Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Polk Me!

Hugh Acheson breaks down the first Canadian challenge -- and shares a little U.S. history in the process.

 

Final Four. Vancouver madness. The chefs are forced to walk through the rain from the airport. I would gladly walk through the rain in Vancouver over 112 F in Dallas. Loved Texas, but it was the hottest summer I have ever experienced. 

You expect Padma to pop up at any moment and surprise them with a Quickfire in the airport parking lot. And that’s exactly what happens in note form. Lindsay is still harping on herself. Bev is still on cloud nine but seems more assertive than before. They have their snowsuits on. Bev may have A Christmas Story moment at any time, falling down in her snowsuit and unable to get up. Windy at the top of Whistler and Tom and Padma are literally getting blown away. Tom is dressed in his Merchant Marine best, but the man looks pretty warm. I need to chat up wardrobe all nice and stuff to get that type of parka. 

I paid no attention to the rules, so this should be interesting. Gondala. Cook. Stop. Cook. 

Paul is having travel sickness due to his orange pants. Sarah is all over the place. Bev is focused, or as focused as Bev can be. Lindsay is pretending this is like hunting gator in a Jon boat in the Okefenokee swamp. She is dressed like a Bond villainess, white turtleneck with black hat, making this gator hunt more interesting. I always loved the Bond skiing scenes. Gretchen Bleiler and Gail the Canadian are the guest judges. I was usurped by a multi-medalled Olympian. Whatevs. They eat Paul’s lamb with enoki, juniper, and wasabi, and we get like no reaction. Sounds like a juggling act of many, many powerful flavors. We are right back to Sarah. It’s a chorizo dish with prune juice and gooseberries. It’s like Spanish food for old people with an out-of-season fruit. Bev is menu planning for the future. She loves the dish and the thought of creating all menus on a moving metal crate in the freezing cold. She is having one installed back in Chicago. Sarah can use it when she asks really nicely and apologizes for all past meanness. Bev has made a salmon tartare with anchovy, horseradish crème fraiche, and crispy capers. This is straight out of the 1992 playbook, which yes, I am guilty of using as well. Lindsay is cooking for a trio of people when she is facing a quartet. She has not caught any f--king gators on this miserable trip. Her dish is a salmon with quinoa, chorizo, and horseradish vinaigrette. 

Paul gets a passable. Gretchen loved the wasabi. Sarah gets a nod because gooseberries gave it some acid. Bev gets hugged for knife-work. Lindsay’s salmon was beautifully cooked. It was a gondola, people. Again, Lindsay thinks she sucked, and lo and behold, they loved it.  She wins, and hopefully gets some self-assurance. You are in the final round of Top Chef. Realize you rock. You rock. Enjoy. 

Hotel moments at the fabulous Fairmont. The Fairmont has all the old CN hotels in Canada and they are beautiful spots. Go to the Banff Springs hotel someday. Sheer bliss. Stayed at the one in Vancouver, and it was the lap of luxury. Don’t tell the producers that I am happy in a broom closet. As long as there is running water, a Twister game, a framed picture of Ken Dryden, and two packs of those colored Nat Sherman Fantasia cigarettes like my aunt used to smoke, my rider has been met.Sarah and Paul are having a discussion about Bev, while Bev washes her hands and face with Lady Macbeth-like concentration. “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” Sarah calls her the “Silent Horse.” It’s Dark Horse, Silly Sarah! Go research some Polk. Which when I did, brought up this weirdo tidbit… From Whitehouse.gov: 

“He (President James K. Polk) offered to settle by extending the Canadian boundary, along the 49th parallel, from the Rockies to the Pacific. When the British minister declined, Polk reasserted the American claim to the entire area. Finally, the British settled for the 49th parallel, except for the southern tip of Vancouver Island. The treaty was signed in 1846.” Don’t tell me I didn’t pay attention in Civics. 

And then Sarah calls Bev a tiger. Enough with the animal comparisons. Anyhoo, it's year of the dragon, that tiger stuff was like two years ago, which might be a bad omen for Bev.

More Olympians. This guy does Skeleton, which is kind of like controlling a fall down an icy set of stairs, headfirst, while holding onto a little piece of plastic with skate blades stuck to the bottom. Better you than me, handsome mountain man. He is Canadian, but no, I don’t know him. As an aside, when I was 11, my baseball coach in Atlanta asked if I spoke Canadian… he wasn’t kidding. 

The ingredients are in ice blocks. This is a Canadian traditional joke that we play on Americans, much in the same way of us giving you Corey Hart and Bryan Adams. Ice picks are brandished, but the use of a hammer with the pick never comes into play. Instead we have a Texan and two Chicagoans (albeit one from Houston) being made fools of by frozen water. Paul is helping. Nice Paul, continually being the good samaritan chef in the whole entire season. He’s quietly very self-assured. He does seem to make a gastrique (to the Google my people!) in every challenge though. What up with that, Paul? Sarah: Spinach soup with almonds and crab

Paul: Brown butter poached crab with mango chutney

Bev: Scallop with orange, buttered peas and couscous

Paul, winner winner chicken dinner. Going to Vancouver. Back to the hotel first to give positive reinforcement to Lindsay. 

Sarah and Bev into the cage. Strange, but funny, edit of Bev shooting Sarah. C'mon now guys… that was a little over-the-top. 

Biathlon! These peeps are not born X-country skiers. Lots of time on their butts. Then Bev trips up Sarah on purpose. Payback is a bitch. 

