Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

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Lycheegate

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

Lycheegate

Lee Anne Wong on the Lychee controversy.

The best thing about working behind the scenes on Top Chef 2 is being able to get to know the people who made Season 1 happen. I had the privilege of working with a fantastic crew of people at The Magical Elves, many of whom I knew from Season 1, and I've had a lot of fun with them. Again, I was brought in around the 6th episode, so I only hear rumors about the first five episodes. I was talking to one of them the other day, commenting on how I still had to watch the 2nd episode so I could write my blog. He replied, "Ooooh...this episode is gonna be a good one." I could really only take his word for it. I called him after I watched it and basically let him know that I was slack-jawed.

Let's talk about reality TV and Top Chef. Why is reality TV so addicting? In my opinion, especially regarding this particular show, reality TV is not just about everyday people getting their chance to live out their hidden desire to be famous, or be on TV, or win a lot of money, it's about the fact that drama evolves naturally. And sometimes it's better than any script you'll ever read. Thank goodness I never had to live through a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call by Tom (though we did have some early days). On day 3, Mia's already sick. The shot of her throwing up in her mouth reminds me of Dave's moment during Ted's Dinner Party where he is sitting and crying with a big glass of wine in his hands. They keep showing it. But she braved on, as any tough competitor would have done. Kudos to her.


What is so eye-opening for me, though, is the fact that so many cooks out there have absolutely no clue about how to make sushi. Not that this is a bad thing. Like any other cuisine, it takes years, even decades, of practice and focus to even come close to mastering the flavors and techniques. I personally leave it to the experts and tend to be a purist and absolute snob when it comes to my sushi. There is one place in NYC that has ruined me for all other sushi, Restaurant Ichimura, and I tend to spend an obscene amount of money on what is the most sublime sushi. (Besides, if you are going to spend a lot of money on anything, it had better be to ensure the quality of your raw fish.) I've been fortunate enough to have done a short stage at Nobu in California, and also work with a few good sushi chefs.

A couple of years back, The French Culinary celebrated its 20th anniversary with a tremendous gala after the 2004 James Beard Awards. We transformed every kitchen in the school into a different themed culinary extravaganza. I was put completely in charge of the sushi and sake room. Let's just say it's a well-known fact that many people leave the awards hungry because the food disappears faster than you can say, "California Roll." My trusty team of chefs and I, from which three out of five of us had never made sushi before in their lives, put out a RIDICULOUS amount of sushi that evening. And we maki-ed and nigiri-ed our way through five hours of a non-stop crushing crowd. So I know how to make sushi. But it is the kind of sushi that pales in comparison to the spectacular work of a seasoned master such as Chef Shima. (Love that Marcel called him a "bad ass.") Again, I'll leave it to the pros.

It's interesting how the challenge was to create a sushi dish, and several of the contestants created composed raw dishes.

As defined by the food dictionary on epicurious.com: sushi [SOO-shee] A Japanese specialty based on boiled rice flavored with a sweetened RICE VINEGAR, a mixture called SUSHI MESHI. Once cooled, the rice has a glossy sheen and separates easily. There is a wide variety of sushi including nigiri sushi (thin slices of raw fish seasoned with WASABI and wrapped around or layered with this rice), hosomaki (thin sushi rolls) and futomaki (thick sushi rolls). To make these rolls, various chopped vegetables, raw fish, pickles, TOFU, etc. are enclosed in sushi rice and wrapped in thin sheets of NORI (seaweed). The rolls are then cut into slices. Sushi are designed to be finger food and can be served as appetizers, snacks or a full meal. Soy sauce is often served with sushi for dipping. See also SASHIMI.


I thought Cliff's dishes looked damn good, though, using clean, simple flavors. It's also pretty funny when Chef Shima shoves Mia's entire sushi roll into Padma's mouth. I applauded Otto for doing several different sushi rolls on his plate, though his presentation was lacking. So then comes the moment when he calls himself a "round eye from Cleveland, Ohio" in interview. Not sure if I was offended or amused, and I thought to myself, "Did he really just say that on national TV?" It gets better later when he assumes that the Project by Project event will be feeding the needy and hungry Asian community of Los Angeles. I'll say nothing more on this subject. Just think about it. On Team Vietnam, Betty really steps it up and shines. The whole teams seems to gel really well and there are some great key elements, like Betty's and Mia's experience as caterers, and Josie's familiarity with Vietnamese cuisine and flavors. Team Korea, on the other hand, is in for a world of trouble.

