Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Shrimpgate 2011

Keith Rhodes thinks he was thrown under the bus by his teammates.

Welcome back, my little rattlers! This week, we finally see the 16 cheftestants in the kitchen together, and they're ready to compete. 

First, we get a little glimpse into their sequestered homelife. Hugh gives Chris a lot of crap in his blog about his all-white outfit, so I'll let it go, but y'know by even mentioning it, I'm not letting it go.

Is it just me or does the house vibe just feel different this year? The chefs' maturity just emanates from them. These are serious, experienced chefs, and I'm not getting a feeling from any of them that any feel intimidated by another, something some chefs have expressed in the past.

Padma presents the Quickfire Challenge alongside San Antonio chef Johnny Hernandez. The chefs are presented with their ingredient -- rattlesnake! Love how much fun the Magical Elves had with tricking the chefs into thinking they had to kill their own protein! The thought of seeing them do this actually made me vomit in my mouth a little. Fortunately, it was all a prank! They're such pranksters! They're like George Clooney on a movie set! Anyway, the chefs pretty much had to just make the best rattlesnake dish they could think of. As we've learned in other challenges in past sessions, snake can be pretty rubbery, and Chef Hernandez reiterates how "delicate" the meat is. 

It's nice to see how much these chefs try to help each other (for now), like Sarah telling Richie he should cut his pieces smaller into filets so it's easier to cook. Honestly, when Richie was shaking whatever spice he was shaking (I'm sure I should know what that kitchen gadget is, but I don't), I thought he was trying to figure out a way to incorporate an aural element to his dish, where the dish would not only taste like rattlesnake, but it would sound like it too! He does work with Hamaru Cantu after all -- anything's possible. I mean, Dakota admitted to cooking barracuda! P.S. Chris and Richie have the cutest bromance ever. Richie obviously respects his chef, and the feeling is mutual.A lot of the chefs fried their snake -- and the first thing that came to mind when hearing their plans was when Padma said a toe would taste good fried. Well, apparently not all toes because some were more successful with this method than others. Paul Qui's BBQ snake was unsuccessful, but it did kind of look awesome when he was slicing it. I was surprised Chef Hernandez didn't care for it. Chris' dish sounded amazing to me because he included two things I love: cumin and bacon. Beverly's concern about her rattlesnake being rubbery was premature -- it was a hit! Unlesss, like she said, it was rubbery, but it worked anyway. Sarah's simple dish was well-received too, but ultimately Dakokta wins wit her beer-battered snake! Guess cooking that barracuda was good practice! And so, Dakota was the first chef to gain immunity this season. Congrats, Dakota!

And onto our first real Elimination Challenge -- in comes Blanca Flores! No, Edward, she's not a Mexican rock star. Although your assumption cracked me up. Edward, really coming through with the comedic moments this season so far. He also cracked me up -- and by that I mean horrified me -- when he asked Blanca if she liked boys. It was obviously an attempt at bonding with a young girl, but, well, it caused an awkward silence. Blanca is actually just a 15-year-old celebrating her Quincinera. The chefs are broken up into two groups, and have to create Quincinera cuisine -- including a cake! -- for Blanca, her parents, and her 200 guests. 

The two teams go shopping, aaaaand that's where the issues start -- at least for the Pink Team. Well, first can we just talk about Beverly at the butcher counter? If I were at the butcher and Beverly made them stop everything to help her because her dish was supposedly the most important, I would not have been a happy camper. Hopefully they're more understanding in Texas.The biggest issue, however, was the Pink Team's purchase of pre-cooked shrimp. Everyone blamed the purchasing of the cooked shrimp on Keith, and while ultimately it was his decision, it's not like he didn't ask for everyone's buy-in at the store. Someone could have and should have spoken up, but they didn't. And Keith got blamed for it not only in the kitchen, causing weird tension between he and the rest of his teammates, but at Judges' Table. Now, that's not why he ultimately went home, but it was a bummer. Perhaps it was a bit premature of me to commend these chefs on their camaraderie.

Let me know your thoughts on "Shrimpgate 2011" in the Comments area below. (Also, if anyone knows where the pea puree is, let me know!)

There was mad tension in the Pink Team's kitchen after Shrimpgate, but both teams completed all their dishes. Now on to the party!

Blanca comes out in her beautiful red and white dress, and I clutched my heart. How adorable is she? And, man, is she a good judge! Her culinary comments were spot-on. What an articulate young lady. The judges dressed up for the occasion, with Hugh looking particularly Southern in his gingham shirt and white blazer. I dug it.

After a lot of comments from the judges and the diners about what tasted authentic (Are enchiladas only made with corn tortillas?), what tasted like nothing, etc. the cakes come out. Heather's tres leches is a leaning tower, but might have tasted OK, while Dakota's was so colorful I couldn't tell if it was awful or brilliant. My Top Chef: Just Desserts viewer mind tells me the colors were kind of horrible and she used way too much frosting, so the tres leches cake seemingly came out on top. What some might say was the most interesting dish based on protein alone, Chuy's goat dish, received praise. Whenever I hear about cooked goat now i think of Harold's Massamam Braised Goat at Kin Shop, the first and only goat dish I've ever eaten. It's critically acclaimed, so you should definitely try it!In the end, the Green Team wound up in front of the judges. But who would go home? Keith? Lindsay? Sarah? Ty-Lor?

Well, when the judges started asking questions, all hell kind of broke loose. Keith thought Sarah threw him under gut bus, and I kind of agree a little. Tom seemed to have an inkling as to what happened though, which I inferred from his question about who was present when the shrimp was purchased. Althoughh Keith was called out for the shrimp, Sarah also made a point to say that she's never had an enchilada with a flour tortilla. Before Hugh brought it up during the challenge, I didn't even know that distinction, so i obviously starting Googling the difference between flour and corn tortillas and their use in burritos versus enchiladas. And you know what? I found arguments for both sides. So, although maybe enchiladas don't traditionally have flour tortillas, I think if they could have been made delicious, it could have been overlooked. The fact that the chefs didn't even make their own tortillas did not help. I can't believe they did that honestly. Anyone knows that although store-bought tortillas can taste good, especially when grilled (I don't make my own tortillas), but if they're sitting in a buffet, get cold,they get kinda stale and gross. But, alas, Sarah and Lindsay were safe. 

Ty-Lor's fritter was a miss, but not bad enough to send him home. So, Keith went home. I was pretty bummed -- what a gentle giant he was, but he represented himself well, and I know he'll be OK.

Did you agree with the judges' decision? Let me know! Until then, Have a Nosh!

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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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