Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Drinking Game Alert!

Word of the day is "Blazer"!

 

To honor the episode, we must have a word of the day. The word of the day is: Blazer. You can do anything you want when it’s mentioned throughout this post, but I recommend drinking. Drinking makes my writing a bit easier to understand, and I recommend something culled from the Girl Drink Drunk skits on Kids in the Hall. Get those blenders set up. 

Since last I wrote, Jonesy has gone but is not forgotten. He gave us so much to talk about that I am, well, a little saddened by his departure. He went out with a chicken salad sandwich rivaled by your local convenience store so c’est la vie. It would be a healthy convenience store though, probably in Berkeley. Grayson is also saddened by Chris’ sudden disapparition and will smoke an edible cigar for her homey. This one is for Pebbles. Meanwhile, Edward is “all business from the waist up, as his fancy pyjamas consist of basketball shorts, a dress shirt, untucked, and a blazer. The classic blue blazer is the uniform of the fall and winter in the South for men of a certain pedigree. I am not of this pedigree and I think Edward has just been kicked out of the club. First rule of Blazer Club: Do not sleep in the blazer. 

Lindsay is talking about her family and that they were a little concerned about the career choice she took, at least initially, but now are very supportive. It’s an industry filled with a lot of addiction, low salaries, and exploitation… what’s the worry? My Pops was awesome with my chosen field. He was very supportive and still helps me a lot with guidance. Lindsay is one of the few who could do anything but chose to cook great food for a living, because it’s what she loves. Glad her family was supportive of her. She has a rocking mentor in Michelle Bernstein who is a stellar chef/restaurateur in Miami. When you have to prep an opulent set for a pancake challenge, obviously you think to make a gazillion pancake skyscrapers. Obviously. The culinary team of Top Chef probably dropped a thousand, “Are you f--king kidding me?”s, when asked to make the Dallas skyline in pancakes. I would have outsourced that to IHOP so fast. “I need 4200 orders of CINN-A-STACKS, to go. Thanks, dude.” The judge of the moment bikes in on his trademark Schwinn and it’s Pee-wee Herman, Paul Reubens. They are one in the same. I need a stage name. Any idea? Slappy McDimwit may work. 

Let’s talk about pancakes in general and what I like about them. I don’t want them too sweet. I make them pretty much every Saturday for my kids. They like them. I like the classic Joy of Cooking recipe. Like Ed, I want that critical crisp ring around them, and I want them fluffy, but not like a cupcake. I would have probably enjoyed Ed’s and Grayson’s versions the best. Paul’s looked pretty good as well, but the champagne dipping dots were a red herring. Who wants frozen champagne dots on pancakes? Unless they were frozen sausage pellets. That’d be good. Paging Chris Jones, please re-pack your knives and return to San Antonio. Your skill set is now in demand. 

The pancakes are made. Many. Most of the chefs go in the cavity-causing vein and pack in the sweets. Pee-wee will love this, as I think he has the same food whims as a four-year-old. I would have gone against the grain with a savory pancake, but I am not cooking for the strange man with the bowtie. Paul is bringing back memories of Pebbles with his Dipping Dots. Champagne-style. I wonder whether this could be a rap music trend forthcoming. Pee-wee yells “time’s up” like it’s “hands up.” Padma backs him up in more sultry style. Pee-wee seems a little addled before the sugar. Uh-oh. 

The dishes:

Grayson: Getting all Minnie with it, but this is the most Pat-looking Minnie ever. Ricotta buttermilk pancakes with peach, blackberry, basil, and lemon zest and a carafe of syrup…. I hope maple, cause it ain’t pancakes without true maple syrup. Don’t get me started. Pee-wee says they are the best pancakes he’s ever had. 

Sarah: Confetti pancakes with blackberry sauce, cocoa nibs, and whipped cream. I am reaching for the Paula Deen branded-insulin. Why does Pee-wee not bring the food to his mouth, rather he brings his mouth to the food? Weird. Pee-wee says they are the best pancakes he’s ever had. Neither Padma nor Pee-wee call out the overwhipped cream on the plate. Looked pretty broken up. 

Paul Q: They do not make many pancakes at Uchiko. Rolled pancake with berries, black pepper and champagne Dipping Dots. Paul, that’s a crepe. But I like the savory aspect of things. Pee-wee says they are the best pancakes he’s ever had. 

Lindsay: Ricotta pancake with lemon, cardamom, brown butter syrup, crème fraiche, and anise cookies. Look good, but I just don’t get the cookies part. Pee-wee says they are the best pancakes he’s ever had. 

