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!

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Hugh Acheson wonders about the health of the kids at Emerson College and debates the cost of roasting that much foie gras.

In this, the tenth episode of this 12th season, we open in the kitchen of the chefs super secret lair. Katusji has taken his wit, wisdom and wherewithal back to his Kosher Japanese Cal-Mex empire to work on a masa matzoh ball taco. He is described as "the most loveable dick in the entire world," which seems pretty on point. These remaining five seem saddened because Katsuji provided respite from the drudgery of competition. They mourn as well, because all understood, though it was never talked about, like a solemn vow, that they could all beat Katsuji in this cooking game. He was the San Diego Padres of Top Chef, the team that all the other competition knew would be an easy beat when the time came.

So the quintet of Mei, Gregory, Dougeeeee, Melissa and George remain. They are all have the stuff that could allow them to win the dough, but Mei and Gregory have really shown that if we must have hierarchy then they are the top two contenders.

Quickfire begins with Andy and his college roommate. Andy just told the roommate that those "games" they played late at night in their bunkbeds WILL be talked about in his next book, so Dave, you have some explaining to the wife and kids. Andy, we are told, is "known for his antics." That he is.

Andy exorts the contestants to hook up with each other and I immediately think of Dougie spooning with Georgie. I then have to wash my eyes out with steel wool and bleach to remove the image. This hurts and still the image remains.

Padma gets Andy back on task and she introduces the Quickfire. It is a collegiate showdown of ramen proportions but the catch is that they must use the contents of the fridge of some poor frosh. Out come the stoner, the nerd, the sorority girl, the lady who should have graduated in '05 and one other innocuous soul. Their fridge contents make me worry about a scurvy outbreak at Emerson College.

We are regaled with stories of the craziest things they all did in college. Melissa built a 24-story beer bong. I went to school in Montreal so my craziest times were hanging out at Biftek on St. Laurent and getting drunk playing pool. Oh wait, I DID THAT EVERY NIGHT until I dropped out of college. Luckily I had some cooking skillz.

Gregory concocts a bacon, Doritos, leftover pizza broth, and I am immediately worried about the future of our country. Dougie has made a Cobb salad ramen with a "coconut-pineapple" broth, and I start looking for my Canadian passport. George, who has no idea what ramen is, 'cause Mike Isabella has never let him out before, is cobbling together a version of SpaghettiOs 2.0s. It has a hint of hot dog, but so does Andy, so this may be well liked. Melissa is making a "Crunchy Carbonara Ramen" which is probably already dispensed out of a coin machine in Tokyo and actually sounds pretty tasty. There is hope. Mei makes a smoked tomato miso with upcycled sushi. Sounds okay, so I stow the passport back and the "go bag."

There is no immunity but the winner gets 5K. Not bad for fifteen minutes of work/fame. Bottoms are Mei and Dougie. Tops are Gregory and George with Melissa winning this murky challenge.

They go to the little room of stewage and watch Julia Child. Then Jacques Pepin stops by and everyone gasps in amazement. I do too because if you don’t love Pepin you are not a nice person. He da bomb.

The Elimination Challenge is to come up with a dish inspired from Julia's cooking. Three hours to cook and one hour to finish on site tomorrow. They chat with Jacques for a while to learn the secrets of Julia, other than the fact that she was totally a CIA spy.

Doug is silent because of where he comes from. Texas shrugs as he says, "I grew up in East Texas and here I am meeting Jacques Pepin." Then he follows this ode to the state of Texas with, "I am from Texas so I can't pronounce things very well." C'mon Doug, your state gave us that Rick Perry character! He's fun to watch!

Doug is insistent on making a whole roasted foie gras. George is braising some veal and presenting it with some vegetables and pommes puree. There is some French going on around here. Melissa is challenging herself with shortribs. Mei is making duck a l'orange but you know it will show off some of herself. You can't spell Mei without ME. Gregory is making Coq au Vin. Tom wanders in during cooking to advise them to channel Julia and then they all try to sound like Julia. None of them will ever be known for their impersonation abilities.

We eat. It's outside. It's beautiful. The diners, or the we, are Dana Cowin, Jacques, Alex Prudhomme (related to Julia), Tom, Padma, Boston chefs Barbara Lynch, Joanne Chang, Mary Dumont, and little old me. I am hungry so don't talk much.

The food is really good overall. There were some issues like drier ribs, monotonous veal, raw foie, and maybe some flabby duck skin, but pound-for-pound they did the dishes well. Tops are Gregory and Mei, and the verdict is an interesting one. Gregory nailed a classic, but it was like he channeled Julia too much and did a textbook version, while Mei nailed a riff on a dish with her duck a l'orange. It is arbitrary who should win but Mei pulls it off and wins a just decision.

Not so arbitrary but still close is the bottom trio of Melissa, George, and Doug. Melissa erred in rib cookery. George cooked stunning veg but it was the veal that was a yawn. Alas, Doug bows out with his dish, a dish that he had never done but dreamed about. You don't just do roasted whole lobes of foie at the restaurant you work at, cause the owner chef would probably stab you if you ruined the 300 bucks in product. But this is TV money so he took a chance. The problem is that cooking whole foie is tricky. You can''t sear it too much or you will render away the beauty, and then you need to temper-roast it in a medium heat oven. Then it comes out and you rest it on a wire rack. It is pretty much served just warm. He did all of those steps, but over-seared it and then cooked it a hair hot, and not long enough, resultingin a greasy, yet raw internal. Funny thing is that the rest of the stuff on the plate was awesome. Well Doug, you were a favorite of ours and I wish you much success in Last Chance Kitchen.

And now we are four. Until next time.

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