Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Pink Team Pathos

Tom takes a closer look at where the Pink Team went wrong.

I was nowhere near the Top Chef kitchen for this week’s Quickfire challenge -- I’m not usually there for Quickfires -- but now that I’ve watched the episode I sorely wish I’d been there in person when the chefs had to open their wooden boxes, clearly wondering whether they’d come face to face with live rattlers. Their expressions spoke volumes. Rattlesnakes are associated with the arid desert regions of the South and Southwest, but we have our share up here in NY, by the way -- the Adirondack Mountains, for example, are riddled with them.  I’ll admit, though, that while NY State is home to rattlesnakes, I’ve never cooked one in my life. I salute our chefs for gamely (no pun intended) rolling up their sleeves once the shock wore off and getting to work on their snakes. I believe that they all worked very hard on the Elimination Challenge as well, and, as I made a point of saying on air, both teams did some very good work. But the judges still have to determine which team performed better and eliminate someone from the other team.
Having the chefs cook for terrific young Blanca’s Quinceanera was a fitting first challenge for Top Chef Texas. Mexican-Americans make up 31.6 percent of Texas’s overall population, with Mexican-Americans comprising over half of San Antonio’s population, with Houston boasting the second largest Mexican ancestry community in the United States, and with Dallas weighing in with the fifth largest Mexican-American population in the country. The contributions of Mexican-Americans to Texan culture, including cuisine, are legion. We sought to honor these contributions with this week’s Elimination Challenge.
In asking the chefs to cook for Blanca’s Quinceanera, though, we were very clear about what we were asking for: We wanted elegant food (and, to quote Padma, “a fabulous cake”) in the tradition of the foods of Blanca’s family and community. This raises two points for me:
First, be careful not to pigeonhole “Mexican Food.” Which raises two more points for me:

a) Anyone who thinks that “Mexican Food” is about rubbery tacos and chimichangas should make a pilgrimage to Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo in Chicago, or, for that matter, should sample the dishes of our guest judge, Johnny Hernandez. Check your preconceptions at the door.

b) As with any large country, Mexico has many cuisines. The seafood-centered fare of Veracruz on the Gulf is very different than the food of mountainous Oahaca, “the Land of the Seven Moles.”  All Italian is not red sauce and meatballs. All Indian is not curried lamb. If they were thoughtful in asking what foods Blanca and her family like, the chefs would also have been discovering the region in Mexico from which her family hailed, which would have given them insights into the spices, seasonings, and ingredients that could, in turn, have inspired them. They also could have asked directly -- I don’t know whether any of them did.
Second, while they were asked to prepare elegant “Mexican” food, the challenge gave them ample opportunity to be true to the dishes they were honoring while still putting their own stamps on the food. While this might sound like a tightrope walk, it really isn’t -- it’s one of the creative, joyful aspects of being a chef. If a particular dish is traditionally flavored by cilantro, for example, incorporating a cilantro fluid gel could bring the cilantro flavor to the dish in an original way. Using a flour tortilla in a dish that calls for a corn tortilla as Keith did, on the other hand, is merely a misstep, as the flour tortilla becomes sodden and unappetizing, and the flavor of the flour tortilla does not permit the flavors in the dish to shine as that of a corn tortilla would have. There's a reason that corn tortillas are the traditional choice for enchiladas. Further, Keith’s presentation was wholly inelegant, in direct refutation of the goals of the challenge. Put aside the fact that Keith inadvertently undermined Lindsay’s shrimp dish by buying precooked shrimp. Of the four chefs at the bottom this week, Keith made the greatest number of errors in his own dish, and it was the weakest. This was not his challenge. I appreciate Keith’s graciousness in his exit interview. I know Keith to be a talent, and I know that he will do well in his career moving forward.
The Pink Team was literally a case study for the adage, "Too many cooks spoil the broth." The chefs on this team could not seem to work together well, as this competition sometimes calls on them to do. Lindsay was absolutely right not to cook her shrimp dish when she discovered that the shrimp was precooked, though the dish she did help cook landed her in the bottom four anyway, since the judges don't know what happens behind the scenes and judge purely on the dishes placed before us. Still, had she made the dish with the precooked shrimp, it might just have gotten her a ticket home. We'll see what she cooks next week, when, presumably, she is not at a greater disadvantage in terms of ingredients than her peers. Have a good week.

P.S. To "Dog Lover" -- yes, I do read the comments you all write. My work schedule just doesn't leave me time to reply. I'm glad people are watching, and I'm glad that many of you are inspired to write in. We can't change things up mid-season as people often request, since it was already filmed, nor can we add anyone to Restaurant Wars for the same reason, but I like writing the blog and enjoy reading everyone's replies. Keep the comments coming, everyone.

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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