Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Fast is Slow and Slow is Smooth

Hugh Acheson tries to wrap his mind around Chris Jones' mantra.

“Don’t screw with my food when you are representing me representing you." This is Lindsay’s new battle cry. I would have suggested something shorter, like the Sioux call of "Hoka Hey!" or a simple “Kill! Kill! Kill!” This drawn out Rebel Yell from Florida is directed to the recently departed Beverly. Little do they know that Beverly is cooking to success in the Last Chance Kitchen. You can’t keep the gnome down for long. 

Grayson is chatting to herself about the need to step things up. She’s a little concerned. And she should be. This is nearing the end of the line, and right now she’s a middle of the packer known for silly songs and sexual innuendo. It’s not even innuendo usually, just sexy talk. Sexy talk means nothing anymore without Chris Crary, the sculpted Ken doll of cookery. 

Emeril, Cat Cora, and Padma are judging this Quickfire. Padma is wearing a boyfriend-style shirt-dress, plaid with cut-off sleeves. Am I the last person on earth to know that she’s dating Larry the Cable Guy? Cat Cora looks completely different when she lets her hair down. Emeril too.

I don’t know how the teams came to fruition, but they seem to fall on race (Ed and Paul), sex (Lindsay and Sarah) and then the oddball team of merry pranksters (Chris Jones and Grayson.) The challenge is to peel, devein, and butterfly two pounds of shrimp, shuck and cut a crate of corn, and make a pound of perfect fettuccine. Then you cook with all three ingredients plus the pantry, and the best dish wins. Sounds easy? Whatever… this is anything but easy. Winner gets 10,000 Smackaroos, Padma’s newly-named currency system. Padma is keeping the real greenbacks and swapping them with these Smackaroos. Currency speculators are wary on Smackaroo futures.

Here’s where I get picky. The challenge calls to “shuck a crate of corn…,” yet the picture has corn cut off the cob. Shucking is just the peeling and removal of the greenery and yarn of the corn. Cutting is something else. I would’ve just shucked it and not cut it and then been all stubborn about it. That’s how I roll. I am a walking pain in the ass, albeit a nice one. People say I smirk a lot. I do. 

The teams do line up things pretty much as they should. Make the pasta dough, get it resting, then into corn and shrimp world. Grayson says that the male shrimp are dirtier. Lindsay comments that Grayson never shuts up. This is pretty much the case, but Grayson has given us some pretty memorable lines this season and that crazy rendition of the bullfrog song. 

Alas, all happy thoughts are vanishing in this grueling Quickfire. Grayson is all over Chris for his slow-pokey work style. He asides with some strange wisdom, which I would like to set the mood for… think of a snow-capped mountain top, and on the very top of this mountain is the wise soothsayer we have all wanted to chat with in life, hair up in strange ponytail, wearing a bathrobe. You ask for wisdom and the response is this: “Fast is slow and slow is smooth.” Then your life journey is complete because it will take you the remainder of your existence to figure out what the fuck that means. 

Corn cob check for Mr. Qui. We have a corn failure on aisle three. Maiz a Qui? No Bueno. He gets Cat Cora’d and has to improve the shapes of them cobs. Ed is surely convinced that the curse of being paired with Paul continues. He may be right.

“Shrimp check please.” Immortal words that you should only speak in bath houses you will never return to, where no one will ever know your name, unless your name is Ty-Lor, the centerfold sensation. 

Paul has forgotten to put the shrimp on the pasta resulting in a banishment of the white team and a continuation of the curse of Ed and Paul, the team that Paul always brings down. Paul only wins when the money is his and his alone… and then he always wins. The green team wins, even with the deep-fried bacon. Gotta get things crispy, you know. Slow wins this race, and is happy to bring home the deep-fried bacon to his family. 

The Elimination Challenge is to cook for a block party, 200 people, to fill the coffers of Healthy Choice initiative “Child Hunger Ends Here.” The chefs will be competing against their just-former teammate from the QF. When I think block party I think of sliders and potato salad, mac 'n' cheese and sausages… and Grayson comes up with chicken salad. She would be horrible at $100,000 Pyramid

Paul and Ed are doing Korean BBQ with pickled salad. Grayson and Chris J. are rocking the chicken salad with watermelon. Lindsay and Sarah are heralding a new day for meatballs and vegetable salad. 

