Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

CSI: Enchanted Forest

Hugh Acheson wishes he had enjoyed one of the show's greatest meals with Charlize Theron and Eric Ripert.

Sorry this is a bit late. It was finished at midnight at the airport in Salt Lake City after I missed a connection. Rock on SLC -- it was a great 7 hours.

Back to San Antonio we go, land of the Alamo and a fine bar called the Esquire. Google it and go; it’s a fun place to imbibe. 

Sarah starts off the show with the Strange Logic II: the Hatred of Beverly Returns. She laments that Lindsay should have won the previous Restaurant Wars but it lacks Vulcan sensibility and I wish our resident Trekkie would chime in. Bev won the war, oddly enough cooking her own dish as the best and the other dish she was in charge of pickup on, as worst. Strange days here we come.  

Alas, I still stand beside the decision. The other decision that was made was the one to send Ty-Lor packing which was a sad one for all of us. He is a good soul and a talented chef throughout the competition and also a darn fine bartender when he guested on the episode of What What Happens: Live that I was on last week with the esteemed Andy Cohen and the wonderful fly girl, Rosie Perez. The show was definitely live and full of craziness. Amirite?

All the driving scenes this season have had a play-within-a-play mentality. Let’s call them Sienna Scenes, and this is a very uncomfortable ride for the winning ladies. C'mon people, act like winners, not wieners! Bev, the champion, has the others wanting her to be a reluctant champion. I suggest Beverly regale the others with a rousing rendition of “Cry me a River.”  You have to get past yesterday and onto today, people. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, yesterday’s gone… it shouldn’t just be the mantra of a Clinton-Gore campaign.Paul is cooking up some breakfast in the Top Chef luxo-bungalow. It’s breakfast pizza pockets, a snack perfected to counter the munchies back in his pot dealing/dog poop-strewn apartment daze. It’s gonna be dope. 

And off to the Quickfire we go. Immunity for the winner. We see a conveyor belt and I am hoping for a sushi challenge where the winner is the person whose food was most consumed. That would rock. Elves… make this happen. I am gleeful though when the challenge is explained that foodstuffs will appear on the belt, and if you grab ‘em, you gotta use them. This is awesome. 

Chef Eric Ripert is in the house. Eric is a god to those of us who cook food for a living. He is also reportedly (we do not know each other) a complete sweetheart, who is very kind and calm. I do suggest that Grayson not sing her frog song just in case it gets misconstrued. Franco-American relations are in jeopardy if that happens. 

Chris Jones is being taunted by a circling crustacean which is playing hard to get. Chris is so Easy Teasy. It is a hilarious man vs. conveyor belt moment. He goes on a profanity-laced tirade. This is killer TV. Finally he gets a hold of one of those lobsters and he is not letting go. He is now going to make this lobster pay for this embarrassment by boiling it and cooking it with foie gras. 

Time is up, and it looks like Beverly is having one of her minimalist brain activity days: she has forgotten to put on one of her necessary elements, yet gets a pretty nice-looking plate composed. Curried rice krispies sounded pretty fly, so I am saddened. Luckily she has not somehow ruined Lindsay’s food in the Quickfire, or we would never hear the end of it. 

The food:

Edward Lee: Sauerkraut Soup with shrimp, shaved truffle and Macadamia nuts. Good looking. 

Chris Jones: Butter Poached Lobster with foie gras. Traditional haute cooking without liquid nitrogen appliqué. In this competition, Chris has left Planet Moto for a simpler place known as Earth. Welcome back, dude. He is seen trying to open a jar with a spatula. Wrong tool Chris, wrong tool!

Grayson: Butter poached fluke with rosemary Goldfish crumble. Sounding weird but this may have solved how to use all those Goldfish one finds crammed in the backseat when you have a toddler. I have two who are past the Goldfish addiction stage but we are still finding Goldfish in the back seats.  

Paul Q: Mussels with broth of bitter melon and saffron. Bitter melon is tough love to use and may bitter him, I mean bite him, in the ass. 

Sarah: Softshell crab with artichokes, cottage cheese, and saltines. This sounds like a CSI episode looking into a drunk Italian fisherman’s death. Or it could rock. We’re about to find out. 

Lindsay: Bouillabaisse of grouper, clams, fennel, and tomato. She’s a little worried about cooking something so French for Eric. I feel for her. I’d be freaking out. I love how they start to subtitle Eric.

Beverly: Glazed sockeye salmon with black eyed peas, tofu, and thoughts of curried rice crispies. This is where Chris Jones is very jealous. She just thinks the rice crispies onto the plate. 

So Beverly’s dish would have won “by a mile” if she hadn’t been floating above the crowds in a euphoric daze, which puts a footnote next to Lindsay's win, much like the Montreal Expos best record in baseball in 1994-1995. Lindsay takes the news with her new cloudy disposition. She’s tired, people. They all are. It’s been a long road this far and as much as they all want to finish this with a win, they all also want a nap. 

Charlize Theron is the Queen of this quasi-medieval honky tonk and you really couldn’t ask for someone to get more into it. She’s great. It is utterly unfair that I am not there. Heads will roll. 

The contestants must cook food cooked in a style worthy of an evil queen -- macabre and over the top. If Chris Jones had a gastronomic wet dream this would be it. He wants to capture this like a lobster on a conveyor belt, which proved to be more elusive than you would believe. 

Beverly is running into Whole Foods like the women chefs are trying to kill her, and this may well be the case. She begins to pop up like a Korean gnome around Whole Foods scaring the other chefs. The girl is an odd bird. 

Cooking has begun. Macabre is the theme of the night. I love lamb heart, so I’m excited for Sarah’s dish. She is really, really skilled. I have not had black chicken ever, so Grayson’s dish is beyond my experience. Chris Jones is doing the crazy apple thing. Paul Q. is making something without cocoa nibs. Fast forward to the feast. 

Tartare from Ed. Tom is looking quite serious, but he’s really happy to have the lovely Charlize there. Eric loves it. The sauce interplay is loved. Tom gets the line of the night, “When you put good and evil together you get a politician.”Paul is doing a Body Glove wetsuit plate. They love it too. It looks pretty cool. He’s making time from that Quickfire stuff he messed around with. 

Beverly has made Snow White into a fish, but I think that’s the Little Mermaid. She’s confused but the plate looks good and is well-received. Fish is cooked perfectly, rice is killa. 

Lindsay has made a Witches' Stew of seared scallop with shortrib and dragon beans. Looks great. The stewed beans are adored. Fine chef she is. Boil, boil, toil, and trouble. I like how she’s seen Bev make headway with shortribs, and she’s going to run with it too. 

Sarah is Italian (a play on English is Italian, a resto by Todd English). Lamb heart over Amarone risotto. Me hungry now. I would eat that right now, but it is not available at the SLC airport. 

Grayson is putting together a crazy plate and bumps bellies with Pebbles in celebration. Nutty plate. Love the egg. They love it too. 

Chris J. and the wacky apple. Poison apple. Looks whack. His use of LN in this is smart and is adored. Look, I wasn’t there, but Tom really said to me that it was some of the best food ever on Top Chef. Ever. And that was all of them. Way to go, chefs. You rocked it and the Queen was happy. 

Slaphappy band time. Bev plays one minute past the point of it being cool. 

Paul wins. Kills it with the Enchanted Forest. 

Beverly is gone, but certainly not forgotten. Who can ever forget her?

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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