Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Vintage Venue and Victuals

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

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

Vintage Venue and Victuals

Tom Colicchio explains how Kristen's dish could easily have gone awry.

Some of the motifs that make Canlis as impressive a restaurant as it is were the very things that made this week’s challenge as good a challenge as it was.  

Peter Canlis, grandfather of current owners Mark and Brian Canlis, was extremely forward-thinking (and his children and grandchildren have shown that same progressiveness). Despite his limited budget, he had the vision to enlist architect Roland Terry, one of the pillars of the post-WWII-era regional approach to Modern architecture, who created a stunning structure with Frank Lloyd Wright sensibilities, right on a hill’s edge, with a design that fairly invites the vista into the dining space.  

The restaurant had a great menu from the get-go and was also a true gathering place in the Seattle area, with devoted regulars. The owners implemented a lovely custom there that I believe endures till this day, in which they confer a wine glass with a customer’s initials upon someone they deem to be a special customer. The glass is not necessarily awarded for frequency of visits, nor can one be purchased -- it’s the relationship that is forged with the customer that determines whether and when a monogrammed glass is gifted to someone. A fun story about the restaurant, by the way: men are required to wear jackets and encouraged to wear ties; women are required to wear dresses. An actress once arrived wearing pants, and when she was told that she couldn’t wear pants at the restaurant, she said “OK”…and took them off right at the door!

While it started out with a sense of modernity for its time, the restaurant itself has been updated through the ages, and so has the food. Regulars would be up in arms if they couldn’t get the Canlis Special Salad, but aside from that, the food has been steadily rethought throughout the years and is very, very modern. In fact, Jason Franey, who is the current chef, came out of Eleven Madison’s kitchen, in New York. Most restaurants do not survive transfer from generation to generation, but Canlis has adapted smartly and gracefully and has stayed relevant, which is a very impressive feat. Throughout the restaurant’s changes, however, its owners have maintained their sense that this is a family business. Whimsically, there is one special table that still boasts an old-school telephone -- apparently this is where Peter Canlis would sit back in the day, observing the goings on, and when he’d note something he needed to address, he’d just pick up the phone.

Similarly, this week’s challenge required skill married to creativity, it required a vision for the visuals as well as the flavors, and, as the Canlis family has preserved, a sense of whimsy and fun as well. The chefs needed to understand what the original menu was suggesting about the dishes offered and extrapolate as to the ingredients and method of cooking, in order to skillfully create their vision of what had come before. This challenge reminds me of a period film or piece of theatre, in which the director, designers, and actors pull together to recreate an era. Knowledge of the era must be combined with a hefty dose of imagination and, of course, the skill at one’s craft necessary to pull the whole thing off.For the most part, the chefs did a great job. They “got” the challenge, and everything looked and seemed very '50s. And so many of the dishes really delivered on all fronts. 

Josh’s soup was too salty, yes, but not enough to kill it. The dish was saved from the very bottom by its good, beefy flavor, which superceded its saltiness. An inherent problem with the dish, as a matter of fact, was the actually dish, i.e., the bowl itself, which was the wrong vessel for onion soup -- it was way too wide and shallow.  The reason for the crouton in onion soup is to hold up the cheese, but this wasn’t possible in the bowl Josh used.

CJ’s dish was a serious contender for “One of the Worst Two Dishes” -- he’s lucky that it was edged out by Chrissy’s and Carla’s. His lamb didn’t get enough char on it. The meat’s mealiness came from his having sous vided it for the wrong length of time -- I just can’t understand why he chose to do that at all. All in all, the dish was under-seasoned and boring… but it was still not quite as bad as the other two dishes.

As for Carla’s, you need to understand a couple of things both about being a chef and about squab: I have seven restaurants, and I have chefs cooking my food. But it is my job and mine alone to make sure that they know exactly how I want each element prepared. One can’t become Top Chef and not know how to supervise others who are cooking one’s food. If I’d been in charge of that squab dish, I’d have been in there making sure it was done correctly.  And cooking for the judges in this competition is akin to cooking for VIPs in your restaurant -- you want to be extra sure that their dishes are prepared exactly as you want them.

