Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

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

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

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Gail reflects on the neck-and-neck competition between Nina and Nick and why after an arduous Judges Table, Nick came out on top. For this final challenge the chefs are tasked with creating a four-course menu and a restaurant for the evening. Do you want to start by talking about their approaches?
Gail Simmons: I think they both had a similar approach in that they wanted to show us how much they’ve grown, how much they’ve changed, and the breadth of their cooking ability. I think they both came really prepared, which was amazing to see. They both had very clear visions from the beginning of exactly how they wanted their restaurants to be run, exactly how they wanted to cook. They chose sous chefs who they thought would be able to deliver that in the best possible way. So it was really an exciting finale, also because it was such a close finale. It was really up in the air. There was not, in my opinion, an underdog or clear winner whose finale it was to lose. I think in the past, not always, that has been the case. For me at least, this was a neck-and-neck race, which was great. It made us really excited to see what they would actually cook. Why don’t we start with Nina’s restaurant?
GS: Well first off, our judges were really fun to be with. David Kinch from Los Gatos, California, who I’d actually never met in person before but I had been a fan of and known about for a long long time. I know his girlfriend well. Takashi Yagihashi a Top Chef Master from Chicago. Paul Bartolotta, who has been on the show with us and been in other finales before -- I think the last finale he was in was in Signapore, and Morimoto who has a restaurant at the Andaz where we were staying in Maui and obviously spends a lot of time in Hawaii and is a fish genius to say the least. So it was great to have them their and have their knowledge and insight into the food. It was really exciting for all of us. So now, why don’t we talk about the food at Nina’s? What did you think of her decision to branch about beyond the four dishes, by adding the breadfruit and the papaya skewer?
GS: This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen someone make extra courses, or provide a little extra touches in their dishes. I liked what she chose to do. I have to say that the two things she chose to do -- the breadfruit appetizer at the very beginning with the foie gras butter and then the papaya skewers were amazing. They both added a lot to the meal in terms of how well they were made and how thoughtful they were. That papaya skewer was the perfect sort of palate cleanser. It was cold, icy, and delicious. And the breadfruit was a great play on a bread course and it was also very delicious.

The only reason that something like that becomes an issue is that they are using their time and energy to put towards making these things when there are flaws in the four dishes that do count the most. So you kind of wish, if you they hadn’t been preoccupied making theses dishes they could have thought through something or made the other dishes better. Sometimes your main dishes suffer because of it, and in this case specifically her swordfish and her dessert were definitely not perfect. We all sort of felt that it was a shame that she gave us these amazing things that we couldn’t really count in the body of her work, but that dishes that we did have to really examine weren’t exactly as we hoped they would be. Let’s talk about the successful dishes Nina had that night
GS: Nina and Nick’s first courses were a very direct comparison. They both did a raw tuna, crudo course. Both were very good for that matter. Nina’s was a little bit brighter, a little more exciting. Nina’s crudo had heat. It had great seasoning so you really got the full flavor of that fresh fish. So hers was a little stronger than Nick’s, although I really liked them both. And then her second course was this orecchiette with goat ragu that was once again an incredible pasta dish from Nina. Her pasta is really flawless. And the goat ragu was tender and had tons of seasoning and spice. She had fresh cherry tomatoes in there that sort of burst in your mouth. The actual pasta was absolutely delicious. I can’t say enough about it. It was such a beautiful course, such a delicate pasta. I was so happy to hear that Paul Bartolotta liked it as much as we all did. He is sort of my pasta guru, and he was totally blown away by it.

Her swordfish was not only sort of unexciting from a presentation standpoint, but it really didn’t have much flavor. It didn’t feel very cohesive. It felt like a departure from her meal because the first two courses were so exciting, so Nina, so what we’ve come to expect from her. This swordfish just feel flat. It really wasn’t as the main course of a meal what we expected from her.

And then her dessert, I think we all said it many times, didn’t really feel like a dessert. It was small. It was just a finger food, a few bites. It didn’t have a ton of flavor. She sprinkled dried coconut and macadamia nuts over the zeppole, but they don’t stick to the zeppole, so when you pick it up -- if you’re eating it with your fingers like we were -- you don’t get the macadamia nuts and the coconut with it. Then you have to pick them up separately and shove them in your mouth. It all just wasn’t a completely bite. You couldn’t get what you wanted out of that dish when you went to eat it. That’s where it really fell short. I know that she can better. I know dessert isn’t her forte, and she didn’t have to cook one. I know why she did -- she wanted the meal to feel well rounded and I appreciate that. Sadly, after those two highlights at the beginning of her meal, this dessert did not really do anything at all. And now let’s talk about Nick’s restaurant and meal. 
GS: Nick’s service varied wildly from when we ate there and when Padma and her group did. There were major issues with service on their end. We definitely heard some noises but we got our food in an acceptable time and didn’t really notice how much of a struggle Nick was having in the kitchen -- except for that one huge lash out that he made.

