Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Go Greenmarket

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

Fin, Found, Floundering

What Danny Meyer Taught Gail Simmons

'Top Chef' Goes to Hog Heaven

Gris Gris Boucherie Ya Ya

Brian and Travis' Dud Spuds

Go Greenmarket

Lee Anne Wong on why the chefs should step-up to the challenge and stop bitching.

When I first discussed this challenge with Shauna and Scott, we asked ourselves, "What defines food as 'raw'?" We got into a long conversation revolving around how we should shape the rules to the Quickfire Challenge. Should we allow them to heat the food to 118F, the temperature at which food enzymes begin to break down? Should they be allowed to use sugar, which is a refined product, therefore not technically raw? It ended up being more complicated the more we discussed it, so we finally agreed to a simpler set of rules that both the contestants and the viewers could understand easily. No use of flame or heat whatsoever, but they would be able to purchase whatever was available at the greenmarket, even if it was an already cooked product (though use of a cooked product would be taken into account during judging).


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I am a huge fan of greenmarkets, local farming, and C.S.A.s (Community Supported Agriculture). There is a general movement in the restaurant business these days to support and showcase the products of smaller businesses and farms. Chefs are becoming more and more involved with sustainable agriculture, acting as the voices and architects for products that look and taste better, and will help to preserve the earth in the years to come. It is not only a more responsible practice (big business farming is terrible for our environment for many reasons), but on the flipside can add dollar value to your menu.

I will admit, I sometimes find it to be exploitative and overbearing to look at a menu where every dish reads like: "Bigfoot Farms Oven roasted Pork Belly, Santa Claus Rivers Petite Fingerling Potato Fondue, Leprechaun Valley Organic Sun-dried Green Zebra Heirloom Tomato Confit, Herb Salad picked from the Chef's Backyard." You get the idea. Most of the time I feel that it is in earnest, paying homage to those who spend their lives growing and raising that which eventually becomes lunch or dinner. On occasion I feel it is overkill, like just hopping on the gravy train of the public's general interest in eating organic and local.

Either way, let me tell you why you should shop at your local greenmarket if it is available. When you go to the grocery market, ever notice that your garlic has already sprouted by the time you get it home and unpeel it? Your ''fresh" corn on the cob is a starchy mess? The worst culprit tends to be those beautifully shaped, perfectly red tomatoes ... mealy and flavorless most of the time. Most of this produce has been mass-produced and genetically modified to make it look good and have an extended shelf life. Not exactly what Mother Nature intended. It is harvested and shipped to a plant, where it sits before it is cleaned and packaged for sale. Then it is shipped to a distributor, where it sits in a warehouse until it is shipped to a market. It then sits in the back storage room of a market until it is put out on the shelf for the consumer, where it sits, until after many hands rummage through it all and you finally have a terrible product to take home and cook for dinner. Your onions may be over a month old by now.

Think about it.

I shop at the grocery store. It is convenient, and at times cheaper than the greenmarket (though I will not discuss my disdain for a certain large and ridiculously expensive supermarket chain that I refer to as "The Evil Empire"). But I absolutely relish shopping at the greenmarket. Some dishes come to me in my dreams. (I've been in Los Angeles for the past two weeks, shopping at a crappy supermarket due to convenience and a busy schedule.) I basically spent an hour at the airport this morning thinking about how nice it's going to be to hit the Union Square Greenmarket on the way to work tomorrow.

I am literally watering at the mouth, thinking about my $8 a dozen Aracuna Chicken Eggs. And I know I can find some beautiful winter greens, like some cavalo nero (black Tuscan kale) or hearty Swiss chard. Lunch will be good tomorrow. I have been giving cooking demonstrations on Fridays in Union Square, and look forward to returning in the Spring, when it will be warm enough for me to cook outdoors using the fantastic products of the greenmarket and all of my favorite things like wild asparagus and morel mushrooms begin to show up. (The winter quarter at Union Square is considerably smaller in size, but I still shop for all of the delicious root vegetables and fruits there.)


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Okay, so this greenmarket raw Quickfire should not only be easy, but a challenge that I would expect them all as chefs to welcome with open arms. The morning of the challenge, I had scoped out the market and told Shauna that the contestants should have no problem creating a fabulous dish from what was available, as there was a large selection. Understanding flavors, textures, and technique would be key to this challenge, as well as imagination. The judge is Chef Raphael Lunetta of Jiraffe in Santa Monica (SUCH a cool guy). Let me tell whose dishes I didn't like.