As for how Carla wanted them? We judges don’t know at the time what is going on in the kitchen -- we only know what we’re served. But having watched the episode, I see that not only were ours overcooked, but the early ones were absolutely undercooked -- clearly, the chefs then overcompensated for that when cooking the later ones. Squab should be medium rare  If too rare, it's chewy; if overdone, it starts to get, well, “livery” is the best way I can describe what happens to it. Squab is pigeon whose wings are clipped when it’s young so that it never flies. It’s a nice tender red meat bird, like a duck, with really rich flavor. It’s one of my favorite things to cook… and to eat. Sadly, Carla really blew it, not only by not supervising the preparation well -- she actually made mistakes all the way through. Even when doing the whole flattened thing that you saw her do, you still need to butcher it a bit and take out the rib cage. Carla blew it from the get go with this dish.And Chrissy’s salad: I know that she had a tall order, trying to create from the menu description a dish that still exists, against which hers can be measured. But even without measuring her dish against the original, Chrissy made major blunders that merited her being sent home. Quite apart from the fact that there was not enough mint, lemon or oregano, that the dressing itself was heavy, and that then the salad was overdressed with this overly-heavy dressing, she used the outside leaves of the romaine, which simply isn’t OK. Think about the way lettuce grows -- sun hits the plant and the chlorophyll causes the leaves that soak up the sun to turn dark green. It also causes them to turn tough and unpalatable. The leaves inside are lighter in color because they’re not undergoing photosynthesis and have less chlorophyll. These inside leaves are crispier and juicier, and they have better flavor. Salad-making is the first thing a chef will learn in culinary school, and it should not then be taken for granted. When you are served a good salad, it has an appetizing brightness and freshness to it. When you get a bad one, you know it instantly. Soggy, wilty, and/or tough greens are an instant appetite-kill, and we were presented both. I was surprised that Chrissy overdressed the salad, and more than surprised that she served us the outer leaves of the lettuce that should have been thrown in the garbage. Clearly, she doesn’t know how to use romaine lettuce. It’s a weird hole in her body of culinary knowledge, but, as with Carla’s need to know how to supervise those who execute your dishes, it’s not knowledge that one can lack and still become Top Chef.

On the other side of the spectrum we find Kristen’s onions and mushrooms. I was so glad about this win. I try to imagine how many thousands of pounds of mushrooms we’ve served in my restaurants since we first opened our doors to customers -- let’s leave it at “many.” The mushroom is not a forgiving ingredient. Mushrooms have a very high water content. Overcrowd the pan, and they’ll go greyish and mushy and bland. Whereas when you see one cooked properly, it’s a beautiful brown and the flavors are intense. Believe me when I tell you that Kristen could easily have been sent home for either of her two dishes -- it’s easy to mess them up. In fact, in a very crucial way it’s easier to slip up with them than with a more “complicated” dish: when you make a dish with only one component, there is nothing else behind which you can hide an error. It’s a tightrope walk -- you either walk it to the other side and succeed, or you fall to your death. All or nothing. I was so glad to see Kristen take her one-component side dishes as seriously as any other dishes on the menu, not treat either of them as a throwaway, and execute each of them so adeptly. She nailed them -- there were no flaws in either dish. Of everything that was cooked in this challenge, hers were the best examples of how to make those particular products. Her mushrooms were better-prepared mushrooms than the steak was a well-prepared steak or the crab was well-prepared crab.  Sure, there were strong dishes in this challenge, but the simplicity of hers made Kristen’s perfect execution of them all the more gratifying. You know me by now -- I am all about taking the finest ingredients and preparing them as simply and perfectly as possible, so as to let them shine.  

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

So she's going to take more time shopping at Whole Foods -- and ask for the best of Melissa's basket and Adam's shrimp.

Bravotv.com: Let's dive right in. How did it feel to go shopping?
Gail Simmons: Shopping at Whole Foods was fantastic and hilarious. It made us realize that you need to be strategic, which was the point of the exercise for us. They gave us 30 minutes, but we took a little longer. We didn't let the producers push us around! We’re not contestants and we weren't going to stand for it! So, you realize how little time you have, and how big Whole Foods can be. You spend a lot of time running around.

