Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Staying Well While Eating Well

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

Staying Well While Eating Well

Tom's had enough of the chefs' excuses.

I liked this week’s challenge: asking the contestants to make healthy dishes inspired by dishes from the prior nine seasons was a great way to both push the chefs creatively and to acknowledge this tenth-season milestone that Top Chef has reached. This was a great challenge: moving beyond snarky soundbytes that might make for dramatic moments here and there, the challenge asked this season's chefs to focus on the food from seasons past, which is where I believe the strength of this show lies. At the end of the day, I am proud of what the show has brought out in the chefs season after season, and I would like to think that the show’s longevity is due to the food it has inspired. I know that this is what the challenge intended to capture, so I would prefer to keep the focus on the dishes, not the drama.

Along those lines, I am sorry to see that people still believe that Alex stole Ed's pea puree he used in Season 7. We clarified in that season’s reunion episode that he had made his own pea puree. There were six cameras running in that kitchen that day, I was there doing my typical rounds, and producers abounded. Not only was it impossible for Alex to have swiped the pea puree, but it’s clear from footage that he did, in fact, make it. I hope that this week’s episode did not perpetuate the fallacy that he didn't. Alex was wrongly defamed by his co-contestants in Season 7 -- his integrity should not be further maligned now.

Looking at what came out of this week’s challenge, there was a lot to be pleased with. I can’t say enough about Kristen’s winning dish -- it was beautiful. I’m always excited to see a young chef conceptualizing food in new ways. Most people faced with making a healthier pot pie would stay stuck in the notion that they had to make a pot pie with a crust. Kristen said, “I don’t need crust,” and yet she managed to make a dish that hearkened without question to chicken pot pie. Her chicken was cooked perfectly, her sauces were seasoned nicely, and, when taken as a whole, the dish delivered on its promise -- it was a healthier dish inspired by the pot pie from Season 8. This type of approach separates the chefs who rise to the top from those who don’t. They are willing to think about food differently… and they have the chops to execute their vision.As for the bottom dishes, you might think it’s unfair that Lizzie was on the bottom when she’d been assigned a scallop dish but was sold inferior scallops. You might say that she had no choice and did the best with what she had. You might even ask what she might have done differently. Here’s what: any number of things.  

Lizzie’s first mistake was made at the market. She needed to check her scallops before purchasing them. If they weren’t good, she could have gone to a producer and said, “I have to make a scallop dish, but the scallops today aren’t OK to purchase.” And if the producers couldn’t -- or wouldn’t -- find her better scallops, she could have gotten creative without them. She could have made scalloped potatoes, for example, endeavoring to make the very best (and healthiest) scalloped potatoes in her power, and then explained to us why she had chosen to do them. Maybe she’d make win-worthy scalloped potatoes, and maybe not. But she certainly would not have landed in the bottom two. Lizzie had no idea that there was a problem with the scallops she’d bought until she got into the kitchen, and she should have known. So she landed herself in the bottom fair and square.  

As did John. Yes, as a general rule, good equipment’s important, and if the pans have aluminum in them, they can get bowed. But a flat bottom is more important when you’re searing or roasting something than when making risotto. With risotto, you’re constantly moving the rice, so it shouldn’t matter if the bottom is slightly bowed. So .I just don’t buy John’s excuse.  [And, for the record, never in all the past seasons of Top Chef did I say that the contestants should not make risotto, as one of the diners in this episode said. If they screw it up, they screw it up. I think risotto can be tricky because it should be eaten right away, which creates a timing issue. But that’s not a reason not to make risotto. It’s just a factor to consider, so that the chef can get it right.]

I also don’t buy John’s gripe that he should not have had to do a cook-off with Lizzie, since her bad scallops were clearly worse than his uneven risotto.  What he failed to realize was that he and Lizzie were not doing a cook-off because we just couldn’t figure out which dish was worse. Rather, the cook-off between the bottom two dishes was built into this challenge from the get-go.  Remember Padma waving a Kindle when they were first handed out and saying that Season 10’s memorable moment would make an appearance later in the challenge? No matter how close or far apart the bottom two dishes were, the chefs who made them were going to find themselves facing off to make a healthy dish based on CJ’s burger.One last thing John said that I don’t buy: his claim that he was being magnanimous by sharing the pickles with Lizzie. This was a pickle-and-burger challenge. It’s tacit that we expected them to share the pickles, so no, he could not have put the extra jar of pickles under his arm and won by keeping them from Lizzie. That’s just silly. John mentioned that he’s seen all the seasons. He, more than any of the other contestants, seemed to be thinking that he was supposed to be engaged in some sort of gamesmanship, rather than just being expected to make great food. But that is the game. Chefs win by repeatedly cooking the best food they can. Period. As I wrote above, if they think about food inventively and have the skill set to execute their ideas effectively, they set themselves apart… and can win. It’s really that simple. It’s not easy, but it is simple.

P.S. Yes, Bob Kramer’s knives, with their rare wood handles and great blades, really will set you back $4-5,000 each… if you can even get one. There’s a long list of people who have ordered them, and since Kramer makes them so slowly, he has a lottery system, sometimes randomly selecting people off the waiting list and sometimes selecting those who have been waiting the longest (he feels it’s fairest to mix it up that way), so it can be a long while before your order is filled. He has begun making some knives for Henckels, though, so you can invest less money and time in getting one now.


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!