Qui Austin

This year, Clay and I spent the time between Christmas and New Year’s Day in Austin, Texas with his family. While there, I was able to cross off an item from my 30 Before 30 list, #15: Eat at a Top Chef’s restaurant. Not only was it a Top Chef, but it was one of my very favorites: Paul Qui from Top Chef Texas.

They graciously accommodated our party of 14 for a 3-hour meal. The menu was exciting and the service was unbelievable. Every course came with unique flatware, locally-designed plates, and table-side presentations. Paul even served and explained a few dishes to our table.

I was already so excited and then I saw calimocho on the menu. I make my own basic version by adding red wine to Diet Coke, but theirs was, expectedly, soooo much better. It included some spices I can’t remember and orange peel. And it came in this really neat spouted carafe. Amazing.

Qui serves family-style so we were able to try most of the food from the menu. We started with an “ode to Michel Bras”: chilled turnip dashi over a selction of vegetables from Austin farmers, and kinilaw: amberjack filipino ceviche (one of my favorite dishes of the night).

Next we had chicken adobo rice, kare kare: filipino peanut curry vegetables, cabbage with crispy chicken skin and spiced yogurt, and sea urchin pasta (not pictured). The kare kare was the best thing I ate. It was a new flavor and so delicious; it didn’t even need meat.

Next we tried dinuguan: pork and blood gnocchi, three preparations of rabbit, and chicken inasal. I couldn’t get good pictures of these courses, but they were all phenomenal. My mother-in-law even said it was the best chicken she’d ever had. After dinner they brought us crackers with a foam topping, meant to taste just like Ritz crackers and cheese. This was an exciting Top Chef kind of moment for me. I haven’t eaten much foam anything, let alone cheese-flavored foam.

For dessert we tried halo halo and a cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich. Both were delicious and so different than anything I’ve ever tasted.

All in all, it was an unforgettable experience. Now Clay and I are talking about traveling the country to eat at more Top Chef’s restaurants. And I can’t wait!

The Best and Worst of Top Chef Texas

Worst – Tyler Stone
The first episode of Top Chef Texas begins with 29 chefs competing for 16 spots. One chef with a decent amount of screen time is chef Tyler Stone, who uses a James Bond theme in his casting video. This guy is young, confident, and is already hogging interview time. He must be a total badass. I was really excited, thinking we had another Michael Voltaggio on our hands. But alas, the poor chap can’t even butcher a pork chop. After some awkward question dodging with Tom and Emeril, he’s sent packing without cooking a thing. Hold up! He’s back in the finale as a sous chef to erase our memory of him ruining Grayson’s tenderloin and finally redeem himself. Oh wait, he’s still terrible and awkward. What a waste!

Best – Grayson Schmitz
Every season of Top Chef has memorable lines. A few of my favorites are “I’m not your bitch, Bitch” by Dave in season 1 and “It’s Top Chef, not Top Pussy” by Fabio in season 5. This season’s best lines were delivered by everyone’s favorite word-vomiter Grayson. She says what she’s thinking, even if it’s completely incoherent and weird. After staying up all night making barbecue, she tells Tom the food will be like “sex in the mouth”, which is what I definitely say now before I chow down on some delicious grub. She serves Charlize Theron a black chicken and quail egg which symbolize a slaughtered mother and unborn child. She’s strange, but we love her. Especially wonderful is her frog camping song which she excitedly sings in full.

Worst – Culinary Games
This season’s finale went on for three episodes. The first of the three features the “Culinary Games” which really boils down to making the chefs look like fools and becoming so winded they can’t even cook. Fun! First, cook a meal in a gondola. Boring. Second, use an ice pick to get your ingredients out of giant ice blocks. Not only does this require a decent amount of upper body strength, but don’t they give, like, every chef ever a hard time for using frozen product? Third, cross-country ski and shoot a rifle to get your ingredients. Sarah, who claims to know how to shoot a gun, sucks at it. So does Beverly, but we can give her a pass since she doesn’t seem to be the rifle-toting type. While I love Top Chef and especially love the finale episodes, this one was just too reminiscent of the Olympics and there wasn’t enough “U.S.A.!!” chanting to interest me.

Best – Mentors
While I do cry during all movies and most commercials, Top Chef is usually tear-free for me. All it takes, apparently, is putting a chef in front of his mentor. The second their mentors walked into the kitchen, I was crying. There’s really something special about the relationship formed with a professional or personal mentor. Not only were these important chefs in the contestants’ lives, they were important chefs in our lives too. Tony Mantuano was on Top Chef Masters and has been a guest judge on Top Chef and, of course, Michelle Bernstein has been a Top Chef staple since the early days of the show. It also didn’t help that Paul was bawling like a baby and couldn’t even finish his story of meeting mentor Tyson Cole. Not a dry eye in the house.

Worst – Mean girls
Mean Girls is a pretty famous movie right? It makes fun of the popular girls in high school who bully the weaker girls and constantly praise each other in the desperate need to be liked. That’s kind of what this season of Top Chef is like. First, chef Heather Terhune not only throws Beverly under the bus, but backs over her a couple times for fun. She seems like the kind of lady who lures kids to her gingerbread house and is too dumb to realize that selling out your partner in a double elimination challenge is, well, not a good strategy. Then there’s Sarah and Lindsay. They take every opportunity to yell at and criticize Beverly, even telling her what she should and shouldn’t plate her food with. Apparently plastic spoons are no bueno. They can’t even be happy winning Restaurant Wars because Beverly wins with the best dish. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see them trying to steal each other’s boyfriends and start describing their dishes as “so fetch”.

