Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

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Lycheegate

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

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 Has No Problem With Blood

But she did have some problems with Katsuji's ode to Stephen King.

Bravotv.com: Interesting challenge this week with the chefs taking on some iconic literary works.
Gail Simmons: Obviously, there is a lot of great literature that comes from New England. What I liked most about the challenge was how different all the authors were. I also loved that it forced the chefs to do something a little cerebral and not as literal. It forced them to get out of their own heads, get out of the kitchen, to take inspiration from something completely outside of the food world, which I think is important.

 

Overall, the food was excellent. We’re at the point of competition when there are six incredible chefs left and not a weak link among them. We started with 16, so this is when everything turns. It gets super challenging, and the chefs really have to push themselves to prove their worth. We start to nitpick because the food gets really good. This is my favorite part in the competition because we eat really well, and our job gets more challenging. It's not easy to sift out the weaker dishes from the stronger dishes any more.

This is my favorite part in the competition because we eat really well, and our job gets more challenging.

Gail Simmons

 

I loved how so many of the chefs took inspiration in such an inspiring and innovative way. They really tried to get in the heads of their authors and show us an interpretation of a literary work on the plate. Some were more successful than others for sure, both in the translations as well as in the flavors of their food. At the end of the day, it could be the most beautiful plate of food interpreted in the most magical way, but if it doesn’t taste good and it doesn’t come together when you eat it, then it's not worth its weight.

 

All the food tasted absolutely delicious that day. There was nothing that didn't work in terms of the dishes in and of themselves. There were no major mistakes. There was slight overcooking on Gregory's meat, slight thickness in Katsuji's sauce. There were certainly a few people we thought needed to work on their interpretation though.

 

I do remember that if George hadn't had had immunity, he might have very well gone home that night. He did a beautiful fish dish for Dr. Seuss' One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, but it was so fussy and formal. The only thing that it really had to do with Dr. Seuss was that there were red peppers, blue potatoes, and fish. If you’re going to show me one of Dr. Seuss' greatest works, show us an absurd, witty, upside-down, topsy-turvy world on a plate. It was a chance for him to really reach, to branch out into something crazy and whimsical and silly and fun. His fish was none of those things. It was lovely, but I felt like I had to eat it in a quiet room all alone, which is not what Dr. Seuss would have wanted. But he had immunity so that’s that.

 

Gregory's explanation of The Raven was an interesting one. I liked that he used the Cornish hens. The food all tasted absolutely excellent. The crispy nori that he put with it tied things together well -- a little sea, a little earthy flavor with the beets. It was a well thought out dish on its own, but he didn't dig deep enough into his interpretation. Just having a small piece of chicken doesn't really do it for me to signify the depth of the story and the importance of the raven as a symbol in Edgar Allan Poe's work. And Chef Tony Maws piece of beef was clearly overcooked. So, as much as it was a pretty plate and a delicious plate to eat, we all wanted it to say more. It seemed like a superficial interpretation. Do something with the raven! Show us something stark, something dark -- not just a little square of grilled hen beside a piece of steak.

 

Melissa, Doug, and Mei all did a great job. Melissa’s Nathaniel Hawthorne -inspired halibut was cooked absolutely perfectly. This lovely mushroom broth showed that she spent a lot of effort and time on her vegetables, which she always does. The last couple of challenges she served us light, beautiful plates, but we wanted something with more depth. We wanted something that does more than just shows us that she knows how to cut and roast vegetables. Here, that skill was perfectly situated in balance with the seