Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Leaving Las Vegas

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

Fin, Found, Floundering

What Danny Meyer Taught Gail Simmons

'Top Chef' Goes to Hog Heaven

Gris Gris Boucherie Ya Ya

Brian and Travis' Dud Spuds

Leaving Las Vegas

Tom Colicchio on the Las Vegas finale of Season 1.

Well friends, we're down to the finale here in Las Vegas - a fitting spot to digest this sometimes salty, pungent and often bittersweet stew that has been Top Chef. Las Vegas is a hodgepodge of the first order, so we all fit right in.

Our three finalist chefs hadn't seen each other in four months, and even more interestingly, they had barely cooked during their time away from the show. Harold had left his job at the Harrison, in New York City, and had begun shopping his own restaurant idea to investors. Dave had returned home to Manhattan Beach to find that the restaurant where he had worked had been sold by its owners, and he was out of a job. Tiffani had returned to the restaurant world, but decided to take a spin as a server so that she could learn the ins and outs of the front of the house.

For good reason, all were nervous about being rusty.

As for where they were emotionally since we wrapped our exhausting round of challenges in San Francisco...for one thing, they were much better rested! Harold was his usual mellow, unpretentious self. Tiffani seemed to have gained something from the experience of seeing herself on TV. She described the experience as a 'wake-up call,' and while I think she wanted to win as much as ever, she seemed to have a new awareness about getting along with others. Tiffani clearly wanted to bury the hatchet with Dave, but he wasn't having it. It seemed as though, even months later, Dave was nurturing his little nugget of anger towards her and was loathe to give it up. Each of the chefs had held onto their strong desire to win, a desire only honed by the closeness of the prize. To show my admiration of the skill and resilience it took to get this far, I sent the chefs an elaborate meal from Craftsteak to their skyloft penthouse at the MGM Grand.

You may have realized by now that we judges don't create the challenges (so please send your hate mail about the Wedding Challenge straight to Bravo, thank you very much) but I was happy to see that tonight's Quickfire challenge was deliberately built around the types of demands chefs typically face in a busy hotel/casino. For one thing, there is no 'typical' diner. Guests range from retirees lining up for the all-you-can-eat-buffet, to Hong Kong Baccarat big-shots who don't blink at gambling away $1 Million in a night. But though these guests may have radically different tastes, they all want to eat well. The big Las Vegas hotel-casinos have caught on to the fact that great amenities - food included - increase the likelihood that a guest will return and spend money gambling. Even the 'low-rollers' are important here - believe it or not, slot machines account for more revenue than Baccarat, Blackjack and Craps, combined.

I have two restaurants in Las Vegas - Craftsteak and 'wichCraft. I see these places as a metaphor for the city itself, where the upscale and the casual exist comfortably side by side. The era when Las Vegas was considered declasse for a real chef seems like a distant memory - the town's culinary renaissance of the last ten years has been well documented, and I've been glad to be a part of it.

Although numerous celebrity chefs, like Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Joel Robuchon, have made their way to Vegas, none of them can afford to be divas. Unlike New York, where diners tend to fit their requests within a particular chef's oeuvre, diners in Las Vegas are there to play first, eat second. We get our share of foodies - but the difference is clear. It is not at all unusual for a Casino host (an employee whose sole job is to take care of gamblers) to pop into my kitchen at Craftsteak and ask for crazy things, any time of the day or night. That's just the way it goes.

And even without special requests, chefs in Las Vegas have to show enormous range and versatility. At any moment we may get an order for a multi-course dinner party for high-rollers, who will think nothing of picking up and taking their business elsewhere if something isn't to their satisfaction - thus costing the hotel huge amounts of potential gambling. And they want to be back at the tables in an hour. Chefs routinely provide impromptu snack food to poker players, who favor finger food so they can hang onto their cards. At the MGM Grand chefs cook for 8,000 of the hotel's employees three times a day - everyone from porters to housekeepers to chorus girls and circus performers. Entertainers, in particular, have specific dietary needs, and it is up to the hotel to get it right. And then there's room service...with over 5,000 rooms in the hotel, providing room service is a Herculean task. No matter what the guest orders, room service needs to be quick, and it needs to arrive hot. In fact, this whole episode is a classic example of how a chef at one of these establishments must think on his feet and deliver: on top of all of his regular duties, Steve Peterson, Executive Chef at the MGM Grand, was charged with setting up the food, service and environment for the cast and crew of a television show (us), on short notice, and without disrupting the day to day operations. He did this without missing a beat.

