Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Bring the High Hat In

Hugh Acheson hopes Lindsay knows that she has a lot to be proud of.

We have whittled down to a triumvirate, but that implies a team and though these chefs seem friendly to one another, they all still want to win this thing. Three Mooseketeers. Three wise women and a man. Three’s Company. Three’s a crowd. 

As the sun sets on Canada, we are treated to an Alpenglow evening in Whistler before they Sienna down the mountain to Vancouver. Makes me think of the Meat Puppets song "Comin’ Down," which is more about coming down off of heroin, but you get my drift. If you have never been to Vancouver, you should go. It is a stunningly beautiful place with great people. You can be looking at the ocean and turn your head to snow capped peaks. Vancouver also has a great food scene. I loved Bao Bei, Meat & Bread, and Vij’s. They were all great. Vancouver also has some kickass coffee culture going on that gets me all excited. Never seen so many Clovers in my life. (To the Google! Clover Coffee Machine).

Sarah is happy that Bev ain’t coming back. How sweet. Not one bit of, “Hey, against all odds, Bev did a pretty great job.” Did she not realize that those were cameras pointed at her, waiting for her to say mean things about Bev? I guess the wait was pretty short. 

Is the name game a degrees of separation game? I am wondering how Barbara Bush and Hillary Swank are connected. I think you would need more than six degrees to link them. Q-Tip comes up in the conversation as Sarah asks whether there is a rapper with that name. That’s like asking if there’s a tennis player named McEnroe. What’s the scenario? They arrive at the Fairmont in Vancouver. I am “hiding” at the hotel bar. “Hiding” is drinking, but I “hide” in plain sight. The chefs go to a Quickfire at the Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie. Badass restaurant. We ate like kings there one night and then the manager approached me as we were leaving to tell me he had just cooked the collard greens from my book for their holiday party, to awesome accolades. Made my year. 

Masters level sous-chefs with Asian food backgrounds come out of the kitchen. They have been living there at Bao Bei for the whole season, so they are happy to finally see the chefs. Anita. Floyd. Takashi. Yes, Paul you are expected to win. If it was a grits battle I would be the favorite too. It has little to do with lineage and more to do with what you cook everyday. 

$20,000 on the line. The Masters start for 10 minutes and then the three Musketeers cook for 10 minutes and then Masters and then the Musketeers finish. Floyd fondly remembers never winning a Quickfire on Masters. Don’t be saddened Floyd -- you won the whole season! 

Paul: Mirugai (Giant clam) with yuzu dashi and a lot of thai chile. “Emeril and I both happen to like a lot of chile, but that’s a lot of chile.”Lindsay: Scallop three ways. Her sauce work was a bit overpowering for the scallop. Whatever, scallops are my nemesis too.

Sarah: Pan seared cod with crab curry and amaranth. Could’ve used more acid. Bam.

Bev: If the Korean gnome suddenly appears she will be making a shortrib street noodle. FTW. And it would win. 

Flo-rah wins. Terlato money is exchanged. The Masters move on. 

Lindsay is mad at Sarah for winning and also at herself, cause that’s how she rolls. Paul is mad at the Scoville scale, himself, and the expectations of most of America that the guy who cooks Japanese food everyday would win the Asian challenge.  

Fire and Ice time. Dinner for 150 people. They have to cook a course and provide a matching cocktail with fire and ice components. 

At the Whole Foods, Paul wants 1000 grams of king crab. Love the man, but learn to speak metric. Didn’t this man deal dope? That’s a kilogram, Paul. Guess he missed those Miami Vice reruns. That’s how I learned metric. If Tubbs is holding 4400 grams of Colombian gold, how much would that be in kilograms? 

How many times can these people throw Bev under the bus? Lindsay is cooking halibut because Bev fucked up her halibut last time. She makes this abundantly clear. In another world Bev is cooking those tender prom queen ribs with a creepy, distant grin. Sarah is cooking a frozen moose over stuffed noodle. Very Canadian. 

Lindsay is roasting whatever is left of Bev’s self-esteem. 

Paul is looking for essential oils. And special vitamins that make you unbeatable. Warning: if the unbeatable feeling lasts longer than eight hours, go and see your medical practitioner.  

Sarah dropped out of high school to pursue chefdom. Somewhere along the line, perhaps in the hazing stage, she was carried through kitchens by men with high hats. High hat is an interesting term, meaning disdain, and she learned it well. Now, at this point in her career, she is giving the high hat to Bev.  

Sarah bring the high hat in
Sarah bring the high hat in
Sarah bring the high hat in
Sarah bring it

(To the Google my people! Search Tyler, the Creator and high hat)

Paul is forecasting a shitshow. So are the teasers. I don’t think its going to flounder that badly. 

To the train depot. Paul is pulling the claws off live lobsters. This will make the animal rights people really happy. He is finally letting his emotions show. Lindsay is grating tomatoes, and Sarah thinks Lindsay’s playing it safe. The high hat is still in effect. 

The Anti Griddle is coming into play. I think the same one was on the set of Masters and it was the one piece of equipment nobody touched the entire season. Not the most useful piece of kitchen gadgetry. 

The Canadian in the camelhair overcoat likes a stiff drink. Vikram Vij! Cool. VV is the awe-inspiring chef of Vij’s, specializing in modern Indian fare. I had cricket pizza there. It was pretty fly. 

Time to hang out on the stew train. "Crazy Train" may be an apt song right now. They all  have tickets, but only two wil go all the way to the final throwdown, which both America and I hope is not a dinner that they have to cook for 200 people while dangling from a cliff over the ocean. Paul is worst-casing the whole thing. That’s how he rolls. They look tired, and I have written that about twenty times this season.  

The loved Paul’s lobster. Tom hates the arugula in Paul’s dish. Afterthought is a key word, but I really do think this is picky picky. I think the dish was smart and luxurious and his drink looked pretty interesting. 

They loved Sarah’s cannelloni. But Gail assailed the frozenness of the sformato. She knew the ice cold mousse was a mistake, but she owned up. Her chile use may have been a little light, but Emeril loved the cocktail. They loved the pairing of Lindsay’s dish. Lindsay hates everything right now, but still wants to excel in the competition. Her halibut was cooked perfectly. The drink pairing worked well and she showed pretty strong. Chin up, young Lindsay!

They make Sarah the first called, but it's vague as to whether this is positive or an offing. She thinks she lost, but no… she is in! Lindsay is out. Lindsay leaves with class. She has no regrets, and none should she have. Paul wins this contest and moves on to the final. 

Somewhere there is a wall being punched by a prom queen turned very successful chef. And I think it's in Vancouver. Lindsay, you should be very proud of what you did. You rocked it. See you in Miami, where I am right now. Time to put on the banana hammock and head to the beach!

Yes I am on the next episode. Playing third fiddle is never easy. I just keep getting typecast as the monobrowed, sardonic chef. Eat well. Be swell.

Follow me on twitter @hughacheson

 

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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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