 

My strategy with my pantry was to get a lot of fresh, delicious food that you can cook in lots of different ways. A good balance of proteins, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, fresh herbs, grains. But I didn't want to get too much. Everyone has different strategies; Padma got a ton of different ingredients. Tom's pantry was very pared down. Richard and I were somewhere in the middle.

 

Bravotv.com: Let's start by talking about the two dishes that came from your pantry?
GS: Katsuji and Melissa. They used the same protein, but their dishes were very different. They both used shrimp which one of the proteins that I bought. I bought something else too, something that I know has given people trouble in the past (which is why I specifically chose it) -- chicken wings. And I really wanted people to use them. Instead, they chose the easy way out because shrimps cook quickly.

Melissa's used a lot of fresh vegetables, which I was hoping she would: dill, mint, artichoke. I was so excited about all of it. I think it was beautifully done, a lovely salad with that little shrimp on top with spiced yogurt. But it was just a salad with a quick-cooking seafood. It was so similar to what she had done in Restaurant Wars when she made a scallop with grapefruit salad. I believe she could have done so much more. Melissa keeps saying she wanted to focus on her knife skills, and, of course, your knife skills have to be precise. But I need to see more than just knife skills. I want to see cooking skills, I want to see roasting skills, braising skills. I want to see her hands get a little dirtier and her dishes not be as superficial. It was a light, lovely dish. I was happy to eat it for lunch. But when you're competing against six other really talented chefs, we all want to see a little more depth. Katsuji on the other hand went big. He used his ingredients in a really powerful way. The potato salad, the poached shrimp had bold seasoning and I loved how they went together. It was a great dish. It may not have been the best of the day, but I was actually really happy with what he chose to make.

 

Bravotv.com: So for the rest, let's talk about who was on top and who was on bottom.

GS: At the top there was Gregory who really was going for Padma's heart there. He did great with his coconut milk curry. A really balanced, powerful dish. But it's something we’ve seen from Gregory many times in the past. In fact, in the first challenge he made a similar spicy curry dish with chicken. As much as we thought it was a delicious bowl of food, it was so typical of what we expect from Gregory. George's food was really exciting for us. This was my first time tasting his food and meeting him on Top Chef. He did a great job. The kebab was moist, seasoned really well, and the lentils were beautiful too. My only small issue with the dish is I couldn't understand why he separated the lentils from the kebab in two separate dishes. Why not put lentils on the plate and the kebab right on top, with a dollop of the yogurt? It seemed a little bit disconnected to me. But all-in-all, a really strong dish. Doug had the winning dish of the night. He used Richard's crazy pantry in a way that I thought was smart, clear-cut, and creative. The chorizo and mussels and peppers, just how Tom said, go together well, as do the cauliflower and the garlic. There was sweetness, there was spice, it was light and fresh but had a soulful, rustic flavor we all loved. You could see use of technique. On the bottom were dishes that tried to stretch and didn’t come through. Mei did a great job overall, except her lamb was undercooked. You want lamb medium, medium rare, but the center of that meat was raw to the point where the texture was chewy and almost cold. It would have been better if she had been able to cook it five minutes longer. We talked about Melissa's mistakes already, which also landed her on the bottom. I totally applaud Adam for trying to make a quick-flash marinade. He's been in the middle for so long and he thought "I gotta go big or I gotta go home." He tried to go big and unfortunately, he went home because of that technique. I get the idea of what he was doing, I don't doubt that it could've been successful if it were perhaps done in a different setting, with a little more control. But the flash marinade of his shrimp did not cook it as needed. It was still grey, it was still raw, and the texture of raw shrimp is not appealing. It's squeaky, it's squishy, and it becomes sort of mushy. We wanted it firm and cooked through. It's not like fish that you can eat sashimi-style Unfortunately Adam's hard work, his big risk sent him home.

I will miss him. I think he's an incredibly articulate, clever chef. I think he has an extraordinary career ahead of him. I'm excited to see him back in New York City. I can't wait to eat his food again. Also I want to say of this entire episode that was it was thrilling to see our superfans in the kitchen. We've never let people come into the kitchen in that way before, even though people ask us all the time. It brought so much good energy to have basically a live audience with us for the day. Everyone was so psyched. It was amazing to be around people who really love the show, to let them eat food from our talented chefs. SO much fun!