Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Gumbo for Leah Chase

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

Gumbo for Leah Chase

Hugh Acheson would have been more intimidated by the Quickfire Challenge than the cheftestants seemed.

If you had told me that I would be making gumbo for Leah Chase I would have been beyond nervous, not out of fear of failure, but fear of not giving proper respect to a historic dish. I would be fearful of Leah remarking that my gumbo was too modern, too risky, too indifferent to the history of food in Louisiana. Evidently the chefs do not fret in the same way I do. 

Leah is the chef and proprietor of Dooky Chase, a restaurant that speaks to the relevancy of food in Louisiana everyday it operates. It has been around a long time serving the best fried chicken and Gumbo Z’Herbs, with a painful sabbatical after Katrina. Katrina, the storm that changed everything, destroyed Dooky Chase, but through a lot of work and the dedication of a lot of chefs and volunteers the restaurant was rebuilt better than ever. It is the definition of iconic. 

No rest for the weary, and we pick up right where last episodes ejection happened. Padma enters into the Stew Room like a smiling dementor to steal the last breaths of air from the gasping young chefs. She announces that a gumbo challenge starts now at the cast house and they had better get their crock pots plugged in and the roux cooking. I get sleepy just thinking about this challenge. 

Gumbo to me means many things, and there are many types of gumbo you can make, but the chefs really like loose interpretations, and we see all sorts of stuff going on. Brian likes cat naps while stirring roux. Michael likes to do things twice and will be making a new gumbo, but he is really just competing with himself in all things. 

Beets, cabbage, soy are three things I have never seen in a gumbo before. I really hope that these chefs realize in hindsight that they just made gumbo for LEAH CHASE. 

Oddly enough, the two NOLA chefs make gumbo that fails to impress, and Michael actually makes it to the bottom. Jason says Leah Chase has no idea what she is talking about. I poke him with pins in my mind. Patty is getting no love either. She just doesn’t seem to be getting traction in the competition. 

Shirley makes a nice looking gumbo with pork belly. Aaron makes a thick gumbo that Leah loves. Carrie makes a green gumbo which reminds Leah of one of her famous versions. Though Carrie thought her gumbo was weird and badly received, the judges loved it. 

Carrie wins immunity. 

On to the Elimination Challenge: cooking for Habitat for Humanity volunteers. Susan Spicer is in the house. She rules. Food trucks will be used. Shirley has a roach coach for sale if you are interested. You could start your own Kogi empire if you are smart and understand the nuances of food truck by-laws. May you call it “What the truck?” May you succeed beyond your wildest dreams. 

Poor Bene. Why are they picking on him? Nothing he says is being listened to. We have the answer to that age old quandary: “If Bene talks in a group, does anyone listen?”. 

Teams have been named, but there are too many to list.

Michael is cooking crawfish at the house. He is that father figure who terrifies the family. It is decided that Casanova will be the model chef for this challenge and stand in front of the truck looking pretty. This was actually decided at birth, but I play along. 

Team Yellow has made a taco truck experience. Team Blue wants to have a truck spa experience. Team Red is not listening to Bene, unless he is their quiet servant. Bene must even experience badmouthing from Michael, which would drive anyone over the edge. We may have a runaway on our hands. Team Yellow is making wine bottle dough. 

Brian Huskey confesses to being born with a silver spoon. I am not sure where the family fortune comes from, but after much internet searching I am making up that it comes from holding the patent to the Flobee. Lucky man. 

Immortal words from Jason: “If it’s burnt, don’t use it.” Dude, if you condescended to me in a kitchen like that, I would cut that hair right off of your head. Daly Patty is just a lump of sadness in the first 48 of this season and can’t fight back. 

Michael talks about Katrina and the recovery. Such a tragedy. That city has some amazingly resilient souls. 

YELLOW TEAM/Work Site #1 Aaron, Carlos, Travis, Carrie, and Brian

Travis and Brian: Dorado and Shrimp Ceviche with Tomato

Carrie and Aaron: Beef and Pork Curry Empanadas with Watercress and Mango

Carlos and Aaron: Tilapia Tacos with Chipotle Aioli and Cabbage


BLUE TEAM/Work Site #2: Jason, Patty, Nicholas, and Bret

Jason: Salmon Hand Roll with Quinoa, Honey Mustard Miso, and Cucumber

Nicholas: Grilled Shrimp with a Fish Sauce Caramel, Melon-Sungold Salad, and Crushed Wasabi Peas

Bret: Coconut Ceviche with Red Snapper and Bay Scallops

Patty: Tuna Slider with Crispy Pancetta, Avocado, and Tomato

GREEN TEAM/Work Site #2: Shirley, Stephanie, Sara, and Louis

Stephanie: Crispy Chickpea with Watercress and Radish Salad

Sara: Tuna Burger with Sprouts, Avocado, and Watermelon Rind Pickles

Shirley: Spiced Grilled Lamb Salad with Cucumber and Asian Pear

Louis: helped, made the watermelon amuse


RED TEAM/Work Site #1: Justin, Bene, Janine, Michael, and Nina 

Janine: Green Gazpacho with Pickled Shrimp

Justin: Lobster and Crab Fritters with Corn Puree and Bacon Jam

Nina and Bene: Jerk Chicken Sandwich with Mango and Crispy Plantains

Michael: Ricotta with Burnt Honey, Stone Fruit, and Toasted Coconut

Jason is banking on his hair to make up for a flaccid handroll. From the point that Tom tastes the handroll, I want you to take a shot of bourbon every time the term “handroll” is uttered. You should not drive after this exercise. Actually you should probably not do this cause you will be admitted to the hospital. It’s said about 50 times.

Some innuendo is said about the Aussie girl being good with her hands. By her. Argh. I need a mental shower. 

Tops are Yellow and Green. Together they make poop brown, but separate they are beautiful things. Yellow pulls it out though. The judges loved everything the team made. Spicer announces the winner, and Carrie wins for the gutsy move of making empanada dough on a truck. 

Bottoms are Red and Blue. Blue is pulled out to the firing line. Bene sighs a sigh of relief, but no one hears. 

Patty, Jason, Nick, and Bret let the judges know about the economics of a table of free food: Bret’s logic is that if a ton of stuff remains, that’s cause they loved it. Whaaaaat? Dr. Tom, PhD and Dr. Padma, PhD school Bret. 

At the end of this day, Jason goes home for a handroll disaster. Should have, would have, could have. 


Follow me on the Twitter @hughacheson


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!