Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

I Love Happy Time

Hugh Acheson weighs in on the team dynamics in the Salt Lick BBQ challenge.

We are starting out in drinky time at the haunted Driskill. I have happy thoughts about the fish and chips at the Bits & Druthers food truck where I eat soon after landing every time I go to Austin. Yummypants. 

Bev is not so sorry to have seen Heather get the Bigfoot boot off the show. Sarah is getting all potty mouthed towards Edward's allegations about Cakegate 2011, the borrowing of batter recipes. Darth Edward is playing to win in this and Sarah is not very impressed with his ways. We may have our new feud taking shape. 

Knock knock. Room service brings a set of books! Not just any books though, it’s Modernist Cuisine, the six volume, 52-pound, spectacularly-researched collection of molecular gastronomy. Rarely do people get this excited for a stack of books. I smell a molecular food moment coming very, very soon, or maybe that’s just Chris Crary’s Beefy Fonduta Edible Cologne. Beverly is going to stay up late reading the tome of Myhrvold, cause her parents pinned a note to her pajamas telling the producers that she can stay up past 10 p.m. for homework tonight.

Chris Jones is in geek heaven. Not since he and Richie got to play on the bunk beds has life been this good. “He (Myhrvold) is a genius. If I could be 1/10th as smart as he is I might rule a small continent.” So much for the benevolent Chris Jones: as a member of Foodie Cobra Command, Chris will rule and conquer small continents, through molecular gastronomy. Nathan Myhrvold went to college at age 14, is a billionaire, and can buy a small continent if he is feeling financially frisky, granted it would be Antarctica or Europe, both are melting into the lower price sphere. Chris has some work to do before he gets to rule continents, but mark my words, when you step foot on the Moto continent you had better style your hair appropriately. 

Onto the Quickfire, with Padma and Nathan!

The modernist cuisine movement is about using “new techniques to delight people who eat your food.” We learn that molecular gastronomy is a small subset of the modernist movement and that “really its about creativity.” And off we go. “NITRO COLD NITRO COLD!” Moto Chris playfully yells out as he rushes through the kitchen with a smoking pot of nitro goodness. He is really, really excited today. 

As we learned in previous episodes, Paul Q. cleaned up his act and got rid of the pot and the dog poop. He is having a lot of enunciation problems today.  

M-O-L-E-C-U-L-A-R  GASTRONOMY. The frantic chef is coming out in Beverly again. Her interpretation of avant-garde food may be a it muted. Edward is being a dick this episode and tells her to “HOLD ON PLEASE.” He sounds like Beverly’s overbearing parents. 

Moto Chris is screaming to no one and everyone: “Don’t try this at home kids!” ElBullience defined. I mean ebullience. 

OMG. Crary paints XXX pictures of Grayson, Padma, and other women he has crushes on. “You will notice that most of them are nude paintings. That’s something I like to do.” Crary is like the Leisure Suit Larry of the chef world. 

Moto Chris: “For the love of Pete, put me in the top.” Is that like for Pete’s sake? 

First up is Beverly with her Curry Whipped Cream and Other Delights which is errantly shot at Padma and Nathan. Nathan quips that it would be modern to serve the food on them. Padma says, “Do you want to wipe off for a second, while she cleans up?” I am not even going there. Alas her dish is pretty humdrum and her cream was a mess. She also drops everything on the ground and looks like she’s been smoking weed in the walk-in. Second is Sarah’s Breakfast Raviolo, Pancetta, and Egg Yok, which looks pretty great. Even Nathan is jazzed. I didn’t think it modern enough, but I am not on this episode, so like most of America, I can just yell at my TV. Nathan jokes, “Raviolis don’t grow on trees.” This line affirms my theory that you can’t buy a sense of humor, no matter how much cash you have stashed next to your Miracle Berry trees in your basement. 

Edward did a play on sushi. His Compressed Watermelon with Brunoise of Radish, Salmon Belly Sashimi, and Orange Pulp gets a “cool” from Myhrvold. Rich he is, effusive he is not. 

Grayson has trout sashimi with dill caviar and she is not shy of telling the world that that’s all she knows about molecular gastronomy. Crary is painting a picture in his head of Grayson swimming naked upstream with a school of rainbow trout. 

Ty-Lor has embraced things with a watermelon with vanilla bean honey, saffron, and salted olive oil powder. Rockin’ it.

Lindsay has a baby octopus with sea beans and togarashi. Not sure how modernist this is, but it looks good. 

Crary has made risotto foam, scallops, brown butter dust. He gets a “terrific” from Nathan. 

Paul Qui has made an endive salad with egg yolk. It looks like it should have been the food in Sleeper. A little parmesan and truffle powder for good measure all nestled in the modern glass egg terrarium. 

