Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Knife

Hugh Acheson wraps up a pressure-filled season.

The Quickfire is a collection of chefs from the season with two ringers. The ringers are Marco Canora from Hearth, NYC and Barbara Lynch from No. 9 Park in Boston. The two of them are lauded super chefs. They are also very cool peeps. Me likey them. I have a recurring dream that Marco makes me the best toast ever. It’s totally platonic. 

So we get a hodgepodge of competing chefs, from Big Keith, to Tyler the Butcher, to “I say what’s on my mind” Grayson, to Malibu, to the Namaste foam guy from the first episode… even Heather is smilin’. Watch out though, she’s meaner when she’s smiling.

Crary has a sweaty back. You know that boy is going commando. Ewww. 

Tyler and Ty-Lör is a one-letter difference, with a power umlaut. This seems slight but the real difference is that Tyler makes people cringe and Ty-Lör makes people want to hug him. When Tyler gets picked, we hear whispers of, “That’s unfortunate.” Understatement of season. 

Nobody picked Marco Canora. WTF. This man eats young chefs like this for a midday snack. He burns his own cuts shut. He poops saucepans. 

The teams are picked and they look pretty tight. I think Ty-Lor is a coup for Paul and Barbara is like getting Albert Pujols for a tee ball game. Nyesha and Heather are anchors for Sarah. Grayson is swearing a lot, so that means she’s in top form.Tyler is trying to convince Sarah to cook with techniques that he has read about in Art Culinaire and then peppering everybody with inane questions. You need to watch his casting video. F--king mind boggling. Barbara Lynch is getting comfy with the Paul thing, but she’s always been the boss and may take a little time to adjust to the subservient role.

Nyesha is running this kitchen goddammit. Of all the people I thought could’ve really brought it this season she’s the one I missed the most. She’s immensely talented and has a demeanor I adore. She and Barbara Lynch are culinarily dreamy.

Tyler tells Sarah, “You’re so old skool.” Does that make Tyler new skool by extension? If so, we need to change the curriculum. 

The fired butcher also asks “How thick do you want the wedges?” I want to give him a wedgie. There should be a place where you can go online and make that happen. Tyler peppers out the questions as I write him a script for Adderall. If he worked in my kitchens, I would need medication to curb my urges to put this kid in a sleeper hold.   

Terlato tasting time. Again I am “hiding” at the bar. Third string, remember?

Barbara Lynch is like the boss of all of us. She should run this whole joint, and by that I mean the world. 

The crab has spent the night sitting lifeless and is smelling that way. I don’t know whether that implies out of the fridge or just sitting in a cold environment aging, but neither of those sounds very good. I think crab is the one seafood that I have had the worst run-ins with; it just does not keep for very long, or it’s pasteurized and chem washed and tastes like cat food. But then once in a blue moon you taste a king crab, Dungeness crab, blue crab, or stone crab that just makes you love what the critters can be. Keith, a.k.a. Big Guy, knows his seafood and is raising the red flag on the crab at hand, but like any properly run kitchen he wants to talk to the Big Enchilada. Paul, the aforementioned Enchilada, agrees, and they move on to spot prawns. Keith, I am coming to see you sometime soon. We will break bread. Shalom. Paul’s restaurant is named Qi. He has removed you. How selfish. Tom and Gail are joined by Cat Cora, looking all hottie in her new 'do, Marco Canora, chef at Hearth and Terroir(s), looking all sad cause he didn’t get picked, and Mark McEwen, the host of Top Chef Canada and pretty much the most famous chef in Canadia. 

This is the Qi menu:

1st: Chawanmushi, Steamed Egg Custard, Prawns and Pea Shoots   

2nd: Grilled Sea Bass with Clam Dashi, Pickled Radishes and Mushrooms        

3rd : Congee with Scrambled Eggs, Uni and Kale        

4th: Coconut Ice Cream with Puffed Wild Rice, Mangosteen & Thai Chili Foam               

Sarah’s restaurant, officially called Black & Blue, has been monikered Monte Verde for the purpose of this popup finale. Black & Blue is a big steakhouse usually filled with people who like making it rain. Looks the part. Nice people though.

Padma, Emeril, and I are joined at the table by guest diners David Myers, chef of Comme Ca (Vegas, Tokyo, and LA), and Bill Terlato from Terlato Wines International. This is the Monte Verde menu. I keep yodeling whenever I hear the name. It’s a nervous tick. 

