Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Restaurant Wars

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Make Melissa's Mom's Egg Custard

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Make Mei's Inspired Duck a l'Orange

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

Gail on Favreau, Choi, and Finding Yourself

Hugh on Poor Boys, Swingers and Food Trucks

Emeril: Nick's Choice Is Part of the Game

Nick's License to Immune

Hugh's Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

Hugh Decides Eight Is Enough

Gail Talks OvenGate

Dookie Chase Makes Everybody Cry

Restaurant Wars

Gail Simmons on the very first Restaurant Wars.

If I had a quarter for every time someone told me they wanted to open their own restaurant, I would be a very wealthy woman. To people outside the food industry, having your own place seems glamorous. In reality, it is probably one of the most taxing and under-appreciated careers to choose. There is so much more to running a successful eating establishment than simply being a good cook or a fabulous host. It may be fun to entertain the idea of a little bistro where you are always guaranteed the best table, service and food for your family and friends, but any owner will tell you that running a restaurant well is about so much more. It is a delicate balance between numerous factors including ingredients, cost, staffing, supply and demand, location, return on investment, trend forecasting, broken appliances, dirty dishes, clogged drains, customer service, employee management, delegation, compromise, and a whole lot of sweat.

So what factors go into having a great restaurant? Well, as we saw in this week's episode, a strong concept certainly helps. This is something about which our guest judge, Jeffrey Chodorow, certainly knows more than his share. Jeffrey is one of the country's most successful restaurateurs; known for the creation of China Grill, Asia de Cuba, Ono, Tuscan Steak and Mix among others. With restaurants in America opening and closing at alarming rates each year, he has seen more than a few concepts come and go. As Jeffrey pointed out during our dinners at Sabor and American Workshop, it is not enough to just want to serve "American Classic" or "Modern Spanish" flavors. A solid restaurant concept must be developed in its entirety, with every detail carefully thought through to execution.

I cannot stress enough how impressed I was that our six remaining contestants completed this task as well as they did - and with minimal bloodshed to boot! The challenge was behemoth: create an entire restaurant, down to every last detail and serve dinner for up to twenty people in it, all in less than 24 hours! I, for one, was more than a little skeptical.

Over the years, I have eaten in many restaurants on opening night, something I try hard to avoid as the first few weeks of any restaurant's life is inevitably about working out the kinks. I can proudly say that my meals at both Sabor and American Workshop were far superior to many I have had. But that is not to say that either was perfect.

Let's start with Sabor. From the beginning, Miguel was totally upstaged by Stephen and Lee Anne. Sure, he worked hard behind the scenes, but the fact that he knew nothing about Spanish food, and let them run with it to the extent that they did, was a telltale sign he would not be able to play a role in any of the decisions. This was the second time he has put himself in a backseat position. Remember his issues with Andrea in the street food challenge?

Stephen pulled what I now often refer to as, well, a "Stephen." He envisioned himself the perpetual educator, went completely overboard with his ideas without running them by his teammates, and in the end spent most of his time listening to the sound of his own voice -- not the sound of Lee Anne's frustration as her food got cold behind the scenes. Lee Anne was no angel either. She fashioned herself the leader, chose an extremely ambitious menu for their timeframe and budget, then at Judges' Table readily admitted that she was not comfortable working with the people on her team. To be fair, their food and overall concept was actually quite strong and we all enjoyed the meal (minus a few fish scales and lukewarm tapas). They lost due to lack of teamwork, which pointed to an even greater lack of planning. And lovable, passionate, hardworking Miguel packed his knives because he did not show leadership at the time when it mattered most.

Meanwhile, American Workshop had an entirely different feel. The best part being that they stayed true to their word and roasted one of the tastiest chickens I had eaten to date They also turned out an exceptional (if unoriginal) autumn fruit crisp. Their dishes may not have been creatively ground-breaking, but they had a solid understanding of what they would be able to handle under the circumstances and executed it well. Harold and Tiffani worked cohesively, sharing the pressure and responsibility behind the stoves. As Jeffrey suggested, the only part of their concept that fell short was the tuna tartare appetizer. We all agreed that it did not reflect their vision of American Classics, nor did it work as a dish to be served family-style, when nothing else was served this way. Again, following through with your concept from start to finish is paramount.

Inevitably, so much of what we film for each episode ends up on the cutting room floor. What you did not see to its full extent was just how brightly Dave shone that night! I am still not quite sure exactly what happened in that tiny dining room, but gone was the nervous, weepy, frazzled guy we had come to expect. Replacing him was an articulate, confident and knowledgeable Maitre D' who worked the room like a seasoned pro! He knew every ingredient, remembered every guest's request, never left a glass half empty and didn't stop smiling until the last customer went home. Miraculously, even at the Judges' Table, where he has been known to break down at the mere mention of his name, he stood up for himself with every ounce of strength he had in him. For me, "I'm not your bitch, Bitch!" will forever be synonymous with the voice of the underdog. I swear the crew was so astounded they almost had t-shirts made in his honor! I cannot wait to hear the scoop on Dave's trip to Cannes with Jeffrey and his team. Related link: Food & Wines' feature on great restaurants

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Gail schools us on the science of innovative cooking and explains why George Pagonis' octopus didn't have any legs to stand on. Let's talk about the Elimination Challenge, which was to create an innovative dish that pushed culinary boundaries.