Poor Elia. Let's get drunk before we cook for 1,000 people. We (Season 1) probably would have, too. Marissa's just begging to be thrown under the proverbial bus. They are an absolute train wreck in the kitchen, working, or rather "not working," as a team.

Marisa and Elia tell Tom about Otto and the free canned goods and thus Lycheegate was born. Then Marisa curses when Tom calls the rest of the team over to tell them what is going on. What did she expect was going to happen? I rewound and paused this next moment several times, and it's because it was my second time watching the episode while writing this blog that I caught Marisa putting TABLESPOONS of knox gelatin in her recipe. If she miscalculated, even by a teaspoon, it can make all the difference in the world for the texture of your panna cotta. I love the part where she tries to bullshit Ming Tsai once the event starts. Needless to say, the team is less than cohesive. Now onto Team Vietnam. Josie looks like she's gone slightly nuts, and sort of reminds me of Tiffani and that time when my oven got turned down. Gotta stand by Mike on this one: Pho is actually a Vietnamese soup, and their pho looked less than brothy. Betty, however, gets the prize of the series, the Kyocera limited edition ceramic sushi knife. Not too many of us from Season 1 got something for winning an elimination challenge, let alone a Quickfire. I'll tell you what we got...we got to not go home. Once in a while you even got 16 hours to cater a wedding for 100. They'll be giving away Volvos on Season 3.

Team Korea goes to the judges table and just start mauling one another. It's kinda fun to see a bloodbath so early in the season. Frank morphs into a cross between Vince Lombardi and Tony Soprano, with a speech worthy of a professional locker room at halftime when you're down by 20 points. Lycheegate continues on. I don't think that Otto is a cheater, nor a thief. I think that he wasn't thinking AT ALL. I can fathom at least a dozen other reasons why the team failed, other than Otto's Debbie Downer move. I still would have sent Marissa home. But alas, Otto is the one to go. He seems to be very talented and passionate and I am sure this will not be the end of him and he will continue to prosper as a chef. However, if anyone can make out what he mumbles out in his exit speech, please let me know.

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I had the opportunity to hang out with most of the Season 2 cast at the Craftsteak premiere party last Tuesday evening. Big H cooked some amazing dishes as a sneak peek to his restaurant, Perilla. Suyai and Marisa happened to be there, as well as Elia, Mike, Carlos, and Marcel, who were all in from out of town. They joined the hometown gang, Sam, Josie, Cliff, and Ilan. On our end, Dave, Candice, Cynthia, Andrea, Miguel, H, and even Brian Hill showed up to officially pass the baton onto the new cast. We all had a damn good time together. I must say, Suyai and Marisa are lovely ladies and I wish them the best of luck with their careers.


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On a finishing note, I was invited by the Project by Project organization to participate in their NY event at the end of September. I gave a little cooking demo during the VIP reception and was put up for live auction along with many other great prizes. It was a really nice event and I was honored to be a part of it. Project by Project is a wonderful organization that supports and promotes all of its partnership organizations and companies, who in turn are the building blocks for many Asian American business, cultural, and community efforts. It was really nice to see our Season 2 contestants contribute to such a great event. Sorry this was long one, but I couldn't help it. The drama just keeps getting better!

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

So she's going to take more time shopping at Whole Foods -- and ask for the best of Melissa's basket and Adam's shrimp.

Bravotv.com: Let's dive right in. How did it feel to go shopping?
Gail Simmons: Shopping at Whole Foods was fantastic and hilarious. It made us realize that you need to be strategic, which was the point of the exercise for us. They gave us 30 minutes, but we took a little longer. We didn't let the producers push us around! We’re not contestants and we weren't going to stand for it! So, you realize how little time you have, and how big Whole Foods can be. You spend a lot of time running around.