That said, his first course was really nice. A little underseasoned, a little subtle, but he showed us a really skilled dish. The green apple and wasabi were in a water. The dish was beautiful, it just was a little bit underseasoned so you didn’t get those flavors that you want to burst in your mouth with that fish. Those are really strong flavors -- meyer lemon, green apple, wasabi -- and they just tasted a little bit muted. But it was beautifully presented and beautifully crafted that dish. So it was by no means a failure.

The next dish of his was my favorite dish that he made all night -- this shrimp bisque with scallop and daikon noodles. I loved it and I think a lot of people at the table did too. It had tons of flavor, the bisque was sort of the sauce pooling at the bottom of the plate and it was bursting with flavor. It was rich and you could tell that he made an amazing stock and base. I loved the texture of the noodles. There was heat. There was a great counterpoint with some chilies that he had in the dish. I thought it was fantastic.

Then he had the duck course, which was very complex and very sophisticated, actually. And certainly was much stronger a dish than Nina’s third course. Emeril really had a problem with how his piece of duck was cooked but none of us did at our table. We thought it was cooked well, and he rendered the fat on the duck, which is a really important step when you are first cooking the duck. He did it really well so that the top of the duck was crispy. The squash was sweet. There was crunch, there was a smooth puree. It had everything you wanted in a main course -- it felt very complete, very substantial, and really refined.

And then finally his dessert. He chose to do panna cotta to redeem himself from a previous challenge, the Jacques Pepin Spanish versus French challenge. I wasn’t there for that challenge so I didn’t know how bad his original panna cotta was but I heard from my fellow chefs about it. I have to say I loved this panna cotta. The great part about this panna cotta was that there were so many elements besides the custard itself so that every bite you took was a little bit different. There was a lot of texture. There was fruit. The nuts, the white chocolate. I’m not generally a fan of white chocolate. This incorporation of white chocolate didn’t hit you over the head, didn’t feel too buttery. Sometimes I find white chocolate leaves a film on the roof of your mouth, because it’s really just milkfat and I really liked the way that all his flavors came together. I really like the texture. It felt very tropical. It felt perfect in the Hawaiian setting we were in. It could have had a little more “jiggle” I think, which was some people’s complaint, but ultimately we all licked the bowl clean and that’s a pretty powerful review.

So then we got down to the deliberation and this was really, and I know we probably say this every time, but it really was one of the hardest decisions we’ve made. We couldn’t agree, quite frankly, and mostly that’s because we had very different experiences between the two tables. Padma’s group was five people while we were four, so what became very complicated was because we had different experiences eating our meals because service went differently for the two tables,it made the comparison sort of skew -- as there were five of them. So it wasn’t necessarily a fair and even discussion. So we really had to get down to dishes, comparing each dish to each other and putting aside the rest of the experience so we could make sure we were judging on fair ground so to speak.

And when we went through the dishes, it was really close. Nina’s first two dishes were stronger than NIck’s, but NIck’s final two dishes were stronger than Nina’s. And then there were the extras that Nina made and we had to figure out how to factor them in. And this went on and on for hours literally, until we sort of realized we had to think about who made the worst dishes of the night, who made the best dish of the night, and that went to a vote between all of us. And in the end we thought that the full experience that Nick gave us and the strength and highlight of just a few of his dishes -- really the last three courses of his -- were really exceptional. So after much back and forth, long into the night, wherein I almost fell asleep at the table numerous times from sheer exhaustion we decided that Nick’s meal was the winning meal that night -- and that he would be named Top Chef!

Nina, looking back, was one of the strongest competitors we’ve ever had. She is so articulate and the food she cooks is so completely from the heart. She’s so talented. She’s got such an amazing philosophy and insight into herself. She’s such a great chef and such a great leader to. I admire her so, so much, and I love eating her food. I hope that I get to eat more of her food again -- Italian, Caribbean, whatever she wants to cook I’ll take it. And it’s rare that a chef really at her level, just coming into her own has such an amazing grasp on so many different cuisines. She really is talented and I adore her. I truly adore her.

And Nick I feel really amazing about too as the winner this year. I’m so proud of him. I think of all the chefs that were on this season he grew the most in a lot of ways. He came back fighting for his life. He won every challenge in the finale -- he won the Quickfire and the Elimination last episode and then he won overall. We did not take this decision lightly. He is so capable, so strong, so technically sound, and that’s really what impressed us the most. He also, I think, is really trying to push himself, in a way that we were really blown away by -- and i think it showed in his final meal.

So I’m excited to see what Nick and Nina do next. I’m excited to have Nick with us at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen this year and to get to know him even more now that we can actually have a conversation.

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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!