Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Last Stance Kitchen

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

Fin, Found, Floundering

What Danny Meyer Taught Gail Simmons

'Top Chef' Goes to Hog Heaven

Gris Gris Boucherie Ya Ya

Brian and Travis' Dud Spuds

And Don't Call Me Shirley

Gloopy, Soupy, and Radish Dresses!

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: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Gail can't believe that Keriann wouldn't have shown her teammates how she wanted her dish executed. This week was Restaurant Wars!
GS: Restaurant Wars is always an exciting episode because it’s so hard to do what we are asking of chefs to do. Opening a restaurant is truly so difficult, on a good day if you’re dealing with people you love and work with all the time, let alone with three people you’re competing against and have never worked with in this way before. You don’t really know their strengths and weaknesses, and this is where that it all comes out. So looking first at the Grey Team, Melissa, Doug, Mei, Adam
GS: I knew it was a strong team from the start, but we’ve had plenty of strong teams that have failed in the past. You never know until you sit down at that table to eat their meal. I could tell that they were all serious and they have all performed pretty well up to this point though. Although the other team was stacked too, with Gregory who's won a lot and Katsuji who was coming off his win in the Thanksgiving challenge. Keriann and Katie have made some great dishes too. It was anyone’s game.

I think it was smart of the Grey Team to chose Adam as their front of the house man. He’s gregarious, he’s affable, he is a great storyteller, a great talker, and he has a sense of urgency and confidence. Sometimes he can be over-confident maybe, but I think you want someone working front of house who’s willing to take on that risk. Plus he’s done it before. He understands the importance of that role.

Putting Keriann in the front of the house could have been a good move too. She’s certainly a lovely person. She’s well-spoken and definitely wanted to take on the challenge. I just wasn’t sure if they put her out front because they didn’t want her in the kitchen or because they really thought she’d be good for that role. Either way, that’s the way the cards fell. Katie taking on the chef position I thought was a real risk -- she doesn’t run a kitchen day-to-day. I was proud of her for wanting to do it, maybe because she runs pop-ups, she knows how to do something really quickly like this and that experience could come in handy. The other team chose Doug as their chef, who also doesn’t run a restaurant every single day; he is a sous chef. But you can tell he has that drive and understanding of service, he expedites every day in his restaurant and that’s a really huge piece of how a good restaurant runs. It seemed like everyone knew their roles and everyone was happy at the start. They weren’t forced into anything.

I actually liked both restaurant concepts in theory. "Four Pigs" was family style, rustic, comforting, American, bold flavors, relaxed environment. I think that suited who they were, and I think they did a great job. The concept of "Magellan" was a really great idea too. Magellan being an explorer, the spice route, all of the dishes having complex spice elements. The issue you run into with that concept though is that if it’s too loose, everyone is literally all over the map (pun intended). So even though the idea’s inspiration is exploration, when you as the customer sit down and eat that meal, do you really want to be eating things from all over the map? Do they go together? Sometimes the chefs get carried away by the idea of that exploration, and forget that a meal still has to feel cohesive. I don’t know who would want to be eating seven different cuisines all at one table. There needs to be a common thread between them more than just that they all have spice. All spices don’t taste good when they’re combined. I think that’s the first issue this team had. They were all making their own dishes and not really discussing how those dishes would talk to each other when they were actually put on people’s plates. So, let’s start with the dishes from the Grey Team.
GS: The Grey Team started with Adam’s salt-baked clams with ramps, bacon and sunflower seeds. Very seasonal (we filmed this in the spring), very New England. I love clams from that part of the country. We saw that he got in a little hot water when he lost his first set of clam shells, but he was able to completely bounce back. The dish was tasty, it was a perfect starter, a savory little bite. And you were really able to taste all of those flavors without overshadowing the clam itself, which with ramps and bacon is a hard thing to do.

Mei’s chicken liver toast with plum puree was also delicious. The plums cut through the fat in the chicken liver which I loved. It was a little bit too wet though, so the chicken liver dripped and was a little bit looser than what I wanted. I like it to be just a little thicker so there’s a more texture to it, and also so it doesn’t drip all over your hand. It did remind us of a very sophisticated peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was salty and tart, and had just enough richness from that liver to satisfy you but not fill you up. Beautifully presented.

We all loved Doug’s braised pork shoulder. The baked beans, onion, and mustard went so well together. The mustard lightened up the dish and the pickled onions of course did too. It was a homey, comforting dish. The pork shoulder just melted in your mouth. I wish I had a bowl of it right now actually.

