Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Successories for the Budding Executive Chef

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

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

Successories for the Budding Executive Chef

Hugh Acheson offers his best leadership methods to Sheldon and Kristen.

You either play Restaurant Wars with a smile on your face or fear in your eyes. This edition of the challenge is fraught with leadership pressure. On one side we have Sheldon, who seems to have a moderate amount of leadership experience while his adversary Kristen lacks in the department, but has been a key underling in a very powerful restaurant group in Boston. I think with a good array of Successories and some positive affirmation training, Kristen can be a great leader. In my mind, she’s definitely dominating the competition so far. 

An Executive Chef is the head of a kitchen, but you can lead with an iron fist, or lead through charisma and action. I suggest Sheldon take the latter course and Kristen the former, and my reasoning is thus: Sheldon has a team that will, apart from the regular shenanigans of Stefan, follow his lead. He works well with OKC, and has never rubbed Stefan the wrong way. Meanwhile Kristen, who has rubbed Stefan in the right way (ewww), has picked a brigade that may implode at any moment. Brooke is a stellar cook and leader who has opened many restaurants, experience that may clash with Kristen’s leadership. Lizzie just looks tired and over the whole thing. And then we have Josie, who has erased her name from her headband on the advice of her therapist. Kristen needs to make heads roll. It would be the best TC ever if, while playing the role of Exec Chef, someone fired the other chefs. 

Ideas get bantered around and modern Filipino is the winning concept for the International Male kitchen. It will be called Urbano and the maître d' will be Stefan. The women have a French thing going on and are practicing rolling their ‘r’s. 

Following a map to the kitchen site doesn’t steer them wrong per se, it’s just that it is only a site and the kitchen has yet to be arranged or delivered. Stefan is freaking out about that and wondering who the sadistic elf was who thought this one up. Have you noticed how Stefan always acts like he has the Executive Producers number on speed dial just in case? “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, I know what you’re up to….” No you don’t, Stefan -- go sit in the Stew Room. Really I want them to go sit in a city office for six hours waiting to talk to someone about a variance application, but that person has gone on lunch break to never return. Then, while buying coffee from a machine, your dollar won’t work right because it’s folded at the edge, but it’s your only dollar bill. Then you walk back to your car and it’s been towed. Then when you get back to your office, the liquor license application has been returned due to some tax discrepancy of $0.89 back in 2008. Then you realize you are $100,000 over budget and three months off schedule. That’s what the fun of opening restaurants really is!

They all split up and get shopping for rental décor and foodstuffs. Do they have to buy stoves? This is a quandary. Micah is not here to give raw advice should the stoves never materialize. Well, we’ll figure that out soon, but for now Josie and Brooke are the dysfunctional shopping duo looking for that special hue of napkin. It’s a napkin for Restaurant Wars… what are the chances that the judges are really going to come down to your choice of napkin color as the deciding factor in letting you go? 

Stefan is riding a cart in the flower shop and brings up his theory that everyone (I assume that means all of North America) thinks all Europeans are gay. I am sure this is a U.S. Census stat and not a crazy weird generalization. I have started reciting the “It Gets Better” speech to all Europeans just to be on the safe side. Stefan has found a giggle buddy in aisle 12 of the plant section. He woos her with his Finnish/German manliness in an effort to prove his heterosexuality in America.

Sheldon is searching for dried mung beans at Uwajimaya. With his hat and his backpack he kind of looks like a Hawaiian Where’s Waldo character, but easily found. He also kind of looks like Relic from The Beachcombers, which you will only know from watching CBC in Canada anytime from 1972 to 1990. That show seemed like it was always on. Josh is pretending to be a piece of white bread in an Asian superstore. He is not finding the tamarind in the haystack. 

We have a fancy name for the French Women’s team: Atelier Kong, or something like that. Sounds fancy. Atelier Crenn is an amazing SF restaurant that must have inspired this choice. Must have. 

I see shortribs and cheese, rabbits and a tired-looking Lizzie. Lizzie reminds us that this is tricky and it is a competition. That’s right, Lizzie -- tell us how you really feel.

Back in Stefan’s world, he is very into round tables and hates farmers. Evidently the kitchens were going to arrive without the chef’s involvement, so Micah, you can return to your day job. Josie thinks everything is Coolio and will now begin roasting things. Kristen is only kind of taking charge in this and that’s a bad omen. Executive chefs need to provide direction and those directions need to be followed. That old saying about too many cooks is oft used for a reason. You can have too many cooks, but with a chef who can command respect, confidence, and smartness, it’s not a problem.Prep day is done and they go and drink wine and eat yogurt. Yummy combination. We learn that Brooke has not abandoned her four-year-old, but that it often feels that way. Her four-year-old has sent her detailed drawings of the Atelier concept with bullet point lists of how to execute this whole operation. 

There is definitely some friction in the women’s team. Kristen is fine dining all the way while Josie is totally into the “git ‘er dun, let’s have funz” school of restaurants. Morphing the two thoughts together is going to be challenging. Josie decides that the best recourse is to tell the competing team all of the frustrations she is having. Josh sees weakness. 

Sheldon has renamed himself Captain Bonifacio and put on revolutionary war paint. He is hoping Manny Pacquiao comes to help, but Manny is so busy with his boxing/music/political career that I am doubtful. The men’s team is hoping that it doesn’t go down like Manny’s last bout where he lost miserably, not that anyone watches boxing anymore.  

This is a Menehune. It does look a lot like Sheldon.