Best – Beverly wins Last Chance Kitchen
Sweet, sweet revenge. Last Chance Kitchen is a brilliant idea to begin with. The eliminated chefs return to the kitchen to face off for a chance back into the competition. In past seasons, many excellent chefs went home too soon. The worst is when a chef is eliminated for a great dish. Beverly is sent home on an episode where everyone cooked like rock stars, but she kills it in Last Chance Kitchen and is given a second try. I love the look on Sarah’s face when Beverly walks back into the kitchen. While I wish Beverly had knocked Sarah out of the competition, it’s great that Sarah had to give up a new car just to make sure she was safe. Beverly is a talented chef who put up with a lot of crap with a lot of poise and I respect her for that.

Worst – Not enough Hugh Acheson
I was beyond thrilled when I heard Hugh Acheson was going to be one of the permanent judges on this season. I absolutely loved him on Top Chef Masters and was so happy he was brought back after elimination. With his one eyebrow and snarky personality, he made Masters interesting where it often wasn’t. He wasn’t afraid to call people out, especially when Suvir Saran inappropriately condemned red meat in front of Hugh’s steak dinner. Top Chef Texas could have used more Hugh. Even though I adore Gail Simmons and Emeril Lagasse, the judges’ panel permanently needed Hugh’s sass and unibrow.

Best – The guy who should have won actually won
With the exception of season 1, not a single finale of Top Chef ended the way I hoped. I would have loved to see Sam Talbot, Carla Hall, and Kevin Gillespie take home the titles. This season, it seemed impossible that anyone but Paul Qui could win. He dominated a majority of the challenges, winning a new car and a boatload of cash. And he seems like a genuinely nice guy to boot. It was very sweet to see the right chef win the big prize, especially over Sarah who pushed others down to rise up herself. Paul is a class act and so deserving of the Top Chef title. This makes up for the disappointment I felt when Kevin lost to the Voltaggio brothers in season 6. Well, almost.

Top Chef All Stars

For the finale of this season’s Top Chef, they are having five chefs competing for the title. The lineup for this “all star” season was pretty impressive, but most of my all-time favorites were left missing. If I were to pick the five best chefs who didn’t win, from all the seasons, the group would look a lot different.

I would have picked: Kevin Gillespie – ginger beardie with lovable personality and comfort food awesomeness, Richard Blais – the wizard with the faux hawk and liquid nitrogen tank, Sam Talbot – tall and handsome with love for sweet and savory combinations, Bryan Voltaggio – the nicer and more professional of the brothers, Stefan Richter – everyone’s favorite carefree Euro. Now that would be a competition!

Most Overused Phrases on Top Chef

Bravo just recently announced the new season of Top Chef. Season 7 will take place in Washington D.C. and have seafood master Eric Ripert on the judges table. I am excited to see what new and surprising challenges they come up with. I’m also hoping the judges and contestants will drop some of their overused phrases. Here are a few of my favorites I think should be retired.

“Spot on”
For being such accomplished chefs and judges, these people sure can’t think of many ways to describe a perfect dish. Padma, Tom, and several of the contestants seem to think that “spot on” is a sufficient description for us.

“There’s no room for error.”
In the first few seasons, it took several episodes before this one came out. But as more and more talented chefs join the show, the contestants are saying it earlier and earlier. But even with the most talented cast so far (season 6), you apparently can make several errors and still make it pretty far in the competition (Robin).

“This is Top Chef, not Top ______.”
Tom Colicchio loves this one. “This is Top Chef, not Top Sous Chef”, “This is Top Chef, not Top Waiter”, and of course Fabio’s famous “This is Top Chef, not Top Pussy.”

“I’m not a pastry chef.”
Pretty much every season, the chefs are required to cook some kind of dessert. And 99% of the contestants will remind us that they are not pastry chefs. You’d think that these chefs would practice a couple desserts before coming on the show as it’s going to be expected of them. The one exception was Marisa from season 2 who actually WAS a pastry chef and never let us forget it.

“This is a competition.”
In the tradition of overly obvious commentary from the contestants, another favorite is “This is a competition.” This one is usually dropped right after a contestant does something particularly awful to another contestant. “I don’t normally ruin someone’s dreams, but this is a competition.”

“I’m not here to make friends.”
This gem is usually dropped later on in each season after a particularly bitter argument. It is the mantra of those contestants that actually can’t make any friends. Sorry guys, but saying “I’m not here to make friends” doesn’t make us forget about your shitty personalities.

The one exception to this was Nimma, who in season 4 came right out and said it in the first episode. She mentioned in her monotone speech that she “will have fun once she reaches her goal.” Unfortunately for her, she was eliminated that same episode. I wonder if she’s still not having fun and not making friends.

Top Chef

This last episode of Top Chef was great. Not only do I love Penn and Teller, but I also love Toby Young. His comments are always entertaining. I am not that fond of Michelle Bernstein as a guest judge. She always seems pissed off and brings completely lame prizes for the elimination challenge winner. Last season she brought copies of her new book and this season a set of pots and pans. Um, cool?

Kevin Gillespie is my pick for winner this season. Not only is he obviously talented, but he seems like a genuinely nice and funny person. He has a cool beard, is very articulate, and is perpetually in a good mood. Also, he kills at horse shoes. He may be one of my favorites of all the seasons so far. I hope the finale is Kevin and the Voltaggio brothers.