 

My strategy with my pantry was to get a lot of fresh, delicious food that you can cook in lots of different ways. A good balance of proteins, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, fresh herbs, grains. But I didn't want to get too much. Everyone has different strategies; Padma got a ton of different ingredients. Tom's pantry was very pared down. Richard and I were somewhere in the middle.

 

Bravotv.com: Let's start by talking about the two dishes that came from your pantry?
GS: Katsuji and Melissa. They used the same protein, but their dishes were very different. They both used shrimp which one of the proteins that I bought. I bought something else too, something that I know has given people trouble in the past (which is why I specifically chose it) -- chicken wings. And I really wanted people to use them. Instead, they chose the easy way out because shrimps cook quickly.

Melissa's used a lot of fresh vegetables, which I was hoping she would: dill, mint, artichoke. I was so excited about all of it. I think it was beautifully done, a lovely salad with that little shrimp on top with spiced yogurt. But it was just a salad with a quick-cooking seafood. It was so similar to what she had done in Restaurant Wars when she made a scallop with grapefruit salad. I believe she could have done so much more. Melissa keeps saying she wanted to focus on her knife skills, and, of course, your knife skills have to be precise. But I need to see more than just knife skills. I want to see cooking skills, I want to see roasting skills, braising skills. I want to see her hands get a little dirtier and her dishes not be as superficial. It was a light, lovely dish. I was happy to eat it for lunch. But when you're competing against six other really talented chefs, we all want to see a little more depth. Katsuji on the other hand went big. He used his ingredients in a really powerful way. The potato salad, the poached shrimp had bold seasoning and I loved how they went together. It was a great dish. It may not have been the best of the day, but I was actually really happy with what he chose to make.

 

Bravotv.com: So for the rest, let's talk about who was on top and who was on bottom.

GS: At the top there was Gregory who really was going for Padma's heart there. He did great with his coconut milk curry. A really balanced, powerful dish. But it's something we’ve seen from Gregory many times in the past. In fact, in the first challenge he made a similar spicy curry dish with chicken. As much as we thought it was a delicious bowl of food, it was so typical of what we expect from Gregory. George's food was really exciting for us. This was my first time tasting his food and meeting him on Top Chef. He did a great job. The kebab was moist, seasoned really well, and the lentils were beautiful too. My only small issue with the dish is I couldn't understand why he separated the lentils from the kebab in two separate dishes. Why not put lentils on the plate and the kebab right on top, with a dollop of the yogurt? It seemed a little bit disconnected to me. But all-in-all, a really strong dish. Doug had the winning dish of the night. He used Richard's crazy pantry in a way that I thought was smart, clear-cut, and creative. The chorizo and mussels and peppers, just how Tom said, go together well, as do the cauliflower and the garlic. There was sweetness, there was spice, it was light and fresh but had a soulful, rustic flavor we all loved. You could see use of technique. On the bottom were dishes that tried to stretch and didn’t come through. Mei did a great job overall, except her lamb was undercooked. You want lamb medium, medium rare, but the center of that meat was raw to the point where the texture was chewy and almost cold. It would have been better if she had been able to cook it five minutes longer. We talked about Melissa's mistakes already, which also landed her on the bottom. I totally applaud Adam for trying to make a quick-flash marinade. He's been in the middle for so long and he thought "I gotta go big or I gotta go home." He tried to go big and unfortunately, he went home because of that technique. I get the idea of what he was doing, I don't doubt that it could've been successful if it were perhaps done in a different setting, with a little more control. But the flash marinade of his shrimp did not cook it as needed. It was still grey, it was still raw, and the texture of raw shrimp is not appealing. It's squeaky, it's squishy, and it becomes sort of mushy. We wanted it firm and cooked through. It's not like fish that you can eat sashimi-style Unfortunately Adam's hard work, his big risk sent him home.

I will miss him. I think he's an incredibly articulate, clever chef. I think he has an extraordinary career ahead of him. I'm excited to see him back in New York City. I can't wait to eat his food again. Also I want to say of this entire episode that was it was thrilling to see our superfans in the kitchen. We've never let people come into the kitchen in that way before, even though people ask us all the time. It brought so much good energy to have basically a live audience with us for the day. Everyone was so psyched. It was amazing to be around people who really love the show, to let them eat food from our talented chefs. SO much fun!