Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

My Idol Has a Last Name -- It's M-E-Y-E-R

Hugh Acheson lauds this week's guest judge, Danny Meyer.

The tall man is still a champion in Last Chance Kitchen. If you don’t watch LCK, you should. It’s a fun 12 minutes or so. 

John Tesar is gone but not easily forgotten. He is now carefully tending to his favorite flat-bottomed risotto pot, plotting a burger chain, and building a nefarious weapon that will make all the pickles in the world his and only his. 

Not everyone is always happy to see John go though. Stefan misses his morning smoking buddy, but everyone else is ebullient. Josie is all excited about all Asians this morning. It’s either headbands, football, or Asians -- the days just revolve around the topics with that one. 

Wolfgang Puck is in the house. 

Ginger QF. They are cooking redheads. Stefan tells us the basics of ginger, and it really does sound like he’s reading from the Finnish/German translation of the Wikipedia page. Canada Dry ginger ale is stacked high in this challenge, but I don’t think you have to use it. Ginger is pretty versatile in the kitchen, but this challenge is a new one for me. They could make anything. I would probably make a shaved beef salad with ginger/citrus vinaigrette, pickled ginger, and crisp rice. Or a bourbon and ginger to drink and just quietly nestle under the table and hope that no one would notice. I do that sometimes. 

Meanwhile, Micah is being a p---y about the time constraint. The real test to whether you are a p---y is starting off the chat with,“I am not a p---y, BUT….” It’s like losing a swim race and sayin’, “I am not a sore loser, but is this a Olympic-approved pool? Cause I can only race well in those.”

This is a speedy showdown, so remember what I’ve told you in the past: finding your bearings and getting a plan, 5 mins; cooking, at least ten minutes; two minutes to plate up. See, already you’re out of time. Sheldon is swearing at his Chinese fast food because he saw that once at the food court at the mall. He’s also feeling the pressure of Josie making this a race-related day.  Meanwhile Josie and Josh are trying to procreate by bumping into each other. In nine months there will be an awkward celebration with everyone in headbands that say Chef Daddy, Chef Mommy, Chef Baby.

Josh has made a white chocolate thing, Josie a busy scallop, and Brooke squid with caramel. Lizzie has made a watermelon soup with Canada Dry. Micah has artfully arranged a shrimp salad with plums. Kristen has made a Thai-inspired ginger salad with brie. Weird. Sheldon has made No. 14 on the left side of all takeout Chinese joints. Stefan has appealed to Puck with a California tuna plate. He and Wolfgang converse in the language of love, German. 

Bottoms are Sheldon and Josh. “Now Josh, what is the opposite of overwhelmed?” Wolfgang is making up for the soft mittens approach he had in the first episode and just slaying these chefs. 

Tops are Brooke, Stefan, and Lizzie. Micah is lost in the middle again. Brooke wins with her squid deliciousness. 

Out comes Danny Meyer. Danny owns all of the fine dining restaurants in the world that Wolfgang doesn’t, plus the Dubai-headquartered Shake Shack (Sheik Shack LLC). I digress from shenanigans to say that I look at these two restaurateurs as awe-inspiring mentors who have taught the world so much about hospitality and authenticity in restaurants. One day when I am looking for a dishwashing job at Spago or Gramercy Tavern I hope they remember the kind words. 

Josh does correctly say that Danny is probably not coming out to OKC anytime soon, so this may be his only the time to make an impression. I dunno, Mr. Meyer likes him some BBQ and has been known to wander in Texas looking for it; who knows-- maybe his compass will point North to OKC one of these days. But if this season is any indication of the Josh’s porcine skillset, Danny has a one in four chance of enjoying great pork on the visit. 

It’s a quasi Restaurant Wars, but it’s a little different from normal, as it's in two parts. Each person is doing a dish from their on-the-fly restaurant concept. There will be two winners and then Part 2 of Restaurant Wars will be the next episode. They get to shopping and Sheldon is in heaven, because heaven is a suburban Asian foods super-store. He and I feel the same way because I think I saw god at the Super H mart in Suwanee, GA. Micah is finding his raw food niche, making damn sure you know he lives in L.A. Kristen recounts how she’s really lived through a crazy couple of years and she deserves to be here.

