Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Door to Door in Dallas

Tom Colicchio explains his relative grumpiness at the progressive party.

 

It was the wrong night for me to attend a progressive dinner party.

I was overdue to have back surgery (which I finally had in October), and my back was particularly bad that night, which made walking from house to house – not to mention the simple act of sitting – a misery. So I wasn’t exactly in a party frame of mind. But our hosts were very gracious, and I had my friend John Besh with us, whom I don’t often get to see, which helped me make it through. 

As you know, our chefs were asked to cook a dish for a course of this progressive dinner party. Cooking for a dinner party is totally different than cooking at a restaurant. There are so many things I would do at home that I wouldn’t consider doing in a restaurant and vice versa.

For example, cooking for a dinner party at home gives a chef the opportunity to make things whole, and then slice them. At home, I’ll make a whole roast, keep it self-contained, then slice and serve it; I would never cook ten individual pieces of filet mignon.For those of you who thought that every challenge would require that the chefs cook Tex-Mex, sorry to disappoint, but here was a challenge that essentially asked them not to. Quite the opposite, the chefs were given free-rein and a chance to showcase their signature styles. I think that our chefs got too caught up with trying to deliver the “wow factor” rather than just making good food. Yes, one of our hosts said he wanted the food to be “a conversation starter,” but it should be a conversation starter by being well-conceived and well-executed, rather than by being gimmicky. And yes, one of our hosts said something about nothing being too rich for Texas, but that didn’t mean that our chefs should overdo their dishes and throw too many elements onto their plates.

The winning dish was a study in smart cooking. Paul listened to his clients and delivered a dish that was well-balanced in every way. The textures complemented each other as did the flavors. It was presented well and was a manageable appetizer.

As for the four dishes on the bottom, they were all very problematic. All showed a lack of thought. Chris J.’s dish was all gimmick, and an ill-conceived one at that – would you want to eat a cigar? I love cigars, personally, but I wouldn’t want to eat one, nor would I want to tuck into its ashes. Chris C.’s cupcake dessert was a riot of disparate items on a plate – it made no sense whatsoever. And Ty’s dish was poorly executed and completely out of proportion. Again, I couldn’t understand it.

But, sadly, Chuy’s was the biggest loser. The overcooked salmon was unpalatable on its own; combined with goat cheese, I didn’t want to eat it. Smoked fish is paired with cream, which is why mild cream cheese works with lox. But goat cheese is pungent, and I can’t figure out why Chuy would think it paired well with salmon. Think about it: In Italy, we do not put parmesan on fish dishes. And then, despite acknowledging that this was a dish he had served at his restaurant in the past, Chuy couldn’t execute the dish properly because his proportions were off: In order to warm the goat cheese inside, he had to overcook the salmon.

When faced with four poor dishes, we judges enter into a debate. It comes down to ascertaining which was the judges’ very least favorite of the four. We look at various factors, including the esoteric “How bad was the overall dish?” Was it seasoned poorly, overcooked, handled badly, plated badly? Could the dish be improved if cooked again? If we had to eat them again, which one(s) would we just not want? We all weigh in, and we eventually arrive at a consensus.

This time, it was Chuy’s dish that wound up on the chopping block. I was surprised, frankly, that Chuy went out of the competition so early. From the solid dishes he’d presented before, I assumed he’d be with us longer. But as we’ve seen in seasons past, it can happen that a good chef makes a poor choice, commits an error, has a bad day. As this shows, we don’t judge the chefs in any cumulative way; we judge each dish before us on its own merits.This is a strong group of chefs in a difficult competition, and they need to be on their toes at all times because they can’t slide by on the strength of last week’s food.

On to next week, then. Have a good week, y’all.

 

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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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