Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Shrimpgate 2011

Gail: Mei's Menu Was Almost Flawless

Make Top Chef Mei Lin's Winning Dessert!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Make Mei's Sushi Style Guac!

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

Make Melissa's Mom's Egg Custard

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Make Mei's Inspired Duck a l'Orange

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

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!

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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