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. 

 

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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