Annnnd we're finally here. Let's get this party started!
We go back to the very beginning showing how each introduced themselves in the Top Chef competition. A quick review of how both Mei and Gregory got to the finale happens. They both congratulate each other in the Stew Room, with Mei saying she thought she was going home.
The next morning, they're up very very early and off to the finale. But first – it looks like they're taking a hot air balloon ride – they both climb into the basket, and up they go over San Miguel de Allende! Their ride ends in a vineyard, Vinedos Azteca, in Queretaro, Mexico, where they meet up with Padma and Tom.
For their Elimination Challenge, they will create “The Meal of Your Lives”. They have to cook 4 dishes, and will cook in two of San Miguel's best restaurants. They have the ability to assemble a team from previous cheftestants.
Gregory chooses Doug and George
Mei chooses Melissa and Rebecca
So it's guys vs. girls. Tonight they'll have one hour to shop in town, and to source ingredients in their restaurants. Tomorrow, they'll have five hours to prep and cook before service begins. Mei will serve first at Cent'anni, and Gregory will serve second at The Restaurant. Joining them will be Hugh Acheson, Gail Simmons, and Richard Blais, along with noted chefs and critics Traci Des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, and Gavin Kaysen.
Off they go to shop. Gregory reviews his menu with Doug and George in their car, and Mei reviews ingredients she wants for her dishes in their car. Mei said her dishes represent who she is as a chef, coming from her Chinese heritage, but she wants to incorporate the local ingredients from Mexico. They've each got a budget of $2,000. Meanwhile, Gregory wants to show his diversity in cooking, and wants to use Mexican ingredients and create dishes on the fly, proving he's not a one-trick pony.
Mei notes that dessert is not her forté, but during the break after Boston, she worked at the pastry station at Bryan Voltaggio's restaurant, so she's feeling pretty good about that course.
They're all back at the villa, and the sous chefs will prepare the finalists dinner. Meanwhile, Gregory and Mei talk about the ingredients they purchased – they both got octopus, and Mei notes that Gregory's meal is very Mexican-inspired, and she realizes that he is pushing himself in a different direction. She says “The only way I'll win is to showcase a lot more flavor and technique.”
The next morning, Mei starts her prep. She tasks Rebecca with the dessert and Melissa will start breaking down the duck, and she'll do the octopus. During prep, Mei said that during the compeition, a lot of the critique of her food has been that her food has been subtle and clean; but in her menu today, she's going to give them bold flavors they've not seen from her before.
She describes what she's looking to make for her four courses, and when she's prepping kimchi butter, she said “It's gotta be tight....like a puppy's butthole.” LOL She's definitely mixing two cuisines that seemingly do not work together, but she's a bit nervous mixing duck with the huitlacoche. But she wants to show she's doing things that are creative and innovative.
Tom arrives in Mei's kitchen to talk to her about her dishes. Mei tells him that she and Gregory are going head-to-head with a course where they're both using octopus. Mei seems very confident with her dishes, including her dessert course.
Gregory is shown running into The Restaurant to begin prep for his meal. He's written everything out and taped the pages to the wall so Doug and George know what they are to do. Doug will be grilling, and butchering is in George's court. He reviews the dishes, and knows he's going out on a limb making a mole sauce to go with his short ribs. He said it's an all new menu for him, and every single course is based on Mexican flavors and ingredients.
Tom arrives to talk with Gregory about his menu. Tom asks him if he thinks it's risky using a lot of new ingredients, and Gregory says he wants to show he's a versatile chef.
The judges arrive at Mei's restaurant along with the other eliminated cheftestants, and she and her sous chefs have 25 minutes to finish the first course. Padma asks Richard how he was feeling at this moment [in his competitions], and he replies “There's a tension in the air. It all comes down to just a few plates of food!” Gail said in looking at the menu, she sees an interesting combination of flavors.
~ MEI ~
FIRST COURSE – Octopus with Fish Sauce Vinaigrette, Avocado-Coconut Puree & Herbs – Gail said it was a beautiful plate, and the flavors are bold and bright. Hugh said there's a depth to it, and Padma said it was one of the most flavorful dishes they've gotten from Mei. Tom said the basil, mint and cilantro was a great combination, but notes that the octopus was a little overcooked, and dry to which Padma agrees.