Gail Simmons: I was really happy that Wylie was there for this challenge, of course. But I think the set up was a little anti-climactic in honesty. As a viewer, you didn't get a full explanation of how and why they were given this challenge. It was specifically because there are so many people pushing these boundaries, many of whom are in Boston, and particularly Michael Brenner. He is innovative for a lot of reasons -- he’s a physicist, but what he’s become known for in the culinary space is teaching an in-depth course at Harvard about the science of food and cooking, incorporating people like Wylie and as well as a long list of exceptionally talented and renown chefs from around the world, like Ferran Adrià among others. It is exciting and extraordinary, and having him there allowed us to present our chefs with this challenge. We always think about how the dishes taste and look, whether the meat is cooked well enough or the appearance of knife cuts are appropriate. All of that stuff is in affect science -- cooking is all chemistry and biology, reaction of cells to knives and fire essentially. Everyone has their own definition of innovation, and I think there was a lot of pressure to "innovate" in this challenge. Our chefs did well, but I wish they had been given more time to really push their own personal boundaries more. Let’s start with the winner, Melissa, who had the seared duck breast with farro, walnut miso, and pickled cherries.

GS: Melissa really has stepped up her game and soared in the last two challenges; she won the last challenge (and a spot in the finale in Mexico), and now she’s won this challenge, too. Her duck was beautiful, though not necessarily the most groundbreaking dish I’ve ever seen in my life. But she was innovative enough that we felt her flavors were new, but the dish was at the same time beautiful, delicious. Here’s the tricky thing about being innovative, which I think George touched on when he was talking about the challenge too: is it takes time and practice to truly innovate. I can only assume that someone like Wylie tries a dish fifty times before it goes on his menu as a full formed creative work, that changes how we all perceive food. Innovation takes patience and some serious brain power. To come up with something in a few hours is a tall order when it needs to be totally delicious AND have a level of innovation that surprises and impresses us. Melissa knew her strengths and perhaps was more relaxed then she would’ve been otherwise, so she made that walnut miso pesto and incorporated it in a really creative, unusual way. It made her dish stand out, and by far it was the most delicious. And then we had our runner, Mei, with her duck curry with vadouvan and yuzu yogurt.

GS: There was something about Mei’s dish that made me think it was the most innovative of the day in a number of ways. However it wasn’t the most successful, and that’s why Melissa took the win. Mei’s dish was not only breathtakingly stark and beautiful, looking so modern on the plate, but she also combined several unusual ingredients, which made for a very untraditional, very modern curry. It was innovative and it stayed with us. You could even see in Tom's reaction that it was a dish to think about. When you tasted it, you weren't sure it worked, but there was something enjoyable about it; the dish didn't simply come together in your mind. It wasn't straight forward. You needed to take a pause, then a second bite, and by the third and fourth bite you started to understand all the different parts, which were very exciting. I think with a few more tries, Mei would’ve really nailed that dish. I was proud of her for pushing us all that way. Then in our bottom two we had Gregory and George. Gregory did the salmon in tom kha broth with roasted tomatoes, crispy chicken skin, and crispy salmon skin.

GS: There were a lot of fun, tasty components to Gregory’s dish. If this challenge had been to show us an interesting representation of salmon or Thai flavors, he would’ve gotten it right. The thing with Gregory is that as skilled as he is, we were really hoping that he would come out of his comfort zone. The flavors he used were what we have seen from him previously. We didn’t really see a lot of innovation from him. That doesn’t mean we don’t think he worked hard or didn't do a good job. He gave us something that he felt was different in presentation, but the flavors were definitely in his usual wheelhouse. As he said himself when cooking beans in the Quickfire, he felt uncomfortable because he's more accustomed to using Asian flavors and ingredients. So here he was in the Elimination Challenge using Asian flavors. On the other hand the dish tasted great! We loved it, we just didn’t think he fulfilled the challenge of being innovative like we know he could have. And then there was George. . .  Yes, he had the charred octopus, yellow split pea puree, and green apple harissa.

GS: George also stayed in his comfort zone in some ways -- he's cooked us octopus before, so charring octopus did not feel innovative at all for him, I actually felt disappointed when he told us that's what he had made. However, there were probably twenty other components of that dish that did make it feel somewhat innovative. The green apple harissa was one of them for sure. The fact that he called it harissa may be taking some license, but that's OK. I loved it, it went so well with the octopus, and it was something new that all of us had never seen. That said, the rest of the dish didn’t make sense all together. At least three or four of the garnishes he added didn’t serve a purpose on the plate, rather, they detracted from the dish. He spent his time making too many components. They may have shown technique, and you could tell that he was really pushing himself, but it all still has to be one cohesive plate of food, first and foremost. I think it didn’t work because he let himself get preoccupied with all the other pieces instead of focusing on doing one thing really well in an innovative way.

Charring octopus did not feel innovative at all for him, I actually felt disappointed when he told us that's what he had made.

So George's was the dish we least enjoyed eating and thought was the least successful, that’s why he went home. I think George did a tremendous job. He came back once already, and he could come back from Last Chance Kitchen again. He’s a great cook, has a great attitude, and I think he absolutely gave his best throughout the competition, which made everyone better. I don’t always say that, but I think when he came back, he really changed the game and the whole season was better for it.

Now, onward to Mexico!