First and foremost, Mia; She talks about how awesome fresh corn and heirloom tomatoes are, and then covers it all up in gobs of sour cream and mayonnaise. The plating looked like something straight out of a bad diner (yes Mia, presentation DOES matter in this competition). Betty, too. Her dish seemed all over the place, and grape guacamole doesn't seem to be cohesive with the rest of the plate.

Frank and Elia chose to marinate their raw seafood, adding flavor while curing and essentially cold cooking the fish, a great technique. Though it is not discussed, I thought that Sam's dish was not only eye appealing, but delicious (I got to sneak a taste of the camera plate). Pickling is another way to add flavor without adding heat, and it is one of my very favorite techniques, having worked at a Scandinavian restaurant for three years.

Ilan's commentary on Marcel's winning dish is one borne out of pettiness, in my opinion. Watermelon, tomato, and basil are a clean and classic flavor combination, and they are ingredients that I myself like to put together in summertime dishes. I watched all of them shop, and Marcel seemed to not just buy the tomatoes, but tasted them to make sure they were the most flavorful tomatoes he could find in the market. Good for him. His immunity shuffle, however, is obnoxious. The one thing I have to commend Marcel for is that even though he won immunity, he still wanted to win the challenge, rather than play "not to lose" like we have seen so many times before.
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Some say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. While I agree, I am not a huge proponent of breakfast foods. Take me to a diner at 8:00 a.m., I'll probably get a BLT and fries (it has bacon...a 24-hour food). When thinking about what to cook for a breakfast of athletes I immediately think: protein and complex carbohydrates. The challenge for the contestants was not knowing what heat sources or cooking equipment would be available to them. The other challenge was making it gourmet. Most of them complained about their $30 budget. Give me $20 and I'll show you what I can make for 10 athletes. They were thrilled to be at the beach, not so thrilled to be cooking over a fire pit in the sand. Good god, how they bitched.

Spoiled by their shiny, spec'ed out kitchens at home, they were honestly put out by the conditions that were set forth in the challenge. Tom, Gail, and I had a chat on the beach about how most chefs would attack this challenge with enthusiasm. There is something to be said about cooking over an open flame. Slightly primal, and even a lot of fun, sort of like camping (though I wonder how many of them have ever been camping).

Note: A great chef is flexible and can improvise at the drop of a hat, no matter where they are. I call it mercenary cooking. JoAnn and I discussed in length how much cooking equipment we thought would be sufficient. We also knew that sand would be a challenge, but the smarter contestants worked on top of their coolers (problem solved). Most of them had to change their original ideas to adapt to these new conditions. The ladies had a much easier time with this. I thought some of the best dishes included Betty's wrapped eggs and Ilan's Spanish tortilla. Both looked not only appetizing, but they also came across to me as "gourmet."

One thing that bothered me, however, was the use of premade foods; Mia's frozen crabcakes, Elia's waffles, and Mike's dry roasted chicken. I understand the frustration of shopping and not knowing what the heat element would be, but I find it to be too easy of a way out for challenges that are based around your creativity and abilities as a cook. (I got a lot of sh#t for the cake mix, but we still had to actually make it and bake it.)

In the end, the ladies' calm under pressure and gourmet touch is what helped them win this challenge. Elia's sweet and savory creation is reminiscent of a McGriddle, if you've ever had one. Frank, Sam, and Cliff all ended up at the losing table for numerous reasons. I think I was most surprised by Sam's misadventure with the gray eggs and ham. Obviously a big mistake folding in the pesto to the hot eggs, but I think I was more curious where his idea was originally going had he had use of a full kitchen. In any case, Frank's overcooked eggs got him sent home. I never really got to know Frank. Other than the death threats, he seems like a pretty happy, accomplished chef. I wish him the best and hope that his mushroom wonderland eventually hammers itself out and makes its way onto his menu in San Diego.
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I'd like to take this opportunity to brag about what a great guy Raphael Lunetta is. I ate at Jiraffe before I left Los Angeles after we wrapped. He made us an absolutely phenomenal tasting menu based around ingredients he had bought at the greenmarket that morning. He is super-nice, he surfs, and he's an award-winning chef. If you ever get the chance, go eat there. His entire staff is fantastic and the food is full of fresh flavors and beautifully presented. I ate there again last week with my boyfriend and several of our friends for his birthday. Chef Raphael made us another banging menu. The banana cream pie is highly recommended, for after you've eaten all of your fresh veggies. In closing, go to the greenmarket if you can, and remember that firepits are handy for way more than just marshmallows.

