Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

'wich One Will Go?

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

'wich One Will Go?

Tom Colicchio on the first Restaurant Wars and what makes a great sandwich.

This week's Quickfire Challenge - creating the perfect sandwich - was one near to my heart. A bit of history - after opening Craft in March of 2001, I found myself walking a groove in the pavement between the new restaurant and Gramercy Tavern, my first Flatiron eatery, around the corner. I made the trip five or six times a day, and each time would pass a generic New York City deli that offered everything from baby aspirin to exotic flowers, but not the one thing I craved - a great sandwich. Now you're thinking, 'You own a restaurant, dude; go into the kitchen and make your own damn sandwich.' Easier said than done - the kitchens at Gramercy Tavern and Craft run like their own ecosystems; disturb one area, and you throw another one out of whack. Helping myself to a cook's carefully prepped stash of ingredients - known as their 'mise-en-place' - would show disregard for the hours of hard work that went into setting it up. So I decided to open a place that offered the same great, artisan ingredients as Craft, and the same attention to detail and flavor, between two pieces of bread. My wife came up with the name 'wichCraft (she's kind of brilliant) and a sandwich shop was born. I worked closely with Sisha Ortuzar, my partner at 'wichCraft, to come up with truly great sandwiches.

We wanted them to offer a balance of flavors - salt and a hint of sweet, richness balanced with a tang of acid or astringency (think pickles). The bread had to be fresh and delicious. And the sandwiches had to be ready fast (NOT pre-made) and be easily portable. I think we accomplished this and the reaction here in New York City and elsewhere confirmed for me that loads of people crave a really great sandwich. So back to the sandwich challenge...when I offered to add the winning sandwich to the 'wichCraft menu, I wasn't taking it lightly. All of the sandwiches, with the exception of Stephen's, were pretty darn good. But the flavors on Miguel's deconstructed falafel truly sang. And I was happy to see a non-meat sandwich, something I'm always looking to add to 'wichCraft's menu. But where was the bread? Miguel...this was a sandwich challenge! I refuse, as a matter of principal, to eat a sandwich with a fork. For this reason alone Miguel didn't win, and I awarded the Quickfire to Harold's mortadella with grapes, roasted peppers and sunchoke mayo instead.

The Elimination Challenge demanded that our chefs divide into teams to create their own restaurant - from concept, to decor, to menu and service. Tiffani, on a team with Dave and Harold, immediately put her concerns out there - clearly directed towards Dave - that it was important to stay professional and not take comments personally. Needless to say, as Tiffani shot down each of his ideas, Dave took it personally. Eventually Dave was relegated to the front-of-the-house of their restaurant, American Workshop, where his caring, but hovering style, could take flight. Lee Anne and Stephen opted for a restaurant called Sabor, which celebrated Spanish cuisine - a nod towards restaurants in Spain like El Bulli, known for their groundbreaking modernism. Stephen has demonstrated his enthusiasm for El Bulli's artistic plating and conceptual use of ingredients in past challenges. But more importantly, Lee Anne has eaten in Spain - thus anchoring the team in a place of first-hand knowledge, rather than second-hand worship. Miguel demonstrated his limited culinary background - he was unfamiliar with Spanish cuisine (in his native New York City, "Spanish" food can mean generic pan-Latin - rice & beans, etc.). As a result, Miguel took a backseat to his teammates and became the team's workhorse, rather than its innovator. Not that that wasn't important. As Stephen disappeared into time-consuming and expensive flights of fancy assembling front-of-the-house details, he made himself completely unavailable to his teammates, leaving Lee Anne to shoulder the bulk of Sabor's menu with only Miguel to back her up. I found it interesting that on both teams, the women fell naturally into the leadership roles, and the men humbly followed - interesting, but not surprising. Years ago, a team of French chefs from a famous Paris restaurant came to cook in my kitchen at Gramercy Tavern. They scoffed openly at the number of women they saw there. I said nothing - I didn't need to. By the end of their tenure the French cooks respectfully acknowledged the women as peers. The women cooks I have met match any man for their work ethic and professionalism and - most importantly - always put ego aside to help one another.

At American Workshop, Harold played it safe. He never rocked the boat, nor did he put his own ideas or personal stamp on his team's work. But his superior kitchen skills helped Tiffani pull off her cherished concept of American classics. Miguel, on the other hand, was a liability to Lee Anne - making amateurish blunders like misreading the price of the fish by $10 a pound! A restaurant is a business, and regular missteps like that can derail the bottom line, swiftly bring it down. Miguel also neglected to have the fish scaled by the fishmonger (Fish Prep 101) making more work for Lee Anne, and impacting the final dish. Once guests had arrived, Stephen launched into his favorite role - teacher. While not a bad guy, Stephen seems to lack a crucial empathy gene; since he is fascinated by the esoterics of wine, he assumes everyone else should be too. In my restaurants I instruct the servers (most of whom rival Stephen in terms of knowledge) to forego teaching - unless the guest asks. At that point, the diner has signaled they're OK with it. In all things relating to service, a good host should intuit the guests' expectations, and let them lead the way. Stephen became entrenched in his teaching role and therefore couldn't help his teammates. As diners at Sabor, we found ourselves growing antsy and bored between courses. And when the dishes arrived - while some were delicious - the scales on the fish were off-putting, and detracted from the overall professionalism of the restaurant. I didn't consider Tiffani's American Workshop idea to be particularly original - American comfort food has been a mainstay of the dining scene for some time - but I liked her teams' communal tables and foray into family-style service, which I felt dovetailed nicely with the cuisine. Unfortunately, Tiffani, Harold and Dave dropped the homey concept midway through the meal, suddenly serving the chicken and desserts individually, which made no sense. That said, Dave's friendly front-of-the-house approach in the dining room trumped Stephen's pedantic style. Guests found Dave warm and caring and gave the team high marks. While I didn't necessarily agree that they were the better restaurant overall, the challenge went to American Workshop, over Sabor, due to this crucial element. This really illustrates something successful restaurateurs know - great service leaves more of a lasting impression than almost anything. So why didn't we let Stephen go over Miguel? Because love him or hate him, Stephen took initiative in creating something and followed through with conviction. Miguel, on the other hand, took a backseat to his teammates, and never pushed for a concept where he could shine.

As I said at the Judge's table - we're not awarding points for top sous-chef, which is the role Miguel played. While Harold may have done the same, he did so without making blunders that could have derailed his team. I think Miguel will go far. His effervescent personality, his deep passion for food and his real desire to make people happy should serve him well in this business. Miguel was a blast to have around -- a sweet, open-hearted guy who has achieved a lot, even without the benefit of a lofty education. When Chunk Le Funk left the building, we were all sad to see him go.

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!