Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Rooster

Hugh Acheson judges the chile and rodeo challenges from the comfort of his couch.

 

I am not on this episode. Rejoice or commiserate based on whether you fall into the hater or lover category. I seem to have many of both. Love the lovers.

Fifteen chefs remain, and it's getting chilly at ye olde luxury homestead. You immediately see the effects of the last judging lineup taking its toll on the chefs. Nyesha thinks it’s not fun anymore, a moment she has been secretly waiting for. I think this is an important turning point in the mindset of the Top Chef contestant: the sudden realization that this is not a walk in the park, but rather a very exhausting battle with uber-competitive people who will go out of their way to win, not always in ways that will earn them merit badges. Let the moral erosion begin. 

Its chile time. This is spelled as chili on the signs. I hate that, though it is accepted usage. To me chili is the meat dish and chile is the vegetable of the nightshade family. (Debate will open now in the Comments section). Mary Sue and Susan are up front rocking the pastel jackets, looking very judgey. After Disney recently announced a sitcom based on their lives I am hoping to play the role of Javier, the first Border Grill bus boy. Javier would have one eyebrow, be full of one-liners, but only in Spanish, not translated for the English-speaking audience. He would be a cult hero south of the border. Robert Iger, call me. 

From poblano to ghost we have a number of different varietals on chiles. The milder the heat, the less the payout, giving a real risk-taker who cooks with the elusive ghost pepper a huge cash payout, whilst the basic poblano is the more paltry win. The ghost pepper is a chile more reminiscent of pain than taste and we have just the masochist in young Paul. Chuy owes Uncle Sam some bucks. For what we do not know. Payroll taxes from his restaurant? Back taxes on his yacht? Extraordinary rendition fees from a failed coup attempt in central Africa? This is a statement his accountant hopes he had not made on national television. 

Nyesha thinks Paul is amazing. Paul is amazing, but let's not let this fawning take away from Nyesha’s resume. She is amazing in her own right. She has more Michelin stars on her resume than all of Belgium (this quasi fact has not been verified). Paul, reacting to a compliment with pure aplomb, cackles like a nervous hyena. The Moto boys are not chile heads. They are a little wary of that fire belly. They just get wonderfully weirder those two.

The raw Anaheim dish by Beverly is an odd choice. Like a crudité if you remove the ité. She gets in the bottom three. The other two to land in chile purgatory are Richie with his sweet scallops (what’s up with the fad of savory curds? Laurent did that in Episode 2 as well) and Chuy, with his canned Yucatan flavors. Chuy wants to die under the table. This can be arranged but is not good TV. 

Grayson, Paul, and Heather are in chile heaven. Paul wins with his Thai style soup. Grayson and Heather look less than pleased with the result, Grayson giving the lightest clapping ever to the result. If Grayson claps in the forest, can anyone hear?

Paul’s use of the ghost pepper in a Thai soup was very smart, as the coconut milk and the lemongrass can hide a lot of heat yet still be very nuanced. I loved Grayson’s popper but I don’t think it will go on the Chile’s menu anytime soon… too spicy. Heathers couscous surprises me. Again, I di not taste the food but it looks like she nailed the balance between the heat of the chile and the sweetness of the dates. 

Alas, the Elimination Challenge is introduced and we’re cookin’ chili… all night long. Heather is confident because she makes chili a lot! This is good because as things progress, it looks like people want to work with her like they want to stick pins in their eyeballs. Teams are organized, and Nyesha is not happy with her team, giving us an ominous foreshadowing. She doesn’t want to carry this team on her back. I picture them in a large rooster costume, with Richie on top, his Mohawk as cockscomb, then Beverly in the middle screaming that she needs help at the meat counter, Nyesha plodding around looking for a chicken fight. Whole Foods meat counter war! Dakota starts to cry, or kind of looks that way. Does she apply her mascara in the shower? Meanwhile, Chris and Sarah are rubbing each other in a way that Chris is not happy with… the wrong way. Brisket is flying. Beverly is again having issues at the meat counter. Chris is grocery blocking Sarah at the checkout. Chris’s hair is standing on end.

Crash, bang, boom. Who's taking the outdoor living fireplace? Moto Chris moves on in for the woodsmoke flavor. It’s a long night at the house cooking. Grayson is bartering for fireplace space. “I will give you Park Place and a get out of jail free card for space in the fireplace.” Chuy grinds a dance. It's creepy. 

Chile con carne for the Green Team. Braised brisket chili for the Red Team. Brisket Chili with summer pickles for the Blue Team. Three-bean chili for the White team. Mole chili, not mole the small animal, for the Black Team. Everyone looks exhausted. Then they get drunk and crazy around the pool. Moto Chris is trippin’ and looking at stars. Edward is opening wine with a shoe like a drunk MacGyver. Chuy is still being creepy, talking about his muscles. He and Chris Clary are having a creep-off.

Stir that chili. Texans make it very obvious that they are not into beans in chili which makes me fret for the White Team. “Authentic” is tossed around a lot. I find when people say “authentic” about food then it usually isn’t. C’est la vie. 

Gail, Mary Sue, and Susan are in the judging fold. Gail has had a bagel accident which I need to learn more about. Whitney finds some very excited Texans to holla about the beans thing with. YEE-HAW! Pickled peaches are winning but the accompanying chili is not to the judges' liking… could be bad for big Blue. Cornbread is kicking for the White Team. Susan likes acid. Black team was too sweet. We saw that in the Quickfire too. Uh-oh. Rodeo time. Beverly is crying because she loves. Nyesha is not into this crying stuff. Buck up, little Beverly. Chris is sweatily lauding praise on Padma's riding abilities. His positive zeal is great, and I think it helps cause they win. 

Black Team loses in a very very public forum. They must now immediately battle again. 

Using their chili as a base for a new dish proves a little challenging, but Nyesha and Beverly eke out good enough dishes to compete another day. Fritos play a strong roll in the challenge. Moto Richie not so much. Very sad. Moto Chris is devastated. I am sad too. I liked Richie. I will miss the rooster. Cook on Richie. 

 

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.

Read more about: