Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Successories for the Budding Executive Chef

Hugh Acheson offers his best leadership methods to Sheldon and Kristen.

You either play Restaurant Wars with a smile on your face or fear in your eyes. This edition of the challenge is fraught with leadership pressure. On one side we have Sheldon, who seems to have a moderate amount of leadership experience while his adversary Kristen lacks in the department, but has been a key underling in a very powerful restaurant group in Boston. I think with a good array of Successories and some positive affirmation training, Kristen can be a great leader. In my mind, she’s definitely dominating the competition so far. 

An Executive Chef is the head of a kitchen, but you can lead with an iron fist, or lead through charisma and action. I suggest Sheldon take the latter course and Kristen the former, and my reasoning is thus: Sheldon has a team that will, apart from the regular shenanigans of Stefan, follow his lead. He works well with OKC, and has never rubbed Stefan the wrong way. Meanwhile Kristen, who has rubbed Stefan in the right way (ewww), has picked a brigade that may implode at any moment. Brooke is a stellar cook and leader who has opened many restaurants, experience that may clash with Kristen’s leadership. Lizzie just looks tired and over the whole thing. And then we have Josie, who has erased her name from her headband on the advice of her therapist. Kristen needs to make heads roll. It would be the best TC ever if, while playing the role of Exec Chef, someone fired the other chefs. 

Ideas get bantered around and modern Filipino is the winning concept for the International Male kitchen. It will be called Urbano and the maître d' will be Stefan. The women have a French thing going on and are practicing rolling their ‘r’s. 

Following a map to the kitchen site doesn’t steer them wrong per se, it’s just that it is only a site and the kitchen has yet to be arranged or delivered. Stefan is freaking out about that and wondering who the sadistic elf was who thought this one up. Have you noticed how Stefan always acts like he has the Executive Producers number on speed dial just in case? “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, I know what you’re up to….” No you don’t, Stefan -- go sit in the Stew Room. Really I want them to go sit in a city office for six hours waiting to talk to someone about a variance application, but that person has gone on lunch break to never return. Then, while buying coffee from a machine, your dollar won’t work right because it’s folded at the edge, but it’s your only dollar bill. Then you walk back to your car and it’s been towed. Then when you get back to your office, the liquor license application has been returned due to some tax discrepancy of $0.89 back in 2008. Then you realize you are $100,000 over budget and three months off schedule. That’s what the fun of opening restaurants really is!

They all split up and get shopping for rental décor and foodstuffs. Do they have to buy stoves? This is a quandary. Micah is not here to give raw advice should the stoves never materialize. Well, we’ll figure that out soon, but for now Josie and Brooke are the dysfunctional shopping duo looking for that special hue of napkin. It’s a napkin for Restaurant Wars… what are the chances that the judges are really going to come down to your choice of napkin color as the deciding factor in letting you go? 

Stefan is riding a cart in the flower shop and brings up his theory that everyone (I assume that means all of North America) thinks all Europeans are gay. I am sure this is a U.S. Census stat and not a crazy weird generalization. I have started reciting the “It Gets Better” speech to all Europeans just to be on the safe side. Stefan has found a giggle buddy in aisle 12 of the plant section. He woos her with his Finnish/German manliness in an effort to prove his heterosexuality in America.

Sheldon is searching for dried mung beans at Uwajimaya. With his hat and his backpack he kind of looks like a Hawaiian Where’s Waldo character, but easily found. He also kind of looks like Relic from The Beachcombers, which you will only know from watching CBC in Canada anytime from 1972 to 1990. That show seemed like it was always on. Josh is pretending to be a piece of white bread in an Asian superstore. He is not finding the tamarind in the haystack. 

We have a fancy name for the French Women’s team: Atelier Kong, or something like that. Sounds fancy. Atelier Crenn is an amazing SF restaurant that must have inspired this choice. Must have. 

I see shortribs and cheese, rabbits and a tired-looking Lizzie. Lizzie reminds us that this is tricky and it is a competition. That’s right, Lizzie -- tell us how you really feel.

Back in Stefan’s world, he is very into round tables and hates farmers. Evidently the kitchens were going to arrive without the chef’s involvement, so Micah, you can return to your day job. Josie thinks everything is Coolio and will now begin roasting things. Kristen is only kind of taking charge in this and that’s a bad omen. Executive chefs need to provide direction and those directions need to be followed. That old saying about too many cooks is oft used for a reason. You can have too many cooks, but with a chef who can command respect, confidence, and smartness, it’s not a problem.Prep day is done and they go and drink wine and eat yogurt. Yummy combination. We learn that Brooke has not abandoned her four-year-old, but that it often feels that way. Her four-year-old has sent her detailed drawings of the Atelier concept with bullet point lists of how to execute this whole operation. 

There is definitely some friction in the women’s team. Kristen is fine dining all the way while Josie is totally into the “git ‘er dun, let’s have funz” school of restaurants. Morphing the two thoughts together is going to be challenging. Josie decides that the best recourse is to tell the competing team all of the frustrations she is having. Josh sees weakness. 

Sheldon has renamed himself Captain Bonifacio and put on revolutionary war paint. He is hoping Manny Pacquiao comes to help, but Manny is so busy with his boxing/music/political career that I am doubtful. The men’s team is hoping that it doesn’t go down like Manny’s last bout where he lost miserably, not that anyone watches boxing anymore.  

This is a Menehune. It does look a lot like Sheldon.

