Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Chefs Will Not Roux the World

Hugh Acheson doesn't understand why the chefs made individual steaks.

This is being written, fueled by hotel room coffee, in the beautiful Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood, Mississippi, the home of Viking Range. Book tours are endless.

The chefs are realizing that some of them are boys and some are girls. Except Moto Chris who shrugs off this segregation, favoring a caste system based on whether on not your hair looks like Pebbles from The Flintstones. Again, he is alone in his caste still sad about his Richie. Dude, we all miss Richie.

In saunters Padma and Dean Fearing, a fantastic chef who owns Fearing’s in Dallas. Dean is known for sauce work and is a very classic chef. His food is “best in Texas” material. He also plays a mean guitar and wears cowboy boots that cost more than my mortgage. On top of all that, he’s an awesome person. 

The Quickfire is being held at the Cordon Bleu in Dallas where Paul Q. went to cooking school, so he knows these stoves. Classic sauces are the topic. Tomate, Espagnole, Veloute, Hollandaise, and Bechamel. Get your roux working. It’s the golden oldies of saucework. 

Chef Fearing is a roux man. Roux dat. This is a generational thing, though, and many of the younger chefs make classic sauces not thickened with roux. We agree to disagree on this, Dean and I. I am very impressed with the dishes overall. Grayson’s quips that, “Sauces ain’t no thang” and “feeling fucking saucy” are pretty accurate, as she wins the challenge with a beautiful plate with ravioli, scallops, and a gazillion little elements. Looks badass. Nyesha was talking big, but ended up in the bottom three with Beverly and Dakota. 

On to the Elimination Challenge. Cattlemen’s Ball in Southfork. Heather can’t remember who shot J.R., but she’s pretty sure it's Beverly. The steak is meant to take center stage in a four-course meal. No one says anything about steaks having to be individual steaks, but that’s how Ty-Lor interprets. Big mistake. Would have been so much easier to cook whole eye of ribeye and then slice down to portions. The steak main course is setting itself up to be the disaster course. 

Ty-Lor has some pretty impressive eyebrows in his childhood pictures. And I know what I am talking about. Trust me.

Beverly, Dakota, and Sarah are doing tomato-watermelon gazpacho. 

Chris Jones, Paul, and Edward are making seared beef carpaccio.

Ty-Lor is the steakmaster with a “Whose Your Daddy?" apron, Malibu Chris has greens, Nyesha has a compound butter and a sauce, and Whitney has a potato gratin. This dish has been planned by Ponderosa in 1976. 

Heather, Lindsay, and Grayson are making a peach cake with stuff and generally being the executives in charge of the whole dinner. 

Heather hates Beverly. Hates. Heather wonders why Beverly always cooks Asian food. I want to ask Heather why she is always bossy while cooking white people American food. Beverly’s problem is that she’s a bit too soft-spoken and wispy. It’d be awesome if she just suddenly put Heather in a sleeper hold to stop the conversation.There is lots of fear going on about Whitney’s gratin. I can’t help but wonder why she chose something so basic, but if she can pull off something ethereal then my thoughts mean nothing. Good food can be simple. 

Has Lindsay channeled the voice of Slingblade? Her drawl has gotten much deeper when stress and a new Venza are involved.

Ty-Lor has stabbed himself in the hand which looks terribly painful. There may be no marrow tomorrow. Ty-Lor gets a medic. Then he goes to the hospital. The club of those who have shed blood is growing. 

Heather is getting angrier and angrier. Her chances of winning people’s choice are dwindling. She needs to go to a happy place. Tom visits and Heather turns on the charm while her team is back in the kitchen actually working. Dakota has no love for Heather. 

Whitney’s potato gratin is a beacon of early controversy. 

Ty-Lor is back. 

Busy time in the kitchen. 

And here come the judges. My hair is weird. Oh well. Kind of Mad Men meets Don Johnson circa 1985. That Billy Reid suit was sweet though. We love us some Billy Reid. 

Let me be clear on the diners. This was a great group of people genuinely into the charitable aspect of the event. That’s my type of people. Compared to the progressive dinner crowd from last week, it was like night and day. I still have Gummi Bear cake nightmares. 

First course comes out pretty well. The gazpacho, garnished with pickled shrimp, is very smart. It is pretty bracingly acidic though, but it was a pretty solid beginning. Second course looks fine. Maybe too simple. There is a wonderment to what Ed was doing the whole time. The meat was spot-on, but the rest of it seemed a little disjointed. The whole meal is a little discombobulated. 

The main course is a mess. Four elements piled on like it was your last meal on earth. Looked like a glutton’s delight. Looked like a dish where no one talked to each other along the way. Trainwreck. 

“Right Side Up” Texas Peach Cake, Whipped Mascarpone, Pecan Streusel is deemed pretty great by all of us. No matter how much Heather drove everyone nuts, this is about the food, and her dish was good. 

It turns out Beverly has been stalking Edward for years. Bev is a strange creature. Heather is trying to throw Beverly under the tenth bus of the day. 

Chris Jones, Nyesha, and Heather in the tops. This is all weird because it was a kind of best of the worst kind of day. I was not the biggest proponent of Heather ruling the day, but someone’s gotta win. 

It was really hard to send anyone packing, but there was a massive problem with the main course. It was a mess. Why they cooked individual steaks is beyond me. The whole group needs to talk more about the point of a menu. This was a bad example of menu planning.Whitney lost out. You need to put something great forward every week to stick in this. Undercooked gratin is not going to do it. She will prosper and succeed nonetheless, trust me.

 

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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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