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. 


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.

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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