Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

All About Execution

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

All About Execution

Gail explains how the chefs' failures were not in concept. What did you think about the gumbo challenge with the legend Leah Chase?
Gail Simmons: She's amazing! I mean, the woman is 90 years old, and as you can see, she is still going strong. She is such an icon of New Orleans cuisine. She comes back later in the season too, and you'll see her incredible restaurant. She’s such a strong force in the industry, and she's just such an amazing example for other chefs, her resilience after Katrina, for women chefs around the world – she's just completely inspiring. What did you think when Michael and Justin didn't win the gumbo challenge, but Carrie came out on top?
GS: I guess it was unfortunate for them, but it wasn't an easy challenge. The challenge wasn't to make a really traditional gumbo though; the challenge was to infuse it with your heritage and do something meaningful for you. Carrie's looked great! She cooked with delicious, unusual flavors that tied together where she was from, where her husband was from, and her mother-in-law from Trinidad. I thought that was really cool, and I bet it was delicious! I loved that it reminded Lea Chase of her Gumbo Z’Herbes, a very secret famous spice mix that they make gumbo with in New Orleans. On to the Elimination Challenge with the food trucks for the Habitat for Humanity volunteers.
GS: The city has come a long, long way, which was inspiring to see when we were there, but by no means is it back to how it was pre-Katrina. Katrina was eight years ago, and there's so much work still to do. It forever changed the landscape of New Orleans. There still is, as we said, something like 50,000 homes that were completely abandoned, never to be returned to from the residents who left them. Most of those are in really destitute, poor neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward, which is where the devastation was the most pronounced. People don't have the means to rebuild, even if they want to. So groups like Habitat For Humanity are invaluable there, and have done such incredible things for the people of New Orleans. The groups we met with – some were local, there was a group from Canada, actually, that we worked for that day – all had different reasons for being there, but ultimately everyone just wanted to help and it was inspiring to speak to the workers and also the residents. With Habitat for Humanity, the homeowners work alongside the volunteers on their own homes. So, when we were at the construction site, the owners were there as well, working on their houses. I think that also creates such a great sense of value for them and for the people who are working because they're actually working alongside the people who will ultimately live there. It's extra incentive to work hard. What did you think of the overall truck concepts?
GS: Overall, I think they were great. No one was misguided in the general concept; they all were well thought-through. It was really execution issues all the way. For the trucks that didn’t do well, it wasn't the concept that wasn't good. There was nothing served the whole day that we thought, “Why would anyone make this on a food truck?” If anything, the food we were surprised that they made on a food truck were the things that won. And so you can hardly fault them. That was one of the few challenges we did entirely outside, and they were out in that heat in a food truck with no air conditioning and barely a full-sized refrigerator for hours. Who thinks you can roll empanada dough on a food truck under those circumstances? Who thinks you can fry tempura for tacos and keep it crispy? But those were the best dishes of the challenge, so you could hardly complain about it. Jason didn’t seem thrilled with Bret’s revelations at Judges’ Table.
GS: Jason showed his own cards. I think he knew halfway through the challenge that his salmon rolls were getting soggy and really weren't holding up; in the humidity number one, but also having been rolled out two hours in advance. I can't stress enough how unpleasant they were to eat. Mostly, it was a textural thing. You want your nori to be crispy. When nori gets soggy, it's like eating wet paper. And the ingredients weren't that tasty either – the salmon wasn't seasoned, it wasn't flavorful, and when you ate the roll, it all became sort of stringy and sticky. This was a stark contrast from the really delicious, light fresh things that we ate that day. So he called himself out. It's not as if we wouldn't have seen it if Brett, or anyone else, hadn't mentioned it. We pick up on all of it; that's our job. It seemed like Bene took on more of a sous chef role on his team, the Red Team.
GS: But did a lot of other prep. He didn't own one specific dish, and if he had been on the bottom that would have been a big issue and he could have gone home for it for sure. But he was on the Red Team, and the Red Team didn’t end up on the bottom. Most of the dishes from that team were good – Nina's jerk chicken sandwich was actually excellent, so because Bene happened to hitch himself to that sandwich, there were no flaws to what he did.

Back to the Blue Team,  Jason wasn't the only flaw. There was Bret's weird temperature ceviche. Patty's slider was pretty mediocre. I didn't take as much of an issue with it as Tom did, but I definitely understand his point, and I felt it was just not very flavorful and not very interesting. It was a tuna slider with tomato and lettuce. Sara also made a tuna burger, which was basically a tuna slider, and we had that one right before we had Patty's, so we had a direct comparison. Sara's, even though they were very similar, had a lot more personality. I thought Sara's slider was amazing, so to have two in a row and one be so lackluster, you couldn't help but pay attention. Like Tom said, if you're going to do something really simple and really classic, it needs to be perfect because we're going to dissect it that much more. And then there was Carrie and the Yellow Team.
GS: Everything that came off of their Mexican taco truck was excellent. There wasn't one item that I took issue with, but I will say that the two standouts were definitely the empanada, which was made with some of the best flakey empanada dough I've ever had. And that pork and curry filling was so flavorful and spicy. You could just pick it up with your hand -- really easy and smart.

Carlos' tilapia tacos also were excellent. Crispy, juicy, moist... and they were huge! In fact, I couldn't finish them. I ended up sharing mine with one of the volunteers. The Yellow Team did a really great job, and Carlos was a great team leader. He took on that role of expediting. He managed to give us a dish that was fried to order, that they were making with his direction and make everyone feel really welcome and really appreciated for all their hardwork. Final thoughts?
GS: Overall, I thought the food was excellent. I was really excited that this was the first challenge I was on because it was a really positive day. I left that challenge thinking not only did we do something good for people who work really hard to help the city grow, but that we ate amazing food from a super talented group of chefs who I think will be really interesting to watch all season long.

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!