Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Pressure Cooker

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

Pressure Cooker

Tom Colicchio dishes on Ted Allen's book party.

A big part of being a chef is handling pressure. Whether it's the pressure of coordinating meals perfectly for hundreds of diners each evening, pulling off an intimate dinner-party, or designing and opening a new restaurant. At the end of the day, the pressure is really about exceeding people's expectations. Always. Some cooks thrive on this, drawing fuel from a dynamic, high-stakes environment. Others fold like a beaten egg white. Or crack like a....ok, I'll stop.

Tonight's tasks were designed to see how our chefs operate under extreme pressure. The Quickfire challenge required our chefs to create a $3.00 appetizer in less than 20 minutes, from a wide array of ingredients. The pressure was on to make interesting choices and then follow through with ideas and execution. And under those circumstances, the usual candidates were the ones who shone: Stephen, Harold, Lee Anne and Tiffani.

Off-camera, I strolled through the kitchen and had a taste. Lee Anne's deep-fried oysters with lemon cream were delicious. Ditto for Harold's trevisano with gorgonzola brulee. Absolutely fantastic. Miguel's antipasto was unimpressive. Tiffani's oyster trio was simple, elegant and flavorful. Andrea's B.M.-inducing slaw wasn't anything to write home about, despite its worthy medicinal qualities. Dave's food looked like something from Bennigan's -- chicken skewers with a dipping sauce...ho hum.

And then there was Stephen... As I watch him work, I can see that he is mimicking the pioneers of avant-garde cooking; Like Pierre Gagnier - a genius who wrote the book on atypical plating - his dishes are filled with shocks of food, playful squiggles of sauce, and beautiful use of white space. Or Wylie Dufresne, who has made his name experimenting with texture and far-out flavor combinations on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Stephen isn't reinventing the wheel here; he's copying some of the greats. And in doing so, he's certainly separating himself from the pack, which is important in a competition. Ted Allen was clearly impressed by Stephen's daring presentation, and awarded him immunity. But to my thinking, while an avant-garde presentation can be cool, without mind-blowing flavor, it leaves me cold. I felt that Stephen's morsels of baby manila clams with sea beans were tasty enough, but not Delicious (Capital D). The presentation would have worked at Ferran Andria's famous El Bulli, in the hills north of Barcelona, where a typical 20-course tasting menu demands that each course be just that - a taste. But as a stand-alone wasn't my cup of tea.

That said, giving Stephen immunity did make for an interesting situation in our Elimination Challenge, which had our chefs prepare a multi-course dinner party in honor of Ted's upcoming book release. Tiffani wisely suggested that Stephen take responsibility for dessert because all of the chefs feel weakest in pastry, and he had the least to lose. I guess my presence in the kitchen was the inspiration Stephen needed to agree. He looked like a deer caught in the headlights, but he went ahead with it and acted like a team player. A bit of history: I met Ted Allen about four years ago at my own book party, so it was a thrill to help him with the debut of his own new book, The Food You Want to Eat. And despite my disagreement with his choice of Stephen in the Immunity Challenge, I'm a fan of him and his show. (OK...I've never watched his show. My wife made me write that.) But he was a fun and engaging guy, and it was great to have him on the panel with us.

But let's get back to the show's theme - pressure. I've been asked to prepare many dinners for guests' landmark events - marriage proposals, anniversaries, etc. It's flattering, but unnerving -- you aren't just making a're creating a memory. If anything goes wrong, the guest of honor will never just chalk it up to an 'off night.' Since professional chefs face that kind of pressure daily, we wanted our chefs to experience it for themselves. All the chefs were responsible for the ingredients of 'their' dish, and you could see their excitement at finally getting a chance to shine in their area of strength - even Stephen, who committed fully to his chocolate course.

Of course, the knife block changed all that.

When the chefs learned they would be preparing someone else's dish, you could feel the hostility and dismay coming off them in waves. I understood why - they had invested so much of themselves in the planning of their dishes. But I also feel that this was a real opportunity to assess the caliber of our players - talented chefs grow more creative in the face of adversity, not less. And while a real chef may not be happy about being thrown a curveball, they sure as hell can't have a meltdown because an entire kitchen is looking to them to figure it out.

Enter Miguel. He was reassigned Lee Anne's cheese course of fourme d'ambert, a creamy, dense cow's milk blue cheese, with a bright counterpoint of beet sorbet. In the bustle of his station, he accidentally dumped salt in the beet puree instead of sugar. Oops. First of all, this mistake tells me he must have picked up a cup of salt and dumped it into the saucepan, rather than using his hands. To an experienced cook, the difference between the feel of salt and the feel of sugar is palpable. Everyone has grabbed salt accidentally for sugar at one point or another, but if you're using all your senses, including touch, it's easy to stop yourself in time. (And before people start demanding I bring back Ken - it is appropriate, essential even, to use your hands during the cooking process. But hand to mouth and back again - not ok.) Faced with this mishap, Miguel started to unravel. He lacked the ability to regroup and assess.