Shopping. Grayson yells at the butcher counter guy, “You are the shit. You are the shit.” Enunciation is everything, because with a little bit of wrong inflection this could be the most insulting thing ever said on Top Chef. Other than that, shopping is pretty straight up. Chris Jones does pull out a Marauder’s Map and sees Beverly lurking in the dried grains aisle. Off we go to prep time. They are at the old Pearl Brewery where the esteemed Culinary Institute of America has a campus. Lindsay is busting balls. Ed is rolling buns. Chris has opened up a franchise of Pret a Manger with sandwiches made in advance, a British accent, and amazing turnaround times. He then gets all ornery when packing up his food, throws some very fine looking white chairs, and has a premonition about bees. Float like a butterfly, Chef, and don’t get stung by a bee.

On-site. The bees bring back memories for me of a catering we did recently in Thomasville, GA. Stunning spot with amazing flower gardens. One request is to set up elaborate cheese displays flanking the flower gardens for guests to arrive at directly following the ceremony. They looked awesome. Ceremony starts and my walkie starts buzzing with a request that I come to the cheese displays. I ask why… “Because there are some bees on the cheese.” OK. Fine. I can deal with some bees. I go over and take a look. There are about 5000 bees on each display. This is the real picture that I took. 

hugh-blog-bees.jpg

They were everywhere. One of the guests was oddly enough a beekeeper and schooled us. They were Italian honey bees and they would go away at nightfall. They did. 

Chris Jones does not have the luxury of waiting for nightfall. He is also allergic which make this whole situation a little trickier. I got stung about seven times with my bee situation until I realized I needed to be at peace with the bees and not freak them out. Chris Jones, channel your inner wise man and recite the mantra,”Fast is Slow and Slow is Smooth.” This will lull the bees into confused submission. On-site they all seem to have their happy faces on and are making people happy with the charitable angles. Ed is carefully allotting his buns. Grayson is making the sandwiches to order, which is a slow endeavor. Sarah is wondering why her meatballs are not getting the ballot box love. Chris is still battling ‘dem bees. He has cut out the top of his hat to release the Pebbles 'do.

Ryan Scott from Season 4 in da house. Doing great work.

Dana Cowin is also in the house. I received a great call from Dana a decade ago and have held her in high esteem ever since. She is a pretty rad gastro-editor. She is also requesting vodka for her watermelon salad which always endears me to people… usually Russian people, but still. 

They are liking Paul more than Ed.

They are liking Lindsay more than Sarah. 

They are liking Grayson more than Jonesy. 

Paul used eggplant to get the richness in, but back off the fat. Paul is also looking alive. The Quickfire was before his alert hours, but now he’s game. Grayson did not open a Pret a Manger chicken salad outlet and that is commended. Great call back by Grayson at Judges' Table:

Tom Colicchio: “Did you ever think, if I am on the winning side or the losing side, am I going to win this with a chicken salad sandwich?”

Grayson: “I think it’s definitely possible… (she reacts to Tom’s look) Obviously not. You think that chicken salad is really boring?”

TC: “Yeah. You have to win this against other dishes that are potentially much more exciting than a chicken salad sandwich.”

Grayson: “Like a meatball?”

TC: “Errr… Right. Or…”

Grayson: “Right.”

You don’t usually see Tom without a quick answer, but he is smiling like she has a good point on this one. Grayson continues to rock the lines. She’s one funny chef. She can cook too. Alas, I would not be caught dead bringin’ chicken salad to a Texas gunfight. 

Paul wins. Boy has more money than a banana republic. 

Jonesy calls the correct play. Usually he is Captain I’m Going Home and then turns out to be really wrong, but this time he’s right on. Back to Chicago to rejoin Moto Army. Homaru, Ben, and Richie will be happy to have Chef Chris back in the fold, and we are all sad to see him go. Experimentation is really important in the culinary world and chefs like Chris J. are integral to the advancement of food. 

Rock on, Pebbles. 

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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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