SECOND COURSE – Congee with Carnitas, Scallion Puree, Hot Sauce, Peanuts & Egg Yolk – Gail is excited to try this dish. Padma said it's warm and gooey and has a lot of flavor, and she thinks it's better than the first congee she made back in Boston, and Tom agrees and says it has perfect balance. Hugh said it pulls at the heart strings – it speaks to her heritage.
THIRD COURSE – Duck with Braised Lettuce, Kimchi Jicama & Huitlacoche – Gail said when she had the first bite of the kimchi sauce and the huitlacoche sauce together, she thought they were fighting each other, but they end up working. Hugh said the duck is good, but he's not sold on the rendering of the fat. Tom said there's a lot of interesting touches in the dish – the jicama is a nice crunch and Richard said there might be a bit too much huitlacoche for his taste.
While preparing dessert, Mei realizes she needs something tangy to counter the sweet yogurt, and makes a few changes and additions. Meanwhile, Tom said for a savory chef, it makes sense to go safe with dessert if they're not familiar with making desserts. Mei said out of all her dishes, the dessert is what she is most proud of.
FOURTH COURSE – Strawberry Lime Curd with Toasted Yogurt, Milk Crumble & Yogurt-Lime Ice – Richard said it was beautiful and he didn't want to eat it. Gail loves the toasted yogurt and the smoky flavor; Hugh loves the different textures. Tom said this is the BEST dessert he's ever had on Top Chef, and also notes she was very smart to do a dessert like this – and takes back everything he said about playing it safe. He said it was a very strong ending.
And off the judges go to Gregory's restaurant to eat his food. Gail notes that Gregory chose not to do a dessert – a bold decision. They all note he's going full-on Mexican with his dishes, and Tom points out to the others that Gregory usually goes Asian, but he's a good cook.
~ GREGORY ~
FIRST COURSE – Grilled Octopus with Prickly Pear, Xoconostle, Passion Fruit & Cashew Milk – Richard loved the look of the dish, and Padma said his first course is sublime. Michael Cimarusti said it was refined and elegant with a balance of flavor. Tom said it's a great example of “look for inspiration and you'll find it everywhere.” Tom said the dish is a powerhouse. Gavin said he was impressed with how Gregory took all of the ingredients (that he himself wouldn't be able to) and make a cohesive dish in terms of house delicious it was.
SECOND COURSE – Shrimp Broth with Green Chorizo, Pickled Nopales, & Crispy Shrimp Heads – Sean Brock said he feels like he's in New Orleans and eating gumbo. It has the shellfish, it has spice,sausage, the cactus playing the role of the slimy okra. Gail asks about the crispy shrimp heads – she said they're a bit coarse and scratches her throat.
Tom said this is what happens when you've not been using the ingredients all the time – the dish isn't balanced. He said while everyone agrees that Gregory's first course was better, Tom said Mei's second course was better. Richard said it's naturally playing out as quite the contest.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Gregory realizes that he didn't make the carrot sauce properly – he forgot the vinegar and sugar, so he has to do something to help the viscosity and flavor. He adds sugar at the last minute and hopes it'll fix the sauce.
In the in-between, Gail is shown trying to speak, when church bells ring out. The owner of The Restaurant said there's no rhyme or reason as to why they chime out. Sure enough, they're all shown trying to speak several times and the bells continue to ring out (the clock shows they rang out at 7:15, 7:28, 7:49, 8:01, 8:12). The Restaurant's owner said “Quasimodo is at work!”)
THIRD COURSE – Striped Bass with Roasted Carrots, Radish, Pineapple & Tomatillo – Tom doesn't look happy with his first few bites, and he says “I know Gregory didn't do a dessert, but this dish is sweeter than Mei's dessert.” Michael Cimarusti said the green is probably supposed to be the tomatillo, but it didn't have the presence that it should. Traci said the dish looked like it was from a completely different chef than the first two courses.