Andrea, characteristically, stepped in to help, but Miguel's disorganized thinking and panicked response showed him to be a potential liability one day in his own kitchen. I was also underwhelmed by Miguel's inability to learn the name of his cheese - it was the central ingredient in the dish! Nerves or no nerves, I feel a Chef should be knowledgeable about the food he is serving.

Despite her kindness, I also had a problem with Andrea's performance. She complained that latkes "aren't my scene" because she likes to make healthy food - but what is inherently unhealthy about potatoes, smoked scallops and caviar? If frying pancakes was her issue, Andrea could have found a way to interpret the ingredients according to her own taste and inclination. For example, she could have cooked the potatoes with a small amount of broth or water, sea salt and fresh herbs to make a chunky soup - a modern take on vicchysois - folded in the scallops and finished the dish with a dollop of creme fraiche and caviar, for a healthy twist on the ingredients she inherited. Instead, resigned to Miguel's vision, she served a lackluster dish of cold potato latkes piled with scallops and caviar.

Dave's John Dory poached in Court Bouillon (a classic fish poaching broth made from water, vegetables and vinegar) wasn't terrible but it tasted as though all the components had been cooked separately -- they never coalesced into a real dish.

Ted felt Dave was so preoccupied with respecting Andrea's original vision that he failed to inject any of himself into his work. This is characteristic of Dave's caring nature, but his lack of solid technique and his emotional wobbliness could definitely undercut his chance at winning. I've yet to meet the guests willing to pay good money to help a chef through his personal issues. Sorry, really is about the food.

The chefs with the most experience handled the challenge calmly and found a way to make it their own. Lee Anne was a case in point: She took Tiffani's concept of duck, gnocchi and figs and ran with it: She roasted the breast, made a confit of the leg (confit is the French term for 'preserve' - here a duck leg is cured in a combination of salt and duck fat) and served them with fig compote-stuffed gnocchi. The dish was decadent but nicely balanced. Even though Tiffani's concept wasn't really Lee Anne's style, she had the technique and versatility to pull it off.

Tiffani also put her unique, confident stamp on Harold's beef dish by introducing flavorful fois gras fat into the bordelaise sauce rather than the typical bone marrow. The dish, "Beef a la Harold" was delicious and well executed.

I was impressed with Stephen's decision to team up with Harold on their two dishes. Since he had immunity, and Harold poses a real threat to him winning, Stephen could have left Harold to struggle alone through the complicated dessert course. But Stephen's own pride wouldn't allow him to abandon his idea, so the two worked together and emerged with not one, but two great dishes. Gail felt that Harold's chocolate creme was too rich, but I was impressed that he tackled a dish with a high degree of difficulty, despite a lack of dessert training, rather than opting to create a less-risky chocolate preparation.

The dinner party came off well and Ted was pleased. But it was clear to us that certain dishes were inspired - excellent even. Others weren't. And we caught a whiff of the dynamics in the kitchen. When it came time to judge, Ted took Andrea to task for letting her philosophy of food override her ability to wow people, which is what a chef needs to do. And we came down hard on Miguel for letting his nerves get a hold of him; his lack of composure could have potentially derailed the entire meal.

Part of being a chef is accepting that sometimes you have to fire people, often for the greater good of the organization. Is it more important to be liked or to be great? We all try for both, but it isn't always possible. That's why I put the question of who should go home to Tiffani, Lee Anne, and Stephen - I wanted to see how they would decide if this meal had come from their own kitchen. Lee Anne tried to stick up for Miguel (while not denying his meltdown). Tiffani was clear that he should go - but there's been some bad blood between them for a while. Stephen made the point that Miguel may have messed this challenge up, but overall he is stronger than some others in the group.

At the end of the day we made our decision not according to kitchen heroics or hysterics, but by the food. Despite Miguel's panic, he turned out a decent, if uninspired, dish. Andrea, on the other hand, failed to execute hers well and lacked the ideas and technique to turn it into something special. In short, she had 'checked out' and it showed. When the cameras were off, Andrea confessed that she hadn't come to Top Chef to win, but rather to make an impact on how people eat. My answer to her was: if you hadn't won an immunity challenge and stepped up your game to get to this point, how much of an impact could you have ultimately hoped to make? Winning - ambition - isn't such a bad thing when you have a message to convey. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe she's just too darn nice, but Andrea just didn't want it badly enough.

And for the record - I ran into Miguel recently here in New York City and guess what? He remembered the name of the cheese.

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!