The booted cheftestants are the sous-chefs for this challenge, including crazy Carla. Stefan welcomes her with a comment about her a--. Stefan doesn’t really play the closet sexist… he wears it with pride. Josie bowls over Kuniko with enthusiasm. Lizzie is dumping all her dumpling work on Eliza.

Tom does his walk-around, and finds that Brooke wants to show the world some Jewish sensibility while still serving very un-kosher food. He visits Kristen, and they realize Kristen is now officially rich from the show. Tom tells her to invest in old guitars and everything will be fine. The rest of them wrap up Josie in plastic wrap and hope for the best. 

Back at the Olive 8, Sheldon is 30! He calls his daughters. Great picture of his kids. Awesome. I mean that.

They are set up in some outdoor Ikea furniture lot. But it’s inside! Crazy! It’s Bite of Seattle! If I had jobs to dole out I would not let Carla handle the liquid nitrogen. She’s disposed of bodies this way back in the day. You freeze them solid and then they just shatter. I have just written an episode of Dexter in my head. 

Kuniko thinks this is a good day for Micah. Maybe this is opposite day? 

Pictures of when Tom had hair. Stefan celebrated this moment by spreading the joy of hot bisque on everyone in a ten-meter vicinity. 

The food goes on. Josh has steak, Lizzie has a Northern Italian/German dumpling thing.  Danny is a very serious man. I want him to make a fart joke, but he won’t. He just won’t. Sheldon has made a Filipino soup and Stefan has made a coconut milk soup and a frozen pop thing. Padma seems to think that Stefan has made that frozen pop thing before… for them…  on Top Chef. The pitfalls of coming on this show multiple times are numerous. They love Sheldon’s soup and kind of like Stefan’s. 

Micah’s raw sensory perception is busy. Kristen’s Onsen egg is delightful. As fancy as that sounds, it’s just a slow-cooked egg at a prescribed temperature. I like 63 C. Danny asks her, with his “Let’s get crazy!” zeal, “What will be the style of the restaurant, in terms of formality?” This type of calm and focused demeanor is why he wins, and I continue to refer to myself as an idiot. Must get more serious. Must get more serious. Stefan practices his sexism on Kristen, but I get the feeling she’s playing him much more than he’s thinking he’s playing her. She has outcooked him again and that has to weigh on the relationship. 

Josie has channeled all of the berry farm memories and is playing bad chef at the demo table again. She gets nervous with laughter when she gets in the weeds. It’s a tell. Not a good one. 

Brooke takes a really long time explaining her UnKosher dish but it looks cool. Josie staggers and talks about Miami, 2LiveCrew, area codes,and everything except for food. Sadly the matzoh is leaden and offends Gail’s whole tribe, but there is a shining light for Brooke, as Josie’s pork is way too done, no matter the amount of Magik sauce you apply.

The judges talk restaurant and there is some good wisdom in there. I could listen to Tom and Danny talk about restaurants all day long. 

Tops are Sheldon, Josh, and Kristen. The concepts from all three came through. Josh seems to have calmed down in this episode and is not so angry and whiny. He cooks better when rested and happy; we all do. 

Sheldon wins for his homage to his Filipino ancestry and Kristen wins for her egg. They will be the bosses for the next half of Restaurant Wars. They are charged with picking the teams for the next challenge. But the trick is that they will be splitting the folks up before the loser is called out for this part of the competition, meaning one team is going to be one person light. There’s a minivan in this for the winner. 

Kristen misses the chance to pick Stefan for her team. Ouch. Stefan is busy writing her one of those grade 4 notes, “Do you like me?” It just happens that it gets all split down gender lines. Should be exciting. But we still have someone to send home now and Micah, Josie, and Lizzie line up in front of the firing squad. All three have some big flaws. Is Lizzie all pissy? She seems a little mad that she wasn’t allowed to fully explain her dumpling. We do glean a poem by Danny though:

“The minute I tried to
Put my fork into that pork
And the pork fought back
I said, This is gonna be a problem.”

Micah goes home. He is sad but thankful. I thought he was a good competitor in all of this and wish him well. Godspeed.


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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