Ed: Pancake bits with berries, bacon, bruleed marshmallows, and chocolate shavings. The sugar is killing me. But I like the pancake bits idea cause that’s one of my fav parts too. Pee-wee says they are the best pancakes he’s ever had. Pee-wee is playing a little game… always. Living with Pee-wee would probably be very frustrating. Ed wins. First QF win for him! He says: “Hopefully I am going to start streaking late.” I know what he means, but all I can think of is him streaking commando style, with just the blazer on. Ed is capable of such things. May the big blue blazer always cover his Louisville slugger. 

They now have to cook a family-style meal for Pee-wee and the judges, but they have to bike around town finding product and borrowing kitchens for prep space. This is going to be interesting. The key is that only one chef can cook in one kitchen at the same time. Just soothsaying. Oh yeah, and they are riding bikes. Edward is tiring himself before they leave by running around the house. Lindsay puts her helmet on backwards. Her parents are supportive of this too… cause i'ts funny!

They buy chicken. Some buy beef. Okra and squash are seen. I don’t think the drought made for great farmer’s markets this year in the Lone Star state. We learn that Grayson comes from a competitive family and her Uncle John lost his left eye in a contentious day of Monopoly down by the river in ’78. Everyone glides around on their bikes looking for products and a place to ply their trade. It’s a beautiful day in San Antonio and Lindsay should be happier. I suggest a soothing cup of iced tea and a Xanax. 

Now, this challenge would irk me. It’s hard to ask something of a stranger, let alone wander in off the street from your Pee-wee bike ride and ask a busy kitchen to make room for you. Paul has found his home away from home in some obscure Belgian-Thai bistro with a chef he enjoys the company of, a place where he can pursue his excellence. Nothing fazes the Qui. Lindsay is being hurdled by many obstacles. Ed has found himself in a bed and breakfast and is re-enacting an episode of Fawlty Towers, the one where John Cleese tries really hard not to offend the Germans. Grayson is in a Mexican restaurant when Lindsay comes in to poach some more ingredients. Upon her return to Mad Hatters she sees that Sarah has encroached on her space. A battle is avoided, but Lindsay is not having a good day. Back on the bike she climbs. Helmet is in correct direction.Lindsay finds a small kitchen called the Hog Stand and gets cheeky with it. Flash to Sarah who is telling folks that she can hang with boys, while making little crackers of love. Ed is making some Red-Eye gravy, but yearns to be lounging in his blazer at the homestead. He is making chicken carpaccio, which is dangerously delicious. Grayson is improving American-Mexican relations with her friendly Wisconsin demeanor. 

The bike ride laden with foods looks fun. Mostly Grayson who is a circus act of smooth, riding one handed with her hot food resting on her bare hand. 

This family-style meal is on the table. Let the judging begin. 

Lindsay Autry - Stuffed Zucchini with Braised Beef Cheeks, Rice and Goat Cheese - The zucchini boats are a little heavy and Pee-wee thinks i'ts pork. Silly Pee-wee. 


Sarah Grueneberg - Summer Vegetable Egg Salad with Chicken Skin Vinaigrette - Needed salt but looks great otherwise. Love the idea of the vinaigrette. 

Edward Lee - Chicken and Grits, Raw Corn, Kale Salad with Red-Eye Gravy - They are freaked by the pink. I understand. They like the rest of the dish.

Paul Qui - Roasted Chicken, Red Curry Gastrique, Summer Salad w/ Basil Blossom Oil - Sweet and acidic. Seems to have gone over well.Grayson Schmitz - Egg, Spinach & Gorgonzola Stuffed Chicken & Butternut Squash - Smart but overly salady. Some bad jokes go around the table which I don’t get. I want to take off my pants, put on my blazer and relax; this episode is exhausting.

The Stew Room shenanigans continue. 

Pee-wee has calmed down and is actually a good food judge. He has solid things to say. My notes on the Judges' Table are short cause you should watch on your own. It was a good honest, smart table. 

Lindsay wins after her stressful day, but I think that Lindsay is harder on herself than she needs to be. She pulled out the win despite all the craziness she encountered.   

Grayson goes home. The Wisconsinite brought it this season. She has a great personality and she can cook with the best of them. She goes out like a total champ too, only being proud of herself and what she’s done. Bullfrog songs will be sung in her memory.  

The chefs are finally told about the alternate universe of Last Chance Kitchen. Crazy world. 

Yo, make sure you follow me on Twitter. I promise to make jokes about myself. @hughacheson

 

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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