Nathan Myhrvold has met his geeky match in Moto Chris. Their eyes meet. Chris asks them to take a tablet first. It’s Miracle Berry. Nathan retorts, with a hint of “put the boy in his place,” that he grows this rare berry in his basement. Chris feels like a plebeian. Billionaire 1, Moto Jones 0. I wonder what else grows in his basement. I think he and Paul Q should get together and grow and sell the best pot in the world. Bottoms: Paul with a boring egg. Beverly with her curry mess. Grayson with her trout ta da.

Tops: Ty-Lor with his melon. Sarah with her ravioli. Chris J. with his berries.   

Winner is Ty-Lor. Chris Jones is very, very sad. 

Off to Salt Lick BBQ Camp, where there be no sing songs, no archery badges, no raising of the flag, and certainly no friendships. There will be a mildly abusive camp counselor and his name is Edward Lee.

The cooking team equivalent of the Bad News Bears tonight is Crary, Beverly, and Moto Chris.  

Whole Foods. Did Chris Crary shout out liquid smoke in a list of ingredients for coleslaw? That s--t is disgusting. Edward is battling everyone named Sarah, accent or not. When will people realize it's not good karma to battle with team members? 

Dr. Pepper BBQ sauce sounds gross.

The Salt Lick owner tours them around. They eat a lot. I would want a nap, but I don’t think that’s in the cards for the chefs. Paul is sweatin’ balls again. It’s now Tundra time. the recreated pits are called the Onion Creek. “When the smoke gets in your eye, remember those tears are the last flavor profile for great barbecue.” Marcus Aurelius, he is not but you get the point. 

It all starts out nice and funny like but like all family trips to Onion Creek, we end up crying, being really tired, crying some more, passing out, eating and drinking way too much. And never ever tell Edward how to cook. 

In case of fire, DO NOT CALL BEVERLY. This looks exhausting. Tom drops by to check on the teams. Everyone seems pretty wiped out. Grayson says its going to be like “sex in the mouth.” Really. She did. Tom announces that the winning team gets $15,000 and Edward is splitting that $7,500 for, him $7,499 for Ty-Lor, and $1 for Sarah.

Medic time. They are calling the 911. Edward thinks that sick people should just try harder to be better and healthier. They are now a two-man team and will be cutting this meat in advance and then packing it up. Edward decides that the most efficient way to set up is to throw shit around like you’re four years old. These people are tired and cranky from lack of sleep, but really Edward... "What’s really hood"? (I had to look it up in the Urban Dictionary the first time too.)

Chris Jones is wearing an, “I EAT VEGANS” shirt. I am hoping this helps because he is on the Bad News Bears. 

Blue Team gets judges first and the murmurs are that the chicken is delicious, the ribs are great, and the brisket is underseasoned/phenomenal. Opinions opinions. 

White Team gets good marks on their “roast” chicken, beans are undercooked, ribs are salty, and their brisket is juicy yet underdone. The watermelon agua fresca could use some gin (for Gail) or tequila (for Salt Lick owner). Nathan, who has taken one too many Miracle Berry tablets from the basement stash, cackles, “Bite your tongue Canadian.” Gail and I will not take such mockery of our native land. 

Sarah is back in the land of the living, but Edward doesn’t let her back in the gang. This is brutal. To say that they are not getting along is a vast understatement. Ty-Lor is showing true compassion and well Edward is poo poo-ing all the way to the end. Sarah is going to drink some guilt-free water. The judges think their chicken is great. The flavor of the ribs is good, but the ribs are chewy. Ed’s brisket has the best flavor, but was sliced way too early. It lost its beauty along the way. Stoney LaRue plays us out to the Judges' Table.

Let’s talk sleep deprivation a bit. I would be garbage. You just can’t work under those circumstances. I feel for them. 

The Grayson bullfrog song. What? Grayson is one happy weirdo.

Lines we could build a romance novel franchise on:

Ed: “Do not get emotional.”

Sarah: “I am just being honest.”

Blue Team wins. Paul has raked in $35,000 and wants to buy a nap for $34,000.

The White Team and Red Team are on the lower rungs of purgatory. White team up. Sarah’s chicken had little smoke taste. Ty-Lor feels pretty bad. The ribs were substandard. Nathan advocates boiling them… Sacrilege. They had fermented beans. The pre-slicing on the brisket really killed Ed’s meat. He blames Sarah. Obviously. 

Red Team up. Beverly’s coleslaw failed to wow. Moto Chris’ meats were okay. Crary’s BBQ sauce was weirdoville. Ribs were salty, virtually inedible. Bev’s beans were undercooked. 

Crary goes home. He is not too sad because this world has an endless number of naked girls to paint. 

Paint on, Malibu Chris. 









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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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