Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Grayson Under Fire

Paul may have won the challenge, but Grayson really won.

Hello, my little meatballs. Don’t worry -- you’re just as original as chicken salad! Or so we learn in this week’s episode. But we’ll get to that in a couple of paragraphs.

Let’s start with this week’s Quickfire where we team up the remaining contestants in a sort of mise en place relay race and then create a dish using those ingredients with the time they have left over. The ingredients were shrimp, corn, and fettucine. And the chefs actually had to make their own fettucine. Even though it would seem that the team with the most time to cook their food -- Lindsay and Sarah -- would probably win, they didn’t. Grayson and Chris did. Sarah thinks it’s because guest judge, Cat Cora, didn't like tarragon, an ingredient in their dish. My only comeback to that would be that if a dish is successful, the diner will enjoy ingredients he/she never thought she liked. While there are obviously exceptions, I have found this to be true.

The only other thing to say about the Quickfire was that Paul was right -- he is a little bit cursed when it comes to pairing up with Edward. He mentioned that every time he teams with Edward they don’t do well. And sure ehough.... This time, Paul pretty much forgot about the shrimp element. Whoops.On to the Elimination Challenge, where Padma reveals that the partners will become enemies -- you know, or something less ominous. The two chefs will have to select a dish and compete against each other. The dishes are prepped for a block party. Whenever I hear block party, I think of Top Chef: Chicago, even though I’m pretty sure we’ve done other similar challenges like it since. The pairs decided on the dishes they’d be creating. Not only did they have to make delicious block party dishes, they had to make them healthy.

It was fairly clear right away which chef of each pair did a better job. Paul’s turkey kalbi beat out Edward’s. Lindsay out-meatballed Sarah, and Grayson’s chicken salad, even with a little mayo -- albeit olive oil mayo -- was tops over Chris’. Although it was actually a little mean, Paul telling diners that his dish was a healthier version of Edward’s cracked me up. Lindsay and Sarah were pretty supportive of each other’s dishes. Grayson and Chris went two pretty different routes on their chicken salads. Chris had a pretty genius idea of using tofu as his binding agent, but he also chose to pre-make his sammies. Grayson chose to serve her sandwiches on the spot, which proved to be the better decision.

 

 

I just want to take a moment to talk about Paul and Sarah’s turkey dishes. Although it may have seemed like a no-brainer to swap the red meat for turkey to make it healther, I actually think it was more of a risk than portrayed. Turkey can dry out really easily, especially if it’s sitting out. Paul’s deicion to use eggplant to keep that sort of unctuous quality of chicken salad was really, really smart. And ultimately led to his win.

 

In the end, the judges weren’t jonesin’ for any more of Chris’ food. (Har har.) Although I was sad to see Chris go, the look on Richie’s face when he was rejoined by his comrade in Last Chance Kitchen is priceless. And, although Paul’s turkey won, Grayson kinda really won. She challenged Tom at the Judges’ Table after he criticized her seemingly "boring" choice of chicken salad, and kinda shut him down. I don’t think we’ve ever seen Tom concede like that, and if anyone were to ever be the one to cause it, it would be Grayson.

 

Sooo, we only have five chefs left! And next week, we have Pee-wee Herman, who actually scared me as a child, which I’ll explain next week. Until then, Have a Nosh!

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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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