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Gail discusses the impressive Thanksgiving meal the chefs prepared and why she thinks it was the right time for Stacy to go home.

Bravotv.com: Let's talk about Thanksgiving. . .
Gail Simmons: We've done a lot of Thanksgiving episodes over the years. I can remember back in Season 2 when Anthony Bourdain judged and the meal our chefs cooked was the most embarrassing, horrible meal in Top Chef history. We've come a long way. In fact we’ve come all the way to Plimoth Plantation - the site of the very first Thanksgiving, which is pretty cool.

Bravotv.com: Before that, we saw the chefs tackling a Quickfire Challenge at the cranberry bog.
GS: Cranberries are very beautiful. I always knew cranberries were harvested in a cranberry "bog," but I was never really sure what a cranberry bog was. Now we all know. It's impressive! The chefs and Tiffani said it was a really fun challenge -- very seasonal and very unique to that little corner of the world. Plus we gave them a little workout.

Then we went to the plantation, and had them make us Thanksgiving dinner using only original tools and ingredients from the very first Thanksgiving. It was amazing to be at a plantation situated in the middle of this pilgrim village that was recreated almost exactly as it would have been in the 17th century. It was authentic to the point where we weren’t even given forks . Forks hadn’t been invented yet! We just had a very primitive knife and a big honking wooden spoon (which I will say is very efficient for shoveling delicious food into your face).

Bravotv.com: Will you be using all of these techniques at your own Thanksgiving?
GS: I might. I mean the pantry that they had to use, though not necessarily what we all would think of a traditional was quite abundant. The food was quite amazing -- all the colored corn and squash, the lobster, the duck. There was a lot to choose from. I think the chefs did a great job of giving us nine very distinct dishes -- all of which were relatively good. There wasn't a major clunker among them. But that sometimes makes it a lot harder to judge because you still have to send someone home. They served this meal to a table with Chef Ken Oringer, a good friend and one of the most acclaimed restaurateurs in Boston, as well as descendants from the Mayflower and descendants from the Wampanoag, the native people living in the area when the Mayflower arrived. It was really wonderful as it gave us a lot of insight into what they ate, how they ate, how they prepared things. Our diners were so knowledgeable and excited for us to be there.

Braovtv.com: Onto the food, because isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about. Let’s talk about the good ones first.
GS: All of them were good, but my top four were: Mei, Doug, Katie, and Katsuji.

Mei made a roasted cabbage with trout vinaigrette, which was a very unusual dish. It was so unexpected and savory. She roasted the cabbage on the charcoal fire which gave it such delicious flavor, then made the vinaigrette with trout which was poured over the cabbage. It was a perfect starter for our meal, so light. It had all this crunch, and felt like a salad but, because of the trout vinaigrette and the duck fat, was a little more rich and substantial.

Doug also made a phenomenal dish of spit-roasted rabbit. The roasted radishes, ramps, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and lots of garlic, came together with the rabbit to make a really excellent dish. I loved that all of these dishes served were really rustic because of the way our chefs were forced to cook. They couldn't pull out tweezers and individually cook a million different components. They didn't have access to fancy equipment. Everything took on the flavor of the fire. Doug's dish was so well-conceived. The hazelnuts and the ramps went so well together. Everything had this earthiness to it. It was a dish I could see working well in any restaurant.

Another dish we didn't bring out on the top at Judges Table, but could have easily been a fourth best dish was Katie's stuffing with blueberries, cornbread, and sautéed lobster. Here was another unusual use of ingredients -- the fact that she added blueberry in her stuffing made it so unique. I was skeptical when it came to the table, thinking it would be too sweet. In other cases that would be true, but because the blueberries were so fresh, tart and bursting with juice it didn't come across that way at all. It's fascinating that blueberries were an original ingredient served at the first Thanksgiving. I thought it was really innovative of Katie to use them in this way. The stuffing was moist, it was savory, it was not sweet at all, it made sense with the blue cornmeal. The sautéed lobster on top seemed a little bit superfluous, because there was so much flavor in the stuffing itself, but it certainly didn't detract from the dish. Putting lobster on anything makes it more delicious right? I said it on the show, but I kept going back for more of this dish. I couldn't figure it out, but I couldn't stop. I was definitely impressed with Katie that day.