The Atelier Kwan (not Kong) French menu consists of Lizzie’s rabbit rillettes “charcuterie plate,” Josie’s Bangin’ Bouillabaisse, Kristen’s Boeuf Bourguignon, Brooke’s cheese course, and some amuse bouche competition between macaroon, macaron, and the Macarena. 

Meanwhile the Filipino/Hawaiian fusion restaurant Urbano has Josh doing a Balut, which is like a fertilized egg plus duck confit, and a foie mousse. If you are just getting over flu-like symptoms you should not Google balut for images. Very weird. Sheldon is making Miki which is a yet-to-be-seen prawn dish. What’s the difference between prawns and shrimp you ask? Google it up and the majority seem to say that there is some difference, but are vague on specifics. You will be lulled with terms like Dendrobranchiata and Pleocyemata… With Google I have found I can learn something completely unpronounceable everyday and then forget it by the next morning. Stefan is rounding out this Filipino/Hawaiian/Oklahoman Finnish/German co-production with a Kilawen which looks like a crudo plate in any other language.  

For Josh’s eggs, they are slow-cooking them in the shell. The final temp will be 150.5 F which is about 66C. He’s using a circulator to be exact. Circulators are a mainstay in high-end kitchens, and they are like a very precise Jacuzzi that you immerse the food into, usually in a cryovac bag, but in this case just the whole eggs, shells intact. The temp is a little higher than I would cook an egg, but hey, let’s see what happens. If you want to learn cool cooking stuff like using circulators go here. Pretty awesome site. 

There will be dessert. Josh is making ice. Brooke reminds us that she is more than just a great chef. Kristen is watching over everything, but Josie is barely keeping up with her Bangin’ Bouilla. Boil boil toil and trouble. Stefan is training people and setting up. Sheldon is delegating his work to a dishwasher. This happens in real restaurants too.

It’s a frantic finish to prep time. Brooke and Stefan are trying their best to make people feel at home. The judges arrive to Atelier first. Tom, Emeril, Gail, Padma, and Danny Meyer. Nice-looking menu. 

Lizzie is making 34 plates when Kristen only needs 10. Come on now, people. You know that communication is key. The charcuterie plate is a soup? But everyone seems to adore it, so Lizzie is winning on that front. Sometimes complete reinterpretations of plates can be risky. Josie’s non-frothy soup is causing a rift in the fabric of Atelier. Lizzie calls it a “clash of styles,” which is the understatement of the year. Mixed reviews on the bouillabaisse. Some displaced Liverpudlian says that the concept is great, but the execution is off. We call all dream beautiful food, but whether you call actually do it when you have to feed the masses is the biggest reality check in the business. 

Urbano is running smooth, but Atelier is having a bumpy flight. Kristen’s shortrib is enjoyed, but lacks the Burgundy for the Bourguignon. Cheese course from Brooke results in $33,000 in dental expenses because of the toffee of pebbles. The dessert from Kristen is not loved by Gail, who secretly wants to be a light green macaron. 

Universally they loved the charcuterie soup made by Thin Lizzie. Padma calls a finish to this Atelier affair and they head to Urbano. Urbano looks like an Olive Garden after payday and is on a wait. Stefan is doing the much-debated (in hospitality circles) move of rewarding diners with liquor if they get up from their table.  

The judges finally get sat and get to watch the clusterfuck of people at the host stand to URBANo. Kilawen goes out. Stefan often makes sashimi crudo stuff so this is in his regimen. He’s good at it and it’s easy to pull off. I predict that will get called out for not thinking outside of the crudo. Balut goes out and Josh looks to have done a pretty fine job. The problem is that though these are seasoned food vets, they could have used a primer in Balut knowledge. Seems like it tasted good though. Josh is improving at a quick pace. Sheldon is running his kitchen very smoothly. Stefan is walking around like a frantic Leisure Suit Larry. Oh Miki, you're so fine, but I don’t know anything about you. Stefan is not acting like you should act if you want to impress Danny Meyer. He has checked out and is done with this drama. 

Adobo pork comes out and at least he explains this one. Tom loves it. Danny loves it. Flavor don’t lie. Dessert is coming out. Sorbet plate. It is a very continental finish for fine Filipino. Judges they likey. 

It does look like a toss-up. Urbano seems to have the edge, but the service from Stefan sucked out the wazoo. Meanwhile, the food on the Atelier side was not as good as the Urbano experience. Off to the Supreme Court of Vittledom.

Kristen explains the concept and her role. The judges explain that they wanted more of the Burgundy and that her dessert had hints of greatness, but missed the mark. Brooke gets lauded. Lizzie is tired and nervous. The judges loved her stuff. Josie tries to throw anybody she can under the bus, and Kristen weighs the least so she goes after her. Gail lays down the law and Josie smiles and starts doing a cooking demonstration for QVC… it’s what she does when she’s nervous.

Stefan does not take criticism well at all. Sheldon gets praise. His food shined. Josh can’t cook Filipino, but he can cook. His dish is loved. Urbano wins. Josie is packing up her headbands in advance of the final decision. Stefan feels lucky. 

Back and forth on the blame game. BUT this is critical: Kristen takes the blame as the executive chef. She’s a brave one. Gail puts it as falling on your own sword and she’s right. Testy times at ye olde Judges' Table. they do a tricky name call and Josie is safe. At the end of the day, Kristen goes home. It’s a sad day, but you want the leader? That’s her, leaving the stage. She says that she is proud to go preserving her integrity and grace. 

Godspeed. 

Follow me on the Twitter @HughAcheson


Editor's Note: Check out our exclusive photo feature and Q&A with Hugh where he discusses chicken wings, his favorite NYC haunts, and his style.

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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