FOURTH COURSE – Red Mole with Short Ribs & Agave Sweet Potato – Padma's knife just sinks through the meat, and Hugh said it's spectacular. Full flavored, Traci said the flavors are what it should have been. Tom said it's a really good dish with a depth of flavor and the beef is perfectly cooked. Gail said that out of the dishes that Gregory served, she thinks the short ribs is his best dish. Michael Cimarusti said both chefs walked out of their kitchens knowing they were putting their best dishes on the tables.
Judges Table begins, and Mei meets Gregory over at his restaurant to sit in the bar and wait for the judges to deliberate. Padma comes in and asks them to come to JT so they can ask some questions.
When Padma asks how Mei is feeling, she said she's nervous, anxious, and uneasy. Tom tells Mei that she was cool as a cucumber during his afternoon walk through, and she said “Yes, it's because I was working!” Richard asks Gregory if this was the hardest thing he's ever done in his career, and Gregory said “Yes, in my life. Getting sober 5 years ago was easier than Top Chef!”
Hugh said that Gregory's meal was a great ode to where they are in Mexico. His octopus dish was mature and was wonderful. Gail said her dish was visually stunning, but Tom thought his octopus was a bit on the dry side. Gail agrees that it was a bit chewy, but she liked it. She asks Gregory about his second course, and Richard said he likes the combo of shellfish with chorizo, but Padma said she had a problem with the shrimp heads, as she feels there's a shard sticking to the back of her throat. Tom said the dish just didn't come together. Richard said that Mei's congee was a really great dish and told her story. Mei said changing it fit the scene.
Padma asked about Gregory's third course, and Tom said the dish ate very sweet. Padma tells Mei that she's never had braised lettuce, kimchi jicama and huitlacoche, and Richard said he's not sure where the inspiration came from. Tom said as much as he liked the dish, it was her weakest dish.
Padma said that Gregory's final dish was outstanding with a great mole sauce. Gail said it was complex and rich; it showed that he was pushing himself. Tom said he edited this dish perfectly. Hugh said “You want perfect cooking? That was it.” Gail said Mei's fourth dish was beautiful. Richard said everything that's right about modern food was in that bowl. Tom said it was THE best dessert he's ever had on Top Chef, period. And then he went further and said it was one of the best desserts he's ever had in his life. Mei looks shocked at him saying that. They leave JT so the judges can deliberate.
The judges talk back and forth. Each chef seems to have had two flawless courses. Gail said Gregory has a global perspective, but doesn't think his menu was as successful as Mei's, whereas Richard thinks his menu was more inspirational.
Gregory and Mei are back in front of the judges and the rest of the cheftestants. Tom goes through his final Judges Table spiel. He's jazzed with watching the new young talent. He likens it to being at CBGB's and seeing the Ramones, or seeing Springsteen at the Stone Pony.
Padma tells them that one of them will win the title of Top Chef, and announces MEI as Top Chef! YAY, Mei! She is completely stunned, and the judges and the other cheftestants congratulate her. Mei says in the confessional “My parents are definitely going to be really proud of me; Michael Voltaggio is going to be really proud of me, but most of all, I'm really proud of myself!” She ends up calling Michael Voltaggio in the confessional, and he congratulates her and tells her “Hey – YOU are Top Chef now!”
And THAT is all she wrote, ladies and gentlemen! The Boston season of Top Chef is done. BOOM!
On a personal note, while it's been (mostly) fun for me to do these recaps, and I always enjoy our back-and-forth and give-and-take discussion, it's time to hang up my keyboard and retire, as all good reality show recappers eventually do. I've been doing this since the best Top Chef season (Season 6 – Las Vegas) and I almost didn't do it this year, but wanted to because it was being held in Boston, my adopted hometown. But it's time. Time for me to sit back and just watch the next season, and then hash it out with you all the next day. :-)
I hope you've enjoyed what I've put out there for the past seven Top Chef seasons, and I hope someone else will step up next season and take over the recapping keyboard. We've got some very funny people who will give it a different flavor, I'm sure!