Our favorite dish was Katsuji's. Surprisingly here was a dish where Katsuji really shined because he kept it simple, as we know he can do but he seldom does. If you remember back to that first episode, he made a dish that had 17,000 components. I think his Thanksgiving dish was an example of what Tom tried to explain in the episode -- sometimes when the chefs are given really strict limitations it makes them cook better. Katsuji was very limited in his use of ingredients and equipment. He had to stay focused and because he had to share this very primitive kitchen space, he couldn't go wild doing 50 things. In this case it served him well. It was a fantastic dish. The butternut squash and lobster were such a perfect combination, the chestnuts and the chili butter made it feel like fall, made it feel rustic just like Thanksgiving should. It was a so well done and we all enjoyed it. Katsuji was our winner.

Bravotv.com: So now the other side. . .
GS: I must say that none of these dishes were really horrible, but you have to rank them, that's the whole point of the game. And there were certainly some that were less delicious than others.

None of us had a problem with the fact that Melissa just did vegetables, per se. I'm all for a vegetarian dish at a Thanksgiving meal, in fact in at my Thanksgiving meal there will always be vegetarian dishes. But our issue with the dish was that, if you're going to do vegetables which will ultimately be compared to everyone else's dish, you need to really focus on amping up the flavor. Compared to the intense flavor that came from roasting meat and fish on an open fire, compared to all of the rich food we were eating, her dish faded into the background. She did show impeccable knife work, and I know she put a lot of time and effort into it. But when you're eating nine dishes it's all about which one stands out the most, which one calls you back for more. Melissa's just hid in the background. It wasn't as bold as it needed to be to stand up to the others.

In terms of Keriann's dish, I understand her thought process. When her dough wasn't working because of the heat and humidity, she switched from doing a blueberry pie to using that blueberry filling over venison. I know she said she didn't add sugar to it, but when you cook down fruit, there's natural pectin that starts to thicken the fruit, so it takes on that slightly gelatinous texture and a very sweet flavor. We didn't even know about the switch when it happened. Tom and Ken knew from their walk through, but they never told us she had meant to do pie. Regardless, the second her dish came to the table, we knew that sauce wasn't just for venison. We tasted it and it tasted unmistakably like pie filling. That’s when we were made aware that she originally intended for it to be for a pie. The venison was cooked well, the hazelnuts that went with it were a great idea; all these flavors go together, but I guarantee you, if she were to make that sauce again for that same venison dish, she would make that sauce differently. She would not have cooked down the blueberries half as much. She would’ve added more savory ingredients and seasoned it differently. It was well-intentioned, but not executed in the way it needed to be.

And finally Stacy. Stacy's dish was a tricky one. The idea of her clams with ramps and butternut squash was lovely. It was a great starter for a Thanksgiving meal like this, but there was something in those clams that didn't go down well for any of us. We all couldn't really pinpoint what the flavor was. For me and for Ken, there was a strange earthy flavor we couldn't understand, and it was a little unsettling. It didn't take on the texture of eating dirt. We talked about that, it wasn't that we felt there was sand or grit in it. It was just an odd flavor that tasted like the flavor of earth and dirt, and not in the way that mushrooms are nutty and "earthy." It was a off-putting, almost as if there was an herb that hadn't been cleaned, or some component that wasn't balancing with the rest of her ingredients. In general of all of the dishes, not only was that flavor not right, Stacy's dish was a little more unfinished than the rest. So after a lot of thought, we had to make this decision. And it wasn't easy. Stacy's a great chef, and we thought that all of the dishes were generally very well done for this challenge. It was a memorable Thanksgiving meal in every way. But that's the way the game is played, one person has to go, and we all agreed that Stacy's dish was the weakest dish that day.

I know it's been a hard road for her with her boyfriend away. She was tired I think. It happens. You get rundown for sure, it's a long haul. We’re grateful for having her there. We're very proud of her, she did a great job, and she held her head up high through it all. She represented Boston in the best possible way.

Bravotv.com: And in two weeks, it’s Restaurant Wars.
GS:
December we are back with Restaurant Wars -- craziness, madness, insanity ensues. It's a harrowing, heart-pounding episode. I can't wait to talk about it!

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