Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Hugh Gets Mushy

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

Hugh Gets Mushy

Hugh Acheson loves hearing fellow chefs share their culinary stories.

They wake up and talk about running, which is much easier than actually running. I find I talk about working out much more than I actually do it. Josh jokes that he signed up for the 5K but the season has evolved into a marathon. I saw Josh this past week and he looks like a new man with a super sweet and angelic baby girl in tow. Since that porcine-loving chef sat on that Juneau loveseat with the Mehenune, he has lost about 35 pounds.

In the episode at hand that cutie was still in the “on-the-way” stage, or at least for half of the episode she was… midway through, baby Georgia decided to make her debut. Sometimes TV just makes itself.  

Camry time to the highway helipad. Brooke has many fears but most of those fears pale in comparison to helicopters. Bravely, she’s going to face that fear as well. She straps into her seatbelt and clings onto Sheldon and Josh for dear life. They are her floaties. 

Golly, what a view. Unbelievable. Alaska really is bucket list material. 

Sheldon sees dogs and tundra and obviously wants to smoke a huge blunt. I think Sheldon has three degrees of separation from weed. I do not know the medicinal laws in Alaska but I would not recommend hampering advancement by getting a possession charge so close to the finale. 

They jump on the sleds pulled by some beautiful huskies and end up in front of Tom and Padma on a glacier. It’s a training camp for the Iditarod and the chefs will have to cook for the staff of the camp. They trudge through the snow and end up cooking in a tent. Halibut is happening for Brooke and Sheldon and obviously Josh is making breakfast, but he is concerned about time and scrambles the eggs instead of frying them. When problems arise, Josh scrambles. We saw that with the scallops on the big boat. Brooke makes a pan-roasted halibut with panzanella, beet vinaigrette, and red currant. When Brooke thinks up a dish, beet is usually involved, a decidedly Californian reaction to menu writing. She seems to have had some issues with the stoves and the heat really wasn’t enough to give that halibut a nice golden sear. It looks pretty good though, for dog camp vittles. 

Josh has Waffle Housed a cornmeal cake with scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and bacon, because nothing is ever complete without bacon. Arugula and stuff is on the plate as well. Tom seems to have an unidentified issue with the scrambled eggs but fails to explain his disdain. The staff does like the “big, hearty camp food” and confess to knowing absolutely nothing about fancy food not served under the natural glory of the Aurora Borealis, companioned by stunning huskies while sitting on a glacier. Hell, a PB&J sandwich would taste good with that backdrop. 

Sheldon whips up a peppery halibut with tomato sauce, sesame bok choy, and some radish. Tom likes the halibut cookery but says his sauce is too salty. Jeremiah, musher No. 4, loves this dish and does his best Jeff Spicoli impression. He and Sheldon disappear for 10 minutes to evaluate their chronic problems. Jeremiah is a winner of the Junior Iditarod which means he can pretty much do anything he wants to, cause that’s completely badass. 

In Quickfire deliberation, Tom clarifies that Josh’s scrambled eggs were pretty lousy and not whisked enough to blend the whites and the yolks. Tom does love Sheldon’s halibut, but the whole plate was not very exciting, and the win goes to Brooke, who impresses everyone with her crunchy crouton panzanella. I adore panzanella and you should too. It is so easy to make and makes for an awesome staple to in your culinary arsenal. Just make sure that vinaigrette is made with good red wine vinegar and that the bread is top-quality stuff, stunningly toasted. The recipe in the original Rogers and Gray Italian Country Cooking is probably the best primer on the whole idea of panzanella. That’s a fantastic book that everyone should own. 

Brooke is on a role. Babies are being born. Padma is going to heli-ride with the chefs to a Toyota rendezvous and then take the wheel herself to chauffeur the chefs to their lair of isolation. Padma driving makes Sheldon nervous. I would be freaking out. They get to the Al Jourgensen Inn, a ministry-inspired resort. 

