Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Gail: Mei's Menu Was Almost Flawless

Make Top Chef Mei Lin's Winning Dessert!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Make Mei's Sushi Style Guac!

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

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

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

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Gail shares her feelings about this week's double elimination.

Bravotv.com: Why don’t we start by talking about Last Chance Kitchen? Were you surprised about who made it through?
Gail Simmons: I wasn’t surprised, because through the eight challenges before the finale while we were in New Orleans, Tom had been telling me about how incredible Louis’ food had been. He had been really talking about how impressed he was with him as a chef, and how great all his food was.

In fact after winning so many challenges, I would have been surprised if Carlos had been able to beat him at that point. He deserved to get back in, he really earned it. Tom said he cooked some of the best food Tom had eaten in or out of actual episodes.



Bravotv.com: And then immediately he was thrown into the Spam Quickfire. What did you think of how the chefs fared with Spam?
GS: I was amazed that Nick said he hadn’t thought of Spam, because Hawaii is the home of Spam!

But, I thought it was a really funny Quickfire. It loosened everybody up. They shot it really early in the morning, and I had arrived the night before. Because of the time change I passed out at like 4 am or 5 am that morning and I sat on my balcony and watched the whole thing from my balcony. I could see the hula dancer arriving, and I thought it was really funny. I thought it looked great.  The chefs were able to create really interesting and innovative things from cans of Spam, so I was impressed.Bravotv.com: How was it being in this completely different environment, coming out of New Orleans?
GS: It was a great change, I mean several months have passed clearly -- I was very pregnant all of a sudden. Almost four months, three-and-a-half months had passed since we had been in New Orleans, so I was suddenly seven months pregnant.

It was great to be in Hawaii, for all of us. Such a beautiful location we shot at. All of the locations we shot at for those two episodes were breathtaking and the weather was perfect and every one was just so happy to be there and really excited to make it the best finale we could.

I’d love to be there right now. It’s 12 degrees outside!

Bravotv.com: Now on to the elimination challenge, they are cooking with canoe crops. . .
GS: The canoe crops are basically all of the different crops and meat, protein, pork, etc., and fish that were brought to the island originally by the first settlers. They included things like all of these amazing sweet potatoes and fruits and vegetables that are really now what people consider the distinct bounty of Hawaii. They’re really unique to that part of the world.

It was a really smart Elimination, because it forced them to understand in a deeper way the local bounty and the local foods that the people there eat every day. They were really beautiful quality, and it was kind of fun to see what they did.

There were a lot of similarities between the dishes, because a lot of them overlapped ingredients like sweet potato and coconut, and the opah obviously, but ultimately they were still pretty solid dishes.Bravotv.com: So let’s go over their dishes.
GS: We liked all of the dishes. There were slightly larger flaws with Louis and Shirley, obviously, which is why they were sent home. That was a really difficult decision. We know that all four of them are incredible, incredible cooks. They all did an incredible job. They all really pushed themselves, and they were not easy circumstances. Clearly, it started raining in the middle of their cook time. They were cooking outdoors. They were cooking in unknown, temporary kitchen environments. But ultimately I think they were all really successful.

Louis’ opah, there were just really large inconsistences between the way the pieces of fish were cooked. Some were undercooked, some were over, partially because of the circumstances and the rain. But we couldn’t overlook that size and the portions, they just were not consistent.

And then Shirley’s dish was definitely unique. I loved the way that she handled her pork, it was cooked beautifully. The honey-glazed pork with sweet potato was very, very sweet and a little bit off-balance. It needed some sort of counterpoint, because those two pieces had so much sugar, so much natural sweetness, and so we all kind of felt that it was lacking in contrast, lacking in balance.

So that was how we chose who was going to go home that day.Nick and Nina made pretty perfect dishes, all things considered. Nick’s dish was the strongest dish I’d really seen from him all season. And clearly he won the Quickfire and the Elimination for this episode. I didn’t get to taste his food in the Quickfire, but I really loved his spicy crispy chicken skin that he served on top of the opakapaka with jalapeno. It was cooked beautifully.

It was just a lovely piece of fish; it was plated so nicely. This was Nick finally finding his rhythm I think and finally understanding that you don’t need to make it so precious. It can be a little simpler, it doesn’t need to be so fussy to be good.

Nina’s opah: Because Louis made opah and Nina made opah, we had a direct comparison. Nina cooked her opah so well. She grilled it with taro root and coconut; it tasted like the island. It tasted like her food, but also like the food of Hawaii. It was so concise and such a tight dish, such a thoughtful dish. It looked and tasted like the kind of dish you would think she’d been making for years.

It felt completely organic to come from her, that dish. She definitely had a little bit of advantage in being so familiar with the ingredients, because they are so similar to the ingredients in the Caribbean in a lot of ways. She pulled off such a refined dish using those ingredients, and we were all really impressed with it.Bravotv.com: How did it feel at this point losing the final two?
GS: It was really difficult, especially to let go of Shirley, because I got to know her so well. She’s such a fighter, such a strong contender, and such an extraordinary cook.

