Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Sarah Grueneberg: "People Think I'm Heather"

The Top Chef: Texas runner-up dishes on her finale prep and how she handled Tyler Stone as a sous-chef. There was a break between the last Texas challenge and going to Canada, did you do anything special in that time to prepare?
Sarah Grueneberg: Oh yea, absolutely yes. I staged with a few different chefs around the city. I worked with my pastry chef on some techniques including liquid nitrogen. I went to a pastry class at a chocolate academy here that was taught by one of our local chefs, Patrick Fahy, who’s really talented. I staged with Chris Shepherd -- he’s in Houston, Texas and he took me to three different Asian markets in Houston. I didn’t realize there are such great markets there. And then I worked with Bill Kim who’s an amazing Korean chef here, and we staged at his restaurant and he took me to the Japanese market, Korean market, and the Vietnamese market to show me the differences. I really wanted to be prepared if I was thrown into an Asian cooking challenge because I researched Vancouver and saw how amazing their Chinatown is, so I thought I better be ready! And that really paid off when you were paired with Floyd. He’s the nicest man.
SG: He’s so amazing. Oh my God I love him. I saw him this past week at his restaurant -- it was so good. The menu looks very simple and delicious and then you get it and you’re like, “Oh so good.” In the last challenge, you and Paul have to select your sous chefs based on the food that they create for you. You pulled Tyler, and part of it was that you legitimately thought what he made was Heather’s dish. Did you just select it because you thought it may have been her dish or did you actually like the way it tasted?
SG: I started second-guessing myself and thinking that. You know, I thought my scallops were cooked nicely but it wasn’t even a thing until a second before it was my turn to say something and that shot up to my brain. It’s the irony -- it’s like the producers had my mind in control and they wanted someone to pick him. 

He did a great job -- he’s very young. I was extremely patient with him because the girls were about to eat him alive. They were going to pounce like lionesses, like little tigers. It looked like you were trying to help him and encourage him.
SG: I wanted to know his strengths, and I knew in order for him to work -- because he wanted to think that he had the final say in everything -- I just had to make him feel like I really cared about everything he was saying. In actuality, at the end of the day I’m still going to do what I want to do because it’s my dinner. What was behind your decision to infuse your meal with both what was expected which was the Italian aspects of your courses and then inserting your German heritage with everything, and using Asian flavors)?
SG: Yeah, there was a lot of different flavors. See, people, I do know that Asia is a lot of countries. I got pulled into that whole Asian thing and I don’t think I even said “Asian” that whole time I was there. People think I’m Heather. I just wanted to really push my self, show things I learned in Texas. I was a little more reserved, and it takes a while to really feel it, so in the finale I knew that I had to push it because I knew at the end of the day if I didn’t give it my all and push it as far as I could I didn’t deserve to win. And in order to compete with Paul who’s so strong, I knew I had to come out of the gate really strong as well. So I really wanted to push and at the same time I got a lot of inspiration from the other chefs. When I got back to Chicago I started thinking of the things that Beverly taught me, that Paul taught me, Lindsay, Grayson, and Ed taught me. Once the group got smaller we really got to show each other more. So I found myself really inspired by them, and I think you see that in every course -- there’s a little bit of each competitor in there. Gail noted in her finale blog that the dashi was a nice nod to Paul and his style and she thought that that was really nice that you included that. 
SG: I think that out of the whole chef teams of this season, I feel confident that I grew the most and that I became that I became a better person after the whole experience. I’m excited for my career and excited about being the new Sarah, really finding what Sarah’s cooking is. I think it’s a really fun time and doing Top Chef let me find a new route. What could have been a setback that we see is that your fiancé kind of pulls you aside and says that there are bones in your fish. What was going through your mind when you heard that?
SG: I already knew there were bone issues, that’s why I had butchered them twice. I butchered fish for two days straight. These steel head trout don’t look like any of the store trout we get here, these have more of a rounded nose and look more like a salmon, and the ones that we get here are a little more pointy-nosed like a trout. But regardless, it wasn’t a bone in the top part of the filet, it was these little feather bones that were only maybe 1/4 inch long, they were like babies and they were just embedded in the flesh, and so that’s when I had to come back through and just butcher all bellies the next day because I knew I could not serve bones. Luckily Jamie got the bone, and I always say when I have friends coming into the restaurant and there’s something weird like that that happens, it’s good to tell me so I can fix it -- it’s not like it’s going out to a guest. The judges never talked about bones in any of their dishes. And I talked to a lot of the guests that night and none of them said anything about it so I think he was the only one who got it. When he told me about it I said, “I know that, I can’t do anything about it now!” It was cute how he told me and he isn’t savvy with production so he didn’t know I was miked. There is no whispering when you’re miked. So service is over, you’re at Judges’ Table, and you and Paul go backstage and you say that it seemed Padma really liked your courses better, Tom seemed to maybe like Paul’s better. Did you really feel either way at that point, which way it was going to go?
SG: Absolutely, and I think he did too. I think deep down inside I always knew it would be Paul, but when I heard the judges’ feedback I got really nicely surprised. It was a nice reward for all the hard work and the amount of risks that I took for them. It really made me feel great. And at the end when I am getting emotional it was just because I knew they were going to call Paul. I still wanted them to say my name as well. At the end of the day I couldn’t think of a better way to go home runner-up. They said how close it was. What did your mentor Chef Mantuano say when you got back?
SG: He’s incredibly proud of me, but I think he’s always going to be on my side. So he was like, “You got robbed a little bit!” The frustrating part is that it doesn’t seem like Italian food and Mediterranean food ever get the same respect and it’s really a shame and I hope that that will change. On Top Chef Masters, Chef Chiarello seemed to try to kind of change that perception of Italian food and what Italian food can be.
SG: It’s like everyone knows Italian-American and I spent my whole career studying the regionality of Italian food and going to different regions when I can, so Italian food is very different to me then what it is to the vast majority of Americans. And that was really what I wanted to show people. That real Italian food, as far as the regional cuisine, and I got some flack for that. People were kind of mean about me defending Italian food, at the same time they weren’t saying anything about Beverly or Paul making somewhat of an Asian  -- Thai, Japanese, Korean -- style dishes for the majority of the show. It’s just a shame. I think that every cuisine is equal. And hopefully more chefs like Chiarello and Montuano and myself can push that. So when are you and your fiancé getting married? Are there any updates?
SG: Oh man, not right now. We’re just now starting to plan. But we are really excited and I think we are going to shoot for the fall or early next spring/ summer. I think that will probably be the most realistic because we are just stoked. A lot of people are interested in it, so it’s kinda fun. Well the food will be amazing obviously. 
SG: I hope so -- that’s a struggle. When the chef is getting married, who do you hire? Maybe Top Chef wants to have my wedding on the next season. That could be a good challenge.


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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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