Roy Choi and Emeril are cooking vittles for lunchtime. This should happen every day. I should walk up to a Kogi truck and Emeril should be making my lunch. Make it so, Roy. I went to A-Frame recently in L.A., and it was so great. Totally chill place that is very sure of what it’s doing. Fun was had. Roy handles rice with palpable reverence and respect. At the same time that I enjoy making fun of food and my industry I also adore people like Roy who speak so beautifully and authentically about their craft and what food means to them.  I can’t think of a more interesting meal than Emeril and Roy cooking up comfort food for lunch and then talking about their life experiences. Roy lets loose and shows how food really saved him. I can listen endlessly to the stories of chefs' lives, their businesses, their philosophy, their worries, and fears. I think listening to a multitude of chefs' stories has taught me a lot about life and empathy. It is a beautiful thing to me to hear how much Emeril has meant to so many chefs. The man is a legend. 

Short ribs and sugar-free cornbread are the menu for the lunch. I’d eat that. We learn that Sheldon moved up from dishwasher, just like myself, and countless others. You see it all when you start in the dish pit, and that vantage is so critical to understanding the entirety of the industry. 

The Elimination Challenge is clarified: they have to make a dish that represents the moment they decided to be chefs. The meal will be at the Governor’s Mansion with the big G and the First Lady in the house! From the top floor of the mansion you can see Russia and other looming threats to Alaskan security, like otters and Canada. 

Josh’s wife is having that baby whether he is there or not. Obviously he is pretty scattered. Brooke, who is not having a baby right now, is also scattered and can’t decide what to do. Snapper, foie, and many other things flash through the prep kitchen. Tom wanders through and interrogates the chefs, while taking credit for all foie gras recipes ever created. 

We see pictures of baby Georgia on Skype. Awesome. Very cute. Congrats, Josh. 

Sheldon is hearing voices in his head whispering about fish cookery. This is usually the first sign of going completely insane, or being near the end of a Top Chef season. The stress kind of gets to you. The Guv welcomes the whole gang and Tom cracks self-deprecating bald eagle jokes. I am not concerned as to why I am the only judge not there. Will not take this personally. I am crying on the inside. 

Sheldon makes a salty spot prawn and rockfish bowl. It is an ode to Sam Choi, but also an ode to the salty sea, and Sheldon knows he’s flubbed it. In a brief interlude, Wolfgang and Tom become guidance counselors and explain how they became titans of the industry through either listening to or ignoring their father’s advice. 

Brooke has made a duo of fowl: chicken and quail. It’s a comfortable dish which is really what Brooke specialize in. Wolfgang is making a move on Brooke’s mom through this dish. Roy likes the prodigal chicken plate from Brooke.Josh is making foie, because these things have yet to be outlawed in Alaska. Yo, Elves, what is this Russian disco music in the background during Josh’s explanation? The trio is pretty well-received, but the Guv wants something to chew on. He’s a tough-as-nails politician and wants some rawhide, you know? Grrr. 

Deliberation is interesting, with Josh telling the world that he is going “balls to the walls.' You go. Roy agrees. They all seem to like the foie plate overall, but it’s busy and Tom takes offense at this torchon-in-an-hour thing. Torchon of foie gras is named after the term for a kitchen towel in France. Used to be that they would clean the foie of the veins, shape the foie in a towel by twisting the ends until a cylinder is formed, and then you would cure the foie in salt for about a day, and then poach it very briefly to finish. It’s a three-day process. It’s yummy, but what Josh made is some distant cousin you pretend is not part of the family. 

Brooke confesses to having no idea what she was doing today. She says she was lost in the poultry aisle, passed out, and woke up with a bunch of birds in her pockets. These types of things happen in Juneau. The funny thing is that a Brooke with no plan is probably the strongest chef here, mostly when Sheldon stumbles. 

Sheldon gets lauded for cooking the fish and prawn perfectly and then gets whacked for making the salt lick broth that made the whole dish wallow. You have to taste your food before you serve i,t but more important than that, you need to taste it early enough to where you have time to do something about it! Luckily everyone seems to be in happy places and the judges take it easy on them. Brooke wins. 

Josh goes back to be united with baby Georgia and the rest of his growing family. Josh is a hardworking chef who has learned a lot in this season. He’ll be a better chef for it, and I wish him the best in all things. Godspeed to the Breakfast Master. 

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!