Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Last Stance Kitchen

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

Last Stance Kitchen

Tom Colicchio shares his final thoughts on each finale dish.

So there you saw it -- the two chefs left standing, cooking off in a head-to-head competition, course by course. Live. Before the judges, of course, but also before the nine previous Top Chefs, in the hopes of joining their ranks before the night was out.

I can imagine that the format of this final challenge placed new pressures on our two remaining chefs that they hadn’t had to contend with before, as they cooked in front of an audience, had to juggle speaking with the judges while overseeing the preparation of their dishes, and served the audiences (including their own families and friends, come to cheer them on), the judges and the nine Top Chefs. They also had the pressure of getting feedback on each course right on the spot, which could provide a shot of endorphins after cooking a winning course and a shot of nervous adrenaline after a loss.

Because we were giving Brooke and Kristen that immediate, individual judge-by-judge feedback, we judges did not discuss the dishes among ourselves to reach a consensus…which, in turn, means that you the viewer were not let in as much on what exactly we were tasting and what our thought processes were in the judging process as you normally are. And so here is my more in-depth assessment of the dishes placed before us:

First Course

I find it interesting that they both decided to start off with salads. Both were good dishes; Brooke’s was a more interesting dish. Its big flaw was that the ears were overdone -- they were fried too much. We thought at first that CJ was erring in how he was cooking them, but it turns out that no, this was actually how Brooke wanted them cooked. Curious. At this stage of the competition, you first look at the dishes to see if they’re even good ideas, then you look to see if the dishes were executed the way the chefs wanted them to be, and were seasoned well. If so, then you look to see whether there were flaws. Was the salad overdressed? Underdressed?  Kristen’s dish was flawless, but Brooke’s pig ears were overfried. You can see that we all thought so, which is why the course was handed to Kristen.

Second Course

Scallops. The course went to Brooke, though I myself actually preferred Kristen’s scallops, and I’ll tell you why: I think that Brooke had too much going on in her dish. The scallops themselves were beautiful -- as good as they get -- and I think that a lot of what she did distracted from that great product. Kristen, on the other hand, focused on the scallop and the beauty of the scallop, which was very lightly marinated with some acid to bring out its flavor. I would have liked the opportunity to discuss this course with the other judges to hear why they were selecting Brooke’s dish over Kristen’s -- perhaps they would have convinced me. Likewise, I would have liked the opportunity to have made my point about allowing the scallop to shine. When the dishes are both very good, as they were here, making the decision between them very close, the judging can benefit from discussion.

Third Course

I honestly don’t know what Brooke was thinking here. It was anyone’s game -- each chef had one course’s win under her belt -- and she handed this course to Kristen before she even began cooking. Why, oh, why did she choose to make fried chicken? Before you get your ire up, thinking I’m being a food snob, hear me out: as evidenced by the fact that we had pig ear’s on the premises, our chefs planned their menus well in advance and the ingredients they needed were preordered for them. Brooke didn’t decide on the spot to make that fried chicken for her third course, she planned it in advance (along with the rather uninspired sides she put with it). For the title of “Top Chef” she was tasked with planning the five very best dishes she could make, not to redeem herself from a prior challenge that took place quite a bit earlier in the season. I had little doubt going into this finale that Brooke could make good fried chicken, despite how the earlier challenge went, and I didn’t need her to prove that to me. I needed her to create for us one of the very best dishes she is capable of doing. Don’t get me wrong -- I like fried chicken. I serve it at Craftbar. But if I were going head to head in competition, I would never have made the dish Brooke made -- it was a nice little dish one might find at a bistro, a corner restaurant. You cannot win Top Chef with that dish. And as you saw in the episode, all the judges had the same view of Brooke’s choice that I did. They were all a bit mystified that Brooke was serving them the dish she placed before them, and the course went unanimously to Kristen, whose velvety bone marrow dish was complex, elevated, nuanced, and really beautifully prepared.

Fourth Course

Red Snapper two ways. Again, these were two good dishes. At this stage in the competition, it’s the tiniest of errors or gradations in quality that can make the difference between a win and a loss. For the judges, it’s also a subjective feeling, when tasting dishes side by side, about which one was fresher, in which dish were the flavors brighter? If served both in a restaurant, which would compel the taster to return? Here, Brooke’s pork cheeks were a little on the dry side, and as Kristen’s dish was perfectly executed, the slightly dry pork was enough to place the win for this course squarely in Kristen’s column. 

…which gave her win, overall.  And we never got to taste their desserts.

A word about desserts, while we’re on the subject: we are often asked why we even bother with desserts, why we are judging savory chefs on their ability to make them. I’ll acknowledge that there’s a point to this argument. But here, the assignment was simply to prepare five courses -- a dessert was not required. And yet both Kristen and Brooke planned to make a dessert as their final course. I wonder if the chefs think they’ll be marked down in some way if they don’t plan on making a dessert as their final course. They wouldn’t be. Were I competing, I would make five savory courses without giving it a second thought. I’d think it a better bet to do a savory dish unless I had a dessert up my sleeve that I knew was just spectacular… though that would be unlikely, because with a busy career as a chef, there’d be little chance to have cultivated that. 

What we didn’t get to do within this week’s format (because we weren’t discussing the food in private among ourselves) was look at the courses in relation to each other, by which I mean two things: 1) We didn’t get to take into consideration whether a chef won one course by a narrow margin while the other chef won another course by a mile; and 2) We didn’t get to look at the arc of the meals planned by each of the chef, to see how one course related to and led to the next. Overall, though, I think that Brooke’s decision to make that fried chicken course made it very difficult for her to win enough courses overall to take the title (imagine your teenager leaving an entire section blank on a test and hoping to get a higher score than a classmate who filled out all the sections), and I think that would have been the case whether we filmed the show live or not, and no matter what the judging system.

And so we began the episode with two very talented chefs facing off, and ended with one very talented new Top Chef, who had doggedly cooked her way back into the competition through Last Chance Kitchen to take the big prize. Congratulations, Kristen!

In general, I was very happy with this season. I was really pleased with the decision to focus on the food and, in general, to only present drama inherent in the kitchen, as opposed to any drama that might have been unfolding in the house. I thought that where personal stories were highlighted, they were rich and meaningful, such as the interaction that transpired between Roy and Emeril at the home of the Governor of Alaska. Lots of people have been reaching out to me to say that they really liked the season and how food-focused it was. Looking forward to more of the same in Season 11! As ever, thanks for watching and reading.

Editor's Note: Tom's new documentary, A Place at the Table, tackling the issue of hunger in America, comes out in theatres, on iTunes, and on Demand March 2nd. Find out more about the film from Tom himself HERE.


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!