Melissa’s scallop was probably the weakest dish on that team. By no means does that mean it was awful. It was a lovely idea, light and fresh. Scallops and grapefruit and radish are a perfect combination. It felt a little bit more like an appetizer salad though than a main course. Her scallops were on the salty side and a little bit overcooked too. We wanted them a bit softer, a little more rare in the center. It was a really nice dish, but compared to the other dishes on her team, it felt a simple and slightly out of place. Everything else had a soulfulness to it and this seemed to be sort of off in the corner, but I was still happy to eat it.

Mei's brussels sprouts was their side dish and they were also really tasty. Brussels sprouts and anchovies go surprisingly well together! But they was over-dressed and the brussels were a little overcooked. They just needed to be toned down. I can remember when we were finished eating them, there was a pool of vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl. If she had been a little more light-handed on the vinaigrette when she tossed it, it probably would have been a better dish.

Melissa’s dessert was very well-made -- apples, mixed-berries, cardamom cream, a classic fruit cobbler. I just wish she had done something a little more interesting. Berry cobbler is something anyone can make at home. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a good dish. You’re a professional chef though, and this is Top Chef so if you’re going to give me a cobbler, show me cobbler in a way I haven’t seen before. Whether that’s a special biscuit on top or a combination of flavors of fruits, or a presentation I haven’t seen. In every way this cobbler was basic. I enjoyed eating it, it just was a little boring. And then Magellan…
GS: Oh Magellan. We all were really excited when Katie’s roasted beets came to the table. It sounded fantastic. But she made the dish in a composed way, meaning that the beets were on one side, the curry was just underneath. Everything was separate, so it was very difficult to taste all together. Her flaw was that there wasn’t a conversation going on between all of the components in the dish. She left the beets completely dry on the side of the plate, but she had this beautiful curry and this coconut and this pickled cauliflower, she could have dressed them wonderfully, had she mixed them up, had she presented the dish in a different way. It really shows you that ingredients are only one piece of the puzzle. You can have five different beautiful ingredients, but unless you put the dish together in a way that highlights them, it falls flat.

Katsuji’s hamachi sashimi was totally fine. The hamachi was very big and cut in a bit of a ragged way. I wish they had been smaller or more smoothly cut, so that they weren’t as messy to eat and a little more refined. But the dish itself was perfectly well made. I liked his dried pozole too; I thought it was very interesting. A little odd, a little out there, but I applaud Katsuji for pushing boundaries of what we think of as pozole with it.

Gregory also made two dishes. His seared haddock was my favorite dish of the night. The fish was great, the tomato was flavorful. I thought the dish came together nicely, it was cohesive. I liked the garam masala. Although he could have probably simplified a little bit. His pork tenderloin was perfectly cooked too, it sounded so rich and delicious in its description, but was a little disappointing to eat because it was a little less flavorful than I expected with all of those components. Like Katie, he also separated out all of the ingredients. I was hoping to get a dish that was really bold in these Chinese flavors, the hosin and the XO sauce. I wanted it all to be mixed in a way that every bite had all of those tastes and it wasn't.

And then there was our dessert, Keriann’s vanilla crepe. I’m still totally confused as to how she wanted it. She wanted it room temperature, she wanted that mousse to be stiff and hard, not spreadable? I can’t understand how it would’ve been served that way and been successful either. But I do know that the way it was served definitely didn’t work. As much as I’m sure she was devastated by the way her team chose to change her dish, and especially that they didn’t tell her before they did so, I still think it would not have been a successful dish had she served it her way either. I’m just totally baffled by how it was supposed to be, and how she didn’t notice until the second half of service that it was being served in a different way. What I especially don’t understand is how she didn’t plate one for them first. If she had just plated a full dish, showed it to all of them and they all tasted it before she went out to service, they all would’ve known exactly how she wanted it and would’ve done it that way. How do you create a dish and leave people to execute it but not show them how it’s supposed to be? That’s why we decided Keriann had to be the one to be eliminated. There were a lot of problems with service at Magellan. Clearly, customers weren’t getting dishes, or they were getting dishes twice. No one knew where anything was, it was impossible to get water or a server. It was impossible to find Keriann. She put food down and then walked away without explaining it. There were so many times when we were completely thrown off by the service. And, in addition to all this, her dish didn’t make sense -- not only because of how Katie and Katsuji changed it, but in her vision in the first place. Keriann worked hard, she pushed herself, I’m proud of her. I think she’s a strong person, a good cook and will have a successful. I just don’t think this was her day.

Next episode: the judges hit Whole Foods!

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