As Harold, Tiffani and Dave prepared to undergo our grueling Quickfire/Elimination challenge, we gave them ten minutes to familiarize themselves with the equipment, supplies and ingredients. For additional clarity, a representative of Bravo appeared, as they always do (off camera) to reread the challenge and answer questions so that there could be no room for misunderstanding. Once they started cooking, each chef fell into their habitual patterns: Harold and Tiffani went about business as usual, though Tiffani seemed annoyed with herself for being out of practice. Dave rushed to and fro in his usual frenetic way. The food that went up to the "High Rollers" was pretty good. Tiffani and Harold both featured dishes of raw, quick-marinated fish, which made sense given that high-rollers are likely to be familiar with sushi or crudo and it can make a fast and elegant cold course. I didn't care much for the bits of herbs haphazardly garnishing Harold's Mussel and Smoked Paprika soup, but overall the flavors and execution were good. Tiffani's cold dish needed acid, and both her dishes were under-seasoned. Dave served his shrimp shell-on - which is fine for a casual sea-food joint, but felt wrong in this setting. His grilled Opa with Cinnamon Rub was also under-seasoned, and his knife skills were tepid - the fish, poorly cut, fell apart into unattractive chunks on the plate. Both plates were finished with edible pansies (big in the '80's), rather than a garnish that added something to the dish.

I was surprised to see that none of the chefs made use of the haute ingredients that were available for the high rollers, like caviar or oysters. I think if any one of them had, the challenge would have been theirs. Harold won this challenge by a hair, Tiffani was a solid second, and Dave pretty much lost this one hands down.

The next challenge required the chefs to create 4 different types of snacks for a group of poker players. Dave had the edge here - he's known for his snacks. And, indeed, his "fry-daddy" mixture went over big, and the guests liked having a sweet option as well. Both Dave and Harold used frozen pre-cooked items that could be fried quickly - chicken wings, egg rolls, etc. Tiffani cast herself as the target diner here, because she's a poker player. Not a great idea, it turned out.

Tiffani may play poker, but her taste veers towards more complex and polished dishes with numerous ingredients. Good as they may have been, each of her "snacks" required a fork, which really doesn't work during poker. This type of challenge really demonstrates how often a top Chef has to put their own ego aside to create something a guest really wants. For this reason, Tiffani lost this challenge. Harold was a solid contender, but the guest judges favored Dave.

For the record...I don't condone using pre-made or frozen food. I think Harold and Dave both could have made delicious snacks from the wealth of available ingredients without resorting to that, but a piece of me gives them props for their populist approach to the strict time constraints. Speaking of time constraints, at one point Dave got huffy and said, "I don't cook in a rush." I wish I could say the same. In all my years cooking in restaurants, I've almost never had the luxury of cooking slowly. From the moment a waiter takes a guest's order, the clock is ticking.

What made this challenge harder than cooking in a typical restaurant setting, is that in the small window of time allotted, these chefs had to come up with ideas and then execute them, rather than work off a menu of practiced dishes. They had to think creatively in the moment and on their feet, pulling from an overwhelming amount of raw ingredients, and there was no time to revisit or tweak a thing. They also didn't benefit, as chefs do in restaurants, from ingredients being prepped by a staff ahead of time. I've been in that situation, too - needing to conceptualize from whole, raw ingredients in a very short span of time. It doesn't happen often, and yes, it's hard. This is where talent (ideas) and solid training (execution) come in handy.

Tonight's third challenge was to prepare three dishes that were high protein, high carb, and low fat for the amazing performers in Cirque du Soleil's "Ka" - a blend of acrobatics, high-wire balance and breathtaking staging and music that resembles no other circus anywhere else in the world. These athlete/gymnasts/performers do two heart-stopping shows a day and spend the rest of their time rehearsing and working out. Their nutritional needs are immense and quite specific, and it's important that the food they're served tastes good because they need to consume so much of it for energy.

Again, Harold delivered. He made a point of including a form of protein and carbohydrate on each dish (i.e. his beef with bread salad), indicating that he completely understood and met the challenge. The gymnasts liked everything he served. Tiffani's dishes were good, but no one seemed enthusiastic about them. One performer found her crab salad with caviar "fishy" and everyone agreed that her pork was over-salted. Dave's beef was good (side note: all three chefs used Kobe beef, a rare Japanese beef that is heavily marbled with fat. This didn't conform to the challenge to create low-fat dishes, but since each of the chefs did this, we let this one go.) The gymnasts also appreciated Dave's pasta with tomato sauce. But for some reason, Dave only produced two of the required three dishes. He himself couldn't explain why. It seemed to me and the other judges that he let his stress level and disorganization catch up with him.

So while Tiffani didn't win any of the challenges, she came in a solid second on all three. Harold won two. Dave won one and lost two. Frankly, his win at the snack challenge wasn't dazzling enough to make us overlook his mistake in the final challenge. I saw this blunder as the equivalent of only feeding two out of three guests at a table. Even if the other two get great food, the mistake would leave the entire party with a bad impression, and there's a good chance none of them would be coming back to the restaurant. And I'm not sure Dave's explanation, "I made a mistake," would hold water.

I know I've been critical of Dave in my past blogs, so I think it's important that I visit the flip side of the coin. Dave came to cooking late, as a second career, and he's been at it for less time than many of his competitors. Going for it, despite this, was Dave's way of honoring his passion, and I respect that wholeheartedly. Dave has a big heart to match his big flavors, and it has won him friends and fans. If his success in Top Chef is any indication, Dave will continue to go far. So now we're down to our final two. I'm looking forward to the upcoming test because it's the scenario everyone's been pining for since the day we began: no holds-barred, no stunts, no obstacles, no kids. Just cooking with optimal ingredients in a well-equipped setting for people who know and love good food. In other words, the ideal challenge. It remains up to Harold and Tiffani to run with it.

