’ve certainly done things that have tugged at our heart-strings. This is the Ellis Island episode of this season. What I mean is that the Ellis Island episode from last season, I think was the best episode of all time of Top Chef (we should have won an Emmy for it, but whatever...). This episode is similar in that it is so emotionally inspiring and the challenge causes our chefs to create what I believe is the best food they have made all season long – which is exactly how it should be in the episode before the finale.

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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