The Atelier Kwan (not Kong) French menu consists of Lizzie’s rabbit rillettes “charcuterie plate,” Josie’s Bangin’ Bouillabaisse, Kristen’s Boeuf Bourguignon, Brooke’s cheese course, and some amuse bouche competition between macaroon, macaron, and the Macarena. 

Meanwhile the Filipino/Hawaiian fusion restaurant Urbano has Josh doing a Balut, which is like a fertilized egg plus duck confit, and a foie mousse. If you are just getting over flu-like symptoms you should not Google balut for images. Very weird. Sheldon is making Miki which is a yet-to-be-seen prawn dish. What’s the difference between prawns and shrimp you ask? Google it up and the majority seem to say that there is some difference, but are vague on specifics. You will be lulled with terms like Dendrobranchiata and Pleocyemata… With Google I have found I can learn something completely unpronounceable everyday and then forget it by the next morning. Stefan is rounding out this Filipino/Hawaiian/Oklahoman Finnish/German co-production with a Kilawen which looks like a crudo plate in any other language.  

For Josh’s eggs, they are slow-cooking them in the shell. The final temp will be 150.5 F which is about 66C. He’s using a circulator to be exact. Circulators are a mainstay in high-end kitchens, and they are like a very precise Jacuzzi that you immerse the food into, usually in a cryovac bag, but in this case just the whole eggs, shells intact. The temp is a little higher than I would cook an egg, but hey, let’s see what happens. If you want to learn cool cooking stuff like using circulators go here. Pretty awesome site. 

There will be dessert. Josh is making ice. Brooke reminds us that she is more than just a great chef. Kristen is watching over everything, but Josie is barely keeping up with her Bangin’ Bouilla. Boil boil toil and trouble. Stefan is training people and setting up. Sheldon is delegating his work to a dishwasher. This happens in real restaurants too.

It’s a frantic finish to prep time. Brooke and Stefan are trying their best to make people feel at home. The judges arrive to Atelier first. Tom, Emeril, Gail, Padma, and Danny Meyer. Nice-looking menu. 

Lizzie is making 34 plates when Kristen only needs 10. Come on now, people. You know that communication is key. The charcuterie plate is a soup? But everyone seems to adore it, so Lizzie is winning on that front. Sometimes complete reinterpretations of plates can be risky. Josie’s non-frothy soup is causing a rift in the fabric of Atelier. Lizzie calls it a “clash of styles,” which is the understatement of the year. Mixed reviews on the bouillabaisse. Some displaced Liverpudlian says that the concept is great, but the execution is off. We call all dream beautiful food, but whether you call actually do it when you have to feed the masses is the biggest reality check in the business. 

Urbano is running smooth, but Atelier is having a bumpy flight. Kristen’s shortrib is enjoyed, but lacks the Burgundy for the Bourguignon. Cheese course from Brooke results in $33,000 in dental expenses because of the toffee of pebbles. The dessert from Kristen is not loved by Gail, who secretly wants to be a light green macaron. 

Universally they loved the charcuterie soup made by Thin Lizzie. Padma calls a finish to this Atelier affair and they head to Urbano. Urbano looks like an Olive Garden after payday and is on a wait. Stefan is doing the much-debated (in hospitality circles) move of rewarding diners with liquor if they get up from their table.  

The judges finally get sat and get to watch the clusterfuck of people at the host stand to URBANo. Kilawen goes out. Stefan often makes sashimi crudo stuff so this is in his regimen. He’s good at it and it’s easy to pull off. I predict that will get called out for not thinking outside of the crudo. Balut goes out and Josh looks to have done a pretty fine job. The problem is that though these are seasoned food vets, they could have used a primer in Balut knowledge. Seems like it tasted good though. Josh is improving at a quick pace. Sheldon is running his kitchen very smoothly. Stefan is walking around like a frantic Leisure Suit Larry. Oh Miki, you're so fine, but I don’t know anything about you. Stefan is not acting like you should act if you want to impress Danny Meyer. He has checked out and is done with this drama. 

Adobo pork comes out and at least he explains this one. Tom loves it. Danny loves it. Flavor don’t lie. Dessert is coming out. Sorbet plate. It is a very continental finish for fine Filipino. Judges they likey. 

It does look like a toss-up. Urbano seems to have the edge, but the service from Stefan sucked out the wazoo. Meanwhile, the food on the Atelier side was not as good as the Urbano experience. Off to the Supreme Court of Vittledom.

Kristen explains the concept and her role. The judges explain that they wanted more of the Burgundy and that her dessert had hints of greatness, but missed the mark. Brooke gets lauded. Lizzie is tired and nervous. The judges loved her stuff. Josie tries to throw anybody she can under the bus, and Kristen weighs the least so she goes after her. Gail lays down the law and Josie smiles and starts doing a cooking demonstration for QVC… it’s what she does when she’s nervous.

Stefan does not take criticism well at all. Sheldon gets praise. His food shined. Josh can’t cook Filipino, but he can cook. His dish is loved. Urbano wins. Josie is packing up her headbands in advance of the final decision. Stefan feels lucky. 

Back and forth on the blame game. BUT this is critical: Kristen takes the blame as the executive chef. She’s a brave one. Gail puts it as falling on your own sword and she’s right. Testy times at ye olde Judges' Table. they do a tricky name call and Josie is safe. At the end of the day, Kristen goes home. It’s a sad day, but you want the leader? That’s her, leaving the stage. She says that she is proud to go preserving her integrity and grace. 


Follow me on the Twitter @HughAcheson

Editor's Note: Check out our exclusive photo feature and Q&A with Hugh where he discusses chicken wings, his favorite NYC haunts, and his style.

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!