Bev shoots well and wins Artic char, celery root, truffle, fennel, and beets. Sarah has rabbit, cabbage, hazelnuts, and cherries. They get cooking, and Sarah shows that she still has a large helping of condescension to serve to Beverly. It’s not a Healthy Choice entrée. The timer goes off, and Beverly clutches her temple like her dark overlord wants her to return to base. The voices are strong with this one. Bev has cooked an Arctic Char (Best Choice from Seafood Watch!), a pretty fine fish from the farmed fish world. She’s got a beet and onion compote, some celery root with truffles, and the fish. I would have made it rain truffle shavings on that char. This is Elfen money, make it rain. There ain’t no food cost on Top Chef (actually there was on one episode of Top Chef Masters. I made salad.).

Sarah is kicking the bunny. Braised rabbit leg and heart, cherries, cabbage puree and hazelnut sauce. Kicking it German-Italian style. 

Bev gets the dreaded “Maybe overcooked” from Tom. Sarah gets the “Tough rabbit" from Gail but I think it's kind of splitting hares. Paul and Lindsay come in to visit. She and Sarah have bonded. Paul expresses support for Bev. We shall see where this winding ski run ends. 

Bev is gone. Padma had a little teary thing going on. Bev, you made Padma cry! Nobody does that. Wow.

Bottom line, all joking aside: This is a f--king hard show. Its is brutal. It’s much harder than it looks. Beverly is an unconventional chef who can do one thing that is the most important attribute in chefdom: she can cook. She can really cook. She deserved to be in the final four and I will happily arm wrestle anyone who thinks differently. Except Heather. She’d kick my ass. 

 

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

Richard Blais explains why Mei Lin won, and why we'll definitely be hearing from Gregory Gourdet soon.

The finale of Top Chef is the one absolute every season. Make the best meal of your life, in a multi-course tasting format for a room of the "who's who" in the culinary industry.

If you get to the finals, it's the type of thing you can prepare for. Every finalist should have a few four to five course menus floating around their heads, including a dessert, and all complete with options and Plan B's transcribed to their moleskins. And although the knowledge of what's coming is helpful, the format does not play to every chef's strengths.

There aren't too many restaurants committed to such meal services. Which means less chefs experienced with how to "write" and execute them. A progressive meal has to have a certain flow about it. And even the stereotypical versions of the "menu degustation" could force a contestant into cooking a dish that's not in their wheelhouse, for instance a straight forward fish course because "it belongs there."

Tonight, Mei Lin has a slight advantage. She cooks in a restaurant every day that showcases a tasting menu. Her food has been the epitome of a modern tasting menu all season. Many previous times, to a fault. Mei's food is small and precise. Beautiful to look at, and intellectually stimulating to discuss. Cold sometimes, every once in a while a shaved radish plated with tweezers heavy. It's not for everyone. It's not for everyday. But it's the type of food that when done well, can win Top Chef. Win James Beard Award noms. Win Best New Chef honors. Win Michelin stars.

Her future could indeed be bright.

What struck me most about Mei's food tonight however, wasn't technique. Technique and presentation often can get in the way of flavor. But tonight Mei delivered a few courses that were deeply satisfying. Soulful, delicious food that also was presented at a high level and cooked with surgeon's precision. That congee though...combined with a simple dessert that took yogurt and granola to another planet, won her the day. Her other two courses were fine, but suffered from the strains of modernity. Overly plated (the duck) and technically overwrought (the fried octopus).

Gregory on the other hand, it's just not his finest work. You can hear it in his voice as he's explaining his food. He's cooking improv, an ode to Mexico. The problem is, this isn't a jam session at a local cantina. This is a studio session where the chefs should be cooking practiced and refined pieces.

His octopus was a highlight and featured the unusual combination of passion fruit and avocado. It was an explosive start. The following two courses unraveled a bit, with the soup being good, but way too unrefined for the moment and technically problematic (the crispy shrimp heads), and the fish course bordering on dessert with the sugary carrot purée.

The mole was authentic and delicious, the rib cooked perfectly, but the dish felt a little incomplete. I believe Gregory had the better ideas, but just needed to think them through a bit more.

His sadness after the fact, I can attest, is profound. Tearful. Absolute emptiness. Close to the feeling of the sudden loss of a loved one. This may shock some of you, because it is indeed just a game. The mere thought of feeling that way over such silliness is well, silly. But not for us. This isn't the Super Bowl where an athlete loses and they can shake it off. Jump in their Bentley and start thinking about next season. There is no next season. There is no guaranteed pay day for the runner-up. The ten wins you had before don't matter. It just ends. Suddenly. And it's rather sad.

The good thing is, this is certainly, 100%, not the last time you will hear from Gregory. I waxed last week about Doug's professionalism, all of which is very true. But Gregory... Gregory is a special talent. His food (and I can say HIS type of food, because it's unique to him), is a study in refined, exotic comfort. What the man can do with a one-pot meal of braised anything, some chilies, sugar, vinegar, herbs, and spices is beyond impressive. Rarely do I taste food that makes me jealous as a cook. Rarely do I taste food that makes me start thinking about a new restaurant concept. The word inspiring in cooking competitions is sort of like the word "love," when it gets used too much, it loses it luster. Gregory's food however. I love it. It is inspiring.

Congrats to Mei and Gregory! Tom was right, I can't wait to one day say I saw you two way back when, in Mexico, in a little kitchen, before the bright lights, fancy kitchens, and big stages that lay ahead for both of you.

See you next season. I hope!

Richard Blais
@RichardBlais - Twitter and Instagram

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