Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Big Showdown

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

The Big Showdown

Gail Simmons on Ilan Hall's big finish.

So that was it. The big showdown. The last hurrah. I'm relieved. Not because the season has come to an end, but because it culminated with an appreciation for the purpose of the game and focus on the ultimate prize. No backstabbing, no drama, no childish tactics. It was finally about serious cooking for the love of great food. What we all enjoyed most was the absolute dichotomy in cooking styles of our two finalists. It was very exciting to witness two young chefs at more or less the same stage in their careers take such different inspiration from the same choice of products and the same mission: to cook the best five course meal they possibly could.
One of the highlights of being on the Big Island of Hawaii was discovering its incredible produce. The farmer's market where Ilan and Marcel chose their ingredients was made up of some of the state's spectacular meat, fish, fruit and vegetable purveyors. While the two teams shopped for our dinners, Padma and I perused the stalls, tasting fresh hearts of palm, pristine wild mushrooms, spicy macadamia nuts, rich chocolate, fuchsia carrots and at least a half dozen tropical fruits we had never seen before in our lives. Many of these specialties made it onto our plates in unexpected ways. As one of the farmers told me that day, Hawaii's complex microclimates allow for year-round harvesting of foods that we on the Mainland associate only with summer. For example, Ilan's first course of Pan con Tomate with Angulas -- baby eels -- and Osetra Caviar may have been clever and pretty, but I was more excited to taste the ripe, sweetness of fresh tomato in the dish.
Although Angulas are a delicacy, which when served fresh can be a dramatic addition to a meal, the canned version was out of place on an island known for its exceptional seafood. I worried he was off to a rocky start. But his Pan Roasted Moi -- native Hawaiian fish -- with Macadamia Gazpacho more than made up for what the first course lacked. This was the same type of clever combination that had won him a place in the finale -- a thoughtful presentation of a typically Spanish dish, using unmistakably Hawaiian ingredients, elevating it to something even more delicious. It was our clear favorite of the whole meal.

The Grilled Squab and Shrimp with Foie Gras was equally rich and flavorful. The Beef Short Rib with Mushrooms and Romanesco was striking both visually and on the palate. It may have been tougher than I was used to, but the sharp color and texture contrasts served to spotlight Hawaii's revered grass-fed beef. Ilan's Tangelo and Vanilla Bean soup with Exotic Fruit and Fried Bay Leaf sealed the deal. It was sweet and tart enough to satisfy our dessert craving, but not too fussy that he had to worry about his lack of pastry skill.

Marcel made a few obvious mistakes along the way. We did not know the extent to which he forgot certain key ingredients, (or the lack of direction he seemed to have once they began their final preparation). His first course of Uni -- sea urchin -- in Vanilla and Meyer Lemon Gelee was a daring choice and we ate up the story of walking on the beach that accompanied it. It was an intricate starter with layers of flavor and texture, unlike anything I had eaten before.

His salad was clearly a disappointment. It was attractive and fresh but the simplicity of the dish gave his secret shortcoming away. If his original idea for the vinaigrette had worked, it could have been an entirely different conversation. The risk he took in serving something he hadn't yet mastered did not pay off in the end. Next came his Hearts of Palm with Maitake Mushrooms, Kaffir Lime Sauce and Sea Beans. As the saying goes, silence is a virtue. Had he not told us he was missing the kampachi, we never would have known. Sure, we were stunned that he chose to serve two vegetarian courses in a row, but we were also thrilled at how innovative this course was, regardless of who cooked it! The blend of flavors was outstanding and also unlike anything we had eaten to this point.

The Seared Strip Loin with Spring Garlic Puree and Taro Ball looked like a piece of art. The beef was well seasoned and cooked, but the taro was far too dry and difficult to eat without it falling apart. Marcel's dessert was almost as clever as Ilan's had been.

Where Ilan had kept to the simplest use of ingredients, allowing Hawaii's vibrant fruits to speak for themselves, Marcel took one last opportunity to demonstrate his scientific tendencies. His Caviar and Blini with Kona Coffee and Hawaiian Chocolate Mousse showed skill and (at last!) a sweet sense of humor. If only he had more time to make more coffee caviar. This is the kind of dish I have a feeling we will all see perfected in years to come, the type of instant classic conceived by a young chef determined to make his mark on the world.

I think it is clear why, of the two, we chose Ilan as our Top Chef. They both have the passion and drive to be successful in whatever they now decide to do. But at that meal, Ilan's food reflected not just a capable hand, but also the ability to direct a team in creating the exact meal he envisioned from the start. It was consistent, considerate and, above all else, really fun to eat.

After all, isn't that what it's all about? Thanks again to everyone who participated in our blogs, voiced their opinions and came along on such a wild ride. See you next season!

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!