Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

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

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

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!

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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

 



Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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. . .

Bravotv.com:  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!