1st : Spot Prawns and Coconut  

2nd : Rye Crusted Steelhead Trout, Pickled Beets, Fennel and Gras Pista          

3rd : Braised Veal Cheek with Veal Sweetbread          

4th : Hazelnut Cake with Roasted White Chocolate Ganache            

About an hour into the meal I realized my fly was wide open, that’s why I was making that face. No joke actually. I don’t think anyone noticed so I announced it to the entire table. Just how I roll: thorough transparency in all my operations. 

The cat has got my tongue as well, but if I used words I would have said that Sarah’s first two courses were great. Instead I chose to nod my way through the meal. The more I say, the less I am eating, so it’s a good sign for the chefs if I stay mute. 

The pasta kicked ass, breaking all preconceptions about her food. It was a new thing, with the raw spot prawns and coconut The second course trout was great as well, but the beets were astringently undercooked. Bite into a beet and it's like a tannin bomb when raw. I loved the gras pista. For those of you not so food term savvy, step into my Google. The third course was a bit odd. Rich cheeks were good but a bite fills me up. The breakfast with meat on top. It was an oat polenta. And the sweetbreads were hammered (chef speak for overcooked). Dessert was killa. Overall a very strong showing.

Paul’s opener was good but not as strong as the first diners were all starry-eyed about. The mushi was overcooked and they were out of eggs to make a new batch. There were chives cut longer than the grass at Augusta National, a too-firm texture and something weird about our prawns. It just was not the first course the other half had. Second course turned it all around. Mad skillz showing again. The bass was stellar and the dashi was a little muted but gave a clear and clean presentation on the palate. I adored the congee and thought a very brave dish to do. Paul has to buy Barbara Lynch something nice. Paul, follow through dude. Aw f--k, just give her one of the gazillion things you won this season. Paul, sheepishly, “Here Chef Lynch, I bought you a Prius.”

Judges' Table:

Tom thinks it’s the best food ever at a Judges' Table. This is my first rodeo so it’s the best I’ve had. 

Gail loved the pasta. We all loved the pasta. We all had problems with the beets, but it really was the only weak link in that dish. The cheeks were good, albeit very rich. The polenta had problems. The sweetbreads were over. It really was splitting hairs though cause it was a great meal and a really apt finale presentation. 

Padma hates white chocolate, but that is just one of her teases… because she loves the dessert! How do y’all feel about the other White Chocolate, Robin Thicke? I am pro white soul singers birthed from the loins of Canadian-sitcom actors. Robin is dreamy and his voice gets people more excited than a kabocha squash salad with avocado, arugula, and saffron vinaigrette (all purported aphrodisiacs). Jason Seaver is blushing somewhere. Anyhow, Sarah’s white chocolate has been slowly roasted and becomes a sauce emulating dulce de leche. It’s friggin’ delicious. 

Paul’s first course was truly a apples and oranges scenario and he knew it. The bass was badass. The congee was fun. I cut Gail off… sorry Gail, my fellow Canuck. 

I thought the puffed rice was a bit too crunchy. Like grapenuts crunchy. Again, an amazing meal. 

Loved the families in attendance. Good to see them being humans with true feelings.I wonder if this season of Top Chef could pass Canadian content regulations? For more information on Canadian content you can read older articles by some Canadian with two big eyebrows. He’s my dad and he’s an economist. 

Paul is Top Chef. Sarah is sad. May they both prosper.

Let me address the season overall. Though there was drama, though there were emotional battles, though there was tension, we really did see great food and great chefs. You don’t have to love them all -- that’s not what this is about. Perhaps some of the challenges were over-the-top and exhausting. We hear you. Trust me when I say that the show’s aim is to showcase great food, and show that being a chef is sometimes a matter of working under immensely strange pressure.  

Through the madness rose Paul. All season long he was professional and poised. He doesn’t get rattled, he didn’t start trouble, he didn’t malign others or try to trip them up. I personally think the guy is exactly what we need more of in our chef world: a soft-spoken, smart person, full of empathy and care but truly devoted to the craft of restaurants and the food he loves. 

That said, I am signing off. I am excited about next season. It’ll be fun again. I will miss my blogging in the next while but maybe I will start writing terse missives about RHOA in the interim. NeNe, watch out. 

Follow me on Twitter @hughacheson!


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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