Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Best Episode Ever

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

Best Episode Ever

Tom Colicchio liked what he saw going on behind the scenes.

"Find something you're passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it." -Julia Child

I’ll be honest: when I watch an episode the week before it airs in order to write this blog (which is when I first see the edited final product), I am usually multitasking. I was there the first time, so I know what happened; I’m watching the completed episode with one eye to see which footage was selected and how it was edited, to see how the story of that week’s Quickfire and Elimination Challenges was ultimately told.  I also see backstory elements I didn’t know about at the time the footage was shot, but, to be honest, I don’t really care about any of that.


This week, however, I found myself actually stopping whatever else I was doing to give the episode my full attention. In my humble opinion, this week’s episode was one of our best ever. Our guest judge Roy Choi’s story about being at a low point in his life and watching Emeril on television and about how that moment turned Roy’s life around was riveting. Seeing the footage of Roy telling his story with Emeril seated right next to him and watching Emeril so clearly moved (which I couldn’t really see from where I was seated at the time it occurred) is not something I will forget anytime soon.

At this stage of my life and career, it does make me smile to hear Roy say that he came to his decision to be a chef “late in life,” but, of course, given that he’s only about 30 or so, I suppose that 25 was actually “late in life.” I guess it’s all relative.

The backstories about what prompted our chefs to become chefs were compelling as well. People who have that “aha” moment early in life are lucky in the sense that they’re on track to be successful sooner than others. It is settling to know at 15 what you want to do with your life, as I did. You can go after it single-mindedly at a time in your life when it’s possible to do that; nothing gets in your way. It makes the journey that much faster and cleaner and easier.Perhaps it’s because the chefs were asked to get personal, or perhaps it’s because there were only three chefs left standing, who had all been through a lot together, but this episode was utterly devoid of all of that stupid back-biting, finger-wagging, snarky stuff that has been known to go down between chefs at times.

Instead, this episode showed the human side of what we do. Our industry is more about this than about any dog-eat-dog stuff -- it’s really about the journey chefs go on and the self-exploration they do in their attempt to put themselves into their food and to create something worth all of the effort, because what chefs do is hard. They put in a lot of hours and engage in seemingly endless repetition. For a very long time, I was in restaurants on every holiday and during every family wedding, missing every life event. Things are certainly easier for me now, but even so, the profession is not nearly as glamorous as it’s made out to be. I felt Josh’s sacrifice, being in Alaska when he ached to be with his wife at the birth of their new baby daughter. I know his two competitors did, too, and while the three never forgot that they were still competing against each other, they were very supportive of one another throughout this challenge as well. I thought this week’s episode did a great job of showing this and of featuring what motivates chefs to enter the field and to stick with it despite its formidable challenges.

And I thought the episode did a good job of highlighting the dishes that epitomized the moments that these three chefs chose their paths. In the end, we were handed an obvious and easy decision: we had one dish that was cooked without mistakes (I know that Wolfgang said his quail was a bit overcooked, but mine wasn’t), one that was slightly overseasoned, and one that was outright cooked improperly.

I cannot for the life of me understand what prompted Josh to make that foie gras torchon. I was shocked then, being there in person, and I’m shocked now, watching the episode. A foie gras torchon takes time, plain and simple: the foie gras should be soaked in milk or cold water to draw out the remaining blood. It should then be marinated for a day, then shaped and then poached. After this, it needs at least another full day, but preferably a couple of days, to ripen. I consider making a foie gras torchon a five-day process. I can see bringing that time frame down to two full days (though you’ll be sacrificing depth of flavor), but not a few hours. Josh set out to do something that he himself declared from the get-go was impossible to do, so why did he undertake it? It’s inexplicable to me. Frankly, had he simply done a beautiful sautee of foie gras with the braised pineapple and that cornmeal, and had he seasoned it all nicely, he would have been in the finale right now, because Sheldon’s overseasoned broth would have been the worse mistake. But Josh’s attempted torchon-that-could-never-be clearly beats out a slightly salty broth for Worst Mistake.

Frankly, I’m relieved that Sheldon didn’t have to be sent home, because it seems in the episode as though Sheldon got screwed up by following my advice, and I’d hate for people to mistakenly think that I’d said something that led to a chef being sent home. In actuality, I advised Sheldon not to put his fish up too early, but that should have had no bearing on his broth. I didn’t say anything about when and how to make broth, and not allowing it to reduce to the point of getting too salty is covered in Cooking 101. Also, by the way, with 20 minutes to go, Sheldon still cooked his fish too early. Luckily, it came out fine -- no comparison between his errors and Josh’s.

As I said, our decision was very easy here. And I think we’re set up for a great finale. If you haven’t already tuned in to Last Chance Kitchen, do… The winner steps out of LCK and straight into the finale.

With that, we’re off to Los Angeles.

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!