Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Totsiens, Lizzie

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

Totsiens, Lizzie

Gail Simmons explains her disappointment over Lizzie's elimination. So, now we’re in Alaska.
Gail Simmons: Alaska, wow. Alaska blew my mind. It was one of the most beautiful, lonely places I have ever been. I’m from Canada, so that’s saying a lot in terms of arctic tundra. Let me just say, a lot of crazy stuff went down for all of us in Alaska. We have Sean Brock as guest judge.
GS: Yes, I’m a huge Sean Brock fan. He’s such a talent. He’s a really loyal Southern boy who was brought to the most northern point of the United States.

Anyway, I loved the first challenge; we ate lunch at that crab shack there every single day. There are only a few places we could really eat in Juneau; we ate breakfast at a diner, lunch at the crab shack, and dinner at our hotel every day. The whole crew. We ate so much Alaskan King crab. And you just can’t get it in the rest of the country the way you get it there. I thought all four chefs did really outstanding job in the  Quickfire; they were creative, it was beautiful, and I’m sure it was hard for Sean to choose. Moving on to the Elimination Challenge: Salmon and Sourdough!
GS: The day before this challenge, Emeril, Hugh, Tom, and I went fishing, and it was on a salmon run and it was spawning season, but we weren’t fishing for salmon. It was this amazing river, and it really was one of the most beautiful days I’ve ever spent on Top Chef. Tom caught a lot of fish, just for the record. And the girl of the group caught almost more fish than anyone else. Apparently in fly fishing, women are better at it than men because they have a more gentle wrist because they’re not used to throwing footballs. I had a nice fish-catching day.

As for the sourdough, they had a 30-year-old starter, and I think they did a really good job  with the sourdough. It is not necessarily the most challenging bread, but making any bread is difficult because it’s dependent on the humidity and the temperature and the pan that you’re making it in. I think that they all actually did a pretty good job with their bread. This is the first time I can ever remember that we’ve asked the chefs to make bread. Besides just on the show, and it really is kind of treacherous. Making bread can be very therapeutic. Meanwhile, Josh's wife is almost ready to give birth, which made me so nervous the whole time. I can’t imagine how anxious he was and the stress he was under, and the thoughts that were racing through his mind, not being able to be with his wife. But, he was doing it for the cause. Let’s start with Josh’s dish, the Roasted Garlic Sourdough Soup with Sockeye Salmon & Black Olive Croutons.
GS: I remember thinking that the idea for the soup was perfectly wonderful, especially for the cold weather. I also have a very distinct memory of the dish being very garlic-y. If you put garlic in soup, that’s OK, but when you’re mixing it with something as fatty as salmon, it gets very aggressive and tends to overpower the rest of the dish. The black olive croutons were wonderful because they gave the dish a little texture, which balanced out the fat really nicely. It was a rustic dish, a dish to curl up with on cold nights with a fire. Josh’s cooking is very direct, which I like, but when you’re balancing soup with salmon, you need to really pull back and sort of restrain. Sheldon's bread didn't seem to work, and he got comments about the smokiness of his salmon.
GS: I really admire Sheldon for taking two ingredients that are so far from the ingredients that he usually works with and trying to infuse his own style and personality into them. Adding the matcha, too, was a valiant effort. I totally get what Sheldon was trying to do. That tea was already very tannic, and so it was too sour with the sourdough bread. I just think they didn’t really play well together. I just want to say, of all the breads, it was made very well, but the matcha wasn't a necessary choice.

We also gave Sheldon a hard time for using chum, because as we said over and over again, chum is what you feed the dog. But, you know what?! Lobster was something that they fed the dog for many, many years, until we discovered that it tastes good too. The type of salmon didn’t bother me. The smokiness really went well with the green tea and the salmon; it was really bright and fresh, and because it was warm, it felt appropriate. And the soup was so smooth and bright green and beautiful. Delightful overall. I really enjoyed eating that dish. And Brooke won with her Sockeye Salmon & Seafood Broth with Mustard Seed Caviar & Dill Sourdough.
GS: Whereas the matcha was a clash with the sourdough, using dill with the sourdough really enhanced it. I love dill and it really goes well with salmon, especially with that little hint of savoriness that the dill added. And her dish was just technically so finessed. The mustard  seed with salmon, obviously… the broth took a lot of time to reduce, and there was a lot of flavor in that broth. There were just a lot of beautiful little touches and detail in her dish, and I think she was nervous because Tom gave her a hard time. There was nothing we could say about Brooke’s dish that wasn’t complimentary because she did a really terrific job. For bread and for salmon, she nailed the challenge. And poor Lizzie went home.
GS: Lizzie! Oh, Lizzie. I think I cried three times, watching this. I have so enjoyed having her on the show with us, and she’s such a talented cook. She reminded me of Tiffany Derry or Carla Hall in that people underestimated her and she didn’t make a lot of noise with her food. Everything she cooked this season, she was never the boldest or the most outlandish or even the most creative, but her food was always so thoughtful and just the kind of food that I would be happy to eat all the time. It was delicious, it was heated well, she has clearly a lot of talent. But with this dish, she made some errors. Her bread was the best bread we ate all day, quite frankly. The problem was that the rolls were so large in proportion to the salmon that you just lost the salmon, and it just became kind of a salmon sandwich, and at the end of the game we were expecting more from her, first of all. And second of all, we didn’t get enough flavor. When she explained the dish to us, the citrus and the beets are great complements to salmon, but she glazed the salmon, and she should have marinated it to really infuse the flavors, and so it was just glazed at the end of the cook time and then put it on a very large roll that was very bready, it just sort of got lost. It was a great idea, but we just needed more flavor and more ambition. Very, very sad to see her go, and she will be missed. And to her I say Totsiens, which is Afrikaans word for "good-bye" and "see you later."


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!