I love both Louis and Shirley, but certainly knew Shirley better through spending time with her and watching her grow so much. When I think back to so many other dishes she made I have such strong, fond memories. I want to eat her food again and again. The way that she seasoned her food. The way she made these incredibly rich sauces, and broths, and soups. The way that she seasoned her food was always so creative and always had her voice and point of view. And that’s something that’s really difficult to do as a young chef. She certainly grew into herself along the way. We love Shirley, we really do, and I have no doubt that whatever she does next will be extraordinary.

Bravotv.com: Anything else you want to spill before the finale?
GS:  Besides I love Hawaii and I wish I was there right now -- I think it is actually fitting Nick versus Nina. They have such different styles, but they both have been really strong throughout the competition in very different ways.  We were excited. We knew that when it came down to those two, we would have a really incredible finale. And we do -- and you’re going to have to stick around and watch it!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

Richard Blais explains why Mei Lin won, and why we'll definitely be hearing from Gregory Gourdet soon.

The finale of Top Chef is the one absolute every season. Make the best meal of your life, in a multi-course tasting format for a room of the "who's who" in the culinary industry.

If you get to the finals, it's the type of thing you can prepare for. Every finalist should have a few four to five course menus floating around their heads, including a dessert, and all complete with options and Plan B's transcribed to their moleskins. And although the knowledge of what's coming is helpful, the format does not play to every chef's strengths.

There aren't too many restaurants committed to such meal services. Which means less chefs experienced with how to "write" and execute them. A progressive meal has to have a certain flow about it. And even the stereotypical versions of the "menu degustation" could force a contestant into cooking a dish that's not in their wheelhouse, for instance a straight forward fish course because "it belongs there."

Tonight, Mei Lin has a slight advantage. She cooks in a restaurant every day that showcases a tasting menu. Her food has been the epitome of a modern tasting menu all season. Many previous times, to a fault. Mei's food is small and precise. Beautiful to look at, and intellectually stimulating to discuss. Cold sometimes, every once in a while a shaved radish plated with tweezers heavy. It's not for everyone. It's not for everyday. But it's the type of food that when done well, can win Top Chef. Win James Beard Award noms. Win Best New Chef honors. Win Michelin stars.

Her future could indeed be bright.

What struck me most about Mei's food tonight however, wasn't technique. Technique and presentation often can get in the way of flavor. But tonight Mei delivered a few courses that were deeply satisfying. Soulful, delicious food that also was presented at a high level and cooked with surgeon's precision. That congee though...combined with a simple dessert that took yogurt and granola to another planet, won her the day. Her other two courses were fine, but suffered from the strains of modernity. Overly plated (the duck) and technically overwrought (the fried octopus).

Gregory on the other hand, it's just not his finest work. You can hear it in his voice as he's explaining his food. He's cooking improv, an ode to Mexico. The problem is, this isn't a jam session at a local cantina. This is a studio session where the chefs should be cooking practiced and refined pieces.

His octopus was a highlight and featured the unusual combination of passion fruit and avocado. It was an explosive start. The following two courses unraveled a bit, with the soup being good, but way too unrefined for the moment and technically problematic (the crispy shrimp heads), and the fish course bordering on dessert with the sugary carrot purée.

The mole was authentic and delicious, the rib cooked perfectly, but the dish felt a little incomplete. I believe Gregory had the better ideas, but just needed to think them through a bit more.

His sadness after the fact, I can attest, is profound. Tearful. Absolute emptiness. Close to the feeling of the sudden loss of a loved one. This may shock some of you, because it is indeed just a game. The mere thought of feeling that way over such silliness is well, silly. But not for us. This isn't the Super Bowl where an athlete loses and they can shake it off. Jump in their Bentley and start thinking about next season. There is no next season. There is no guaranteed pay day for the runner-up. The ten wins you had before don't matter. It just ends. Suddenly. And it's rather sad.

The good thing is, this is certainly, 100%, not the last time you will hear from Gregory. I waxed last week about Doug's professionalism, all of which is very true. But Gregory... Gregory is a special talent. His food (and I can say HIS type of food, because it's unique to him), is a study in refined, exotic comfort. What the man can do with a one-pot meal of braised anything, some chilies, sugar, vinegar, herbs, and spices is beyond impressive. Rarely do I taste food that makes me jealous as a cook. Rarely do I taste food that makes me start thinking about a new restaurant concept. The word inspiring in cooking competitions is sort of like the word "love," when it gets used too much, it loses it luster. Gregory's food however. I love it. It is inspiring.

Congrats to Mei and Gregory! Tom was right, I can't wait to one day say I saw you two way back when, in Mexico, in a little kitchen, before the bright lights, fancy kitchens, and big stages that lay ahead for both of you.

See you next season. I hope!

Richard Blais
@RichardBlais - Twitter and Instagram

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