Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

A Lot at Steak

Tom would have rather judged the Mother Sauce Quickfire Challenge.


Before we go any further, let me just say that I never watched Dallas. I don’t know who, and I don’t know who killed him. Oh, my wife tells me he wasn’t killed, just shot. OK. Bottom line: Filming the Elimination Challenge at Southfork Ranch meant nuthin’ to this New Yorker -- it was just another place to shoot. The episode, I mean.  

And I’m sorry to say that the work our chefs presented at the Elimination Challenge held about as much appeal to me as would a Dallas rerun. The reason we were so harsh at Judges' Table is that the chefs were complacent and wouldn’t take risks, so they didn’t create dishes worthy of this competition. This group of chefs, more than in any season prior, seemed to be thinking about how to win the game, and at this early stage, seemed to be saying to themselves, “Hey! Just don’t go home! Stay in the middle of the pack until the end. Then step it up.” Like pacing oneself in a marathon. And with a dinner for 200, yes, they could say, “That’s a lot of people -- let’s play it safe.”  But they could have been far more creative than they were. 

This points to  aproblem inherent in a group challenge like this: When creating dishes by committee, no one puts themselves out there and says “I want to go out on a limb with this, and I don’t care if the group doesn’t want me to.” So nothing soars. Furthermore, the food lacks a point of view -- any chance of one has been eradicated by the process.  This is why restaurant kitchens are not run by committee. There is a chef and there are sous-chefs. The chef oversees everything and makes sure the dishes cohere, that there is that point of view. It’s important to have that point of view. That’s the problem with these group challenges: the point of view gets lost. Further, there’s no one to whom everyone else must answer, to ensure that a plan of action runs smoothly. There is no one chef to whom all need to listen. Heather took heat from the others for assuming that role in order to keep things moving, because it needed to happen, but the other chefs were her competitors, not her employees, and they didn’t have to listen to her. Heather did not win because she took on a leadership role. She won for her excellent execution of the cake. We judges don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes and didn’t know it was Ed’s recipe (I learned that by watching the episode this morning!), but it wouldn’t have mattered -- if it bothered him for her to make his recipe, he could have insisted on being the one to make it. And he might not have done as good a job -- who knows?

I was impressed with Heather’s cake, and, upon watching the episode, I have to say that I’m impressed as well with Ty-Lor’s attitude. He cut himself badly, spent the night awake in the Emergency Room, and cooked under very adverse conditions. It was reportedly 104 degrees that day, which means that it was actually more like 115 degrees… and hotter by the grill. He had to take a break at least once to go indoors and regulate his body temperature. And yet when he was at Judges' Table, he made no excuses for his steak. He took full responsibility without qualification. I was impressed.

The problem with the steaks, I believe, is that they were too thin. When people think about a successfully cooked steak, they think about the sear -- they want that nice seared crust on the outside, but in order to get that without overcooking the inside, one needs a thick enough piece of meat. Think aboutit: the more you cook something, the more you develop flavor. But you don’t want to ruin a good piece of meat by overcooking it. So the thicker the piece of meat, the longer it can be cooked to get that good sear without overcooking it.  I actually think Ty was cooking ribeyes. I don’t know whether the chefs had the option of buying and cooking the whole thing, then slicing and serving it, which is how I would have handled making the meat for 200 people were I in their shoes. Furthermore, not every piece of meat is the same -- some have more fat in them, etc. So the process the chefs devised of cooking, flashing, moving the meat was all just too much. It would have been much better to just cook them in one place and be done with them. Working with the pieces of meat Ty was working with, I’d have kept them raw until 15 minutes before they needed to be plated, and then just grilled them, and they’d have been fine. And had they been thicker, they could have been tied, but they weren’t thick enough for that. I think this was a mistake of planning, and, as a result, while many of the pieces were medium rare, others were rare, while yet others, as you saw in the episode, were medium. Cooking them on the grill the whole way, Ty could have accounted for that.

Whitney exhibited a similar mistake of planning with her potatoes… as well as a mistake in how to make them, and in execution of the plan she did make. I’ll give her credit for being right in not cooking the potatoes the day before. Once they’re cooked, potatoes are terrible the following day. So that was a good idea. However, I don’t know why she didn’t prep them ahead of time. I would have sliced the potatoes a little thicker than she did and have soaked them overnight in the cream. Next, I’d have put them in a rondeau and very, very slowly cooked them in the cream until they were cooked through. Then I’d have layered them in the gratin pot and cooked them very, very slowly in a low over -- not a high oven, as the cream would break -- until the top potatoes were brown. I don’t know why people think they can slice the potatoes and put them straight into the oven. They never cook as nicely. And she didn’t need cheese in that dish. Did you notice that she was having trouble cutting the potatoes? First of all, there was too much cheese in there, and second of all some of the potatoes were raw, causing resistance. Raw potatoes are gross. Her potatoes never stood a chance. Many of Ty’s steaks were successful, but Whitney’s dish was not. There was no contest.

The generally lackluster cooking in the Elimination Challenge had me disappointed, as I mentioned above. Where I wish I’d been this week, rather, was the Quickfire Challenge -- that’s where the interesting cooking was happening. I loved this challenge -- I thought it was a really, really great cook’s challenge.  So I’ll say a word about Mother Sauces.  The Mother Sauces tend to be heavier sauces for good reason -- named in the early nineteenth century and updated by chef August Escoffier in the early 20th century, they were a great way to stretch limited ingredients during times of war and famine. Thickening with roux not only would yield many times what a reduction would yield, but also would yield a far more stable end result. Nowadays, chefs lean towards reductions, and very few kitchens are doing sauces at all, never mind the Mother Sauces. But they still have their place in modern kitchens, so they’re still something for chefs to know, and know well. You see Béchamelin Italian dishes such as lasagna. Want to make a chicken pot pie? You need a Velouté!  Making a Mother Sauce your own asked of the chefs a very classic thought process in cooking, one that is in keeping with how creativity in cooking works. For example, with the addition of shallots, tarragon, and a vinegar reduction, a Hollandaise becomes a Béarnaise. A Béarnaise without the tarragon but with the addition of tomato puree becomes a Sauce Choron. Hollandaise with orange instead of lemon becomes a Sauce Maltaise. Adding items to a Beurre Blanc yields interpretations with great applications. And so on. I was pleased to see that Grayson used whole butter in her Hollandaise. Most chefs are taught to use clarified butter, and I thought it was great that she made a conscious choice to use whole butter, clearly knowing what that would do for the flavor and texture of the sauce. Nicely done. For the most part, the chefs did very well with this Quickfire Challenge. That’s the kind of work I expect from chefs of this caliber in a competition of this nature.


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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