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

So she's going to take more time shopping at Whole Foods -- and ask for the best of Melissa's basket and Adam's shrimp.

Bravotv.com: Let's dive right in. How did it feel to go shopping?
Gail Simmons: Shopping at Whole Foods was fantastic and hilarious. It made us realize that you need to be strategic, which was the point of the exercise for us. They gave us 30 minutes, but we took a little longer. We didn't let the producers push us around! We’re not contestants and we weren't going to stand for it! So, you realize how little time you have, and how big Whole Foods can be. You spend a lot of time running around.

 

My strategy with my pantry was to get a lot of fresh, delicious food that you can cook in lots of different ways. A good balance of proteins, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, fresh herbs, grains. But I didn't want to get too much. Everyone has different strategies; Padma got a ton of different ingredients. Tom's pantry was very pared down. Richard and I were somewhere in the middle.

 

Bravotv.com: Let's start by talking about the two dishes that came from your pantry?
GS: Katsuji and Melissa. They used the same protein, but their dishes were very different. They both used shrimp which one of the proteins that I bought. I bought something else too, something that I know has given people trouble in the past (which is why I specifically chose it) -- chicken wings. And I really wanted people to use them. Instead, they chose the easy way out because shrimps cook quickly.

Melissa's used a lot of fresh vegetables, which I was hoping she would: dill, mint, artichoke. I was so excited about all of it. I think it was beautifully done, a lovely salad with that little shrimp on top with spiced yogurt. But it was just a salad with a quick-cooking seafood. It was so similar to what she had done in Restaurant Wars when she made a scallop with grapefruit salad. I believe she could have done so much more. Melissa keeps saying she wanted to focus on her knife skills, and, of course, your knife skills have to be precise. But I need to see more than just knife skills. I want to see cooking skills, I want to see roasting skills, braising skills. I want to see her hands get a little dirtier and her dishes not be as superficial. It was a light, lovely dish. I was happy to eat it for lunch. But when you're competing against six other really talented chefs, we all want to see a little more depth. Katsuji on the other hand went big. He used his ingredients in a really powerful way. The potato salad, the poached shrimp had bold seasoning and I loved how they went together. It was a great dish. It may not have been the best of the day, but I was actually really happy with what he chose to make.

 

Bravotv.com: So for the rest, let's talk about who was on top and who was on bottom.

GS: At the top there was Gregory who really was going for Padma's heart there. He did great with his coconut milk curry. A really balanced, powerful dish. But it's something we’ve seen from Gregory many times in the past. In fact, in the first challenge he made a similar spicy curry dish with chicken. As much as we thought it was a delicious bowl of food, it was so typical of what we expect from Gregory. George's food was really exciting for us. This was my first time tasting his food and meeting him on Top Chef. He did a great job. The kebab was moist, seasoned really well, and the lentils were beautiful too. My only small issue with the dish is I couldn't understand why he separated the lentils from the kebab in two separate dishes. Why not put lentils on the plate and the kebab right on top, with a dollop of the yogurt? It seemed a little bit disconnected to me. But all-in-all, a really strong dish. Doug had the winning dish of the night. He used Richard's crazy pantry in a way that I thought was smart, clear-cut, and creative. The chorizo and mussels and peppers, just how Tom said, go together well, as do the cauliflower and the garlic. There was sweetness, there was spice, it was light and fresh but had a soulful, rustic flavor we all loved. You could see use of technique. On the bottom were dishes that tried to stretch and didn’t come through. Mei did a great job overall, except her lamb was undercooked. You want lamb medium, medium rare, but the center of that meat was raw to the point where the texture was chewy and almost cold. It would have been better if she had been able to cook it five minutes longer. We talked about Melissa's mistakes already, which also landed her on the bottom. I totally applaud Adam for trying to make a quick-flash marinade. He's been in the middle for so long and he thought "I gotta go big or I gotta go home." He tried to go big and unfortunately, he went home because of that technique. I get the idea of what he was doing, I don't doubt that it could've been successful if it were perhaps done in a different setting, with a little more control. But the flash marinade of his shrimp did not cook it as needed. It was still grey, it was still raw, and the texture of raw shrimp is not appealing. It's squeaky, it's squishy, and it becomes sort of mushy. We wanted it firm and cooked through. It's not like fish that you can eat sashimi-style Unfortunately Adam's hard work, his big risk sent him home.

I will miss him. I think he's an incredibly articulate, clever chef. I think he has an extraordinary career ahead of him. I'm excited to see him back in New York City. I can't wait to eat his food again. Also I want to say of this entire episode that was it was thrilling to see our superfans in the kitchen. We've never let people come into the kitchen in that way before, even though people ask us all the time. It brought so much good energy to have basically a live audience with us for the day. Everyone was so psyched. It was amazing to be around people who really love the show, to let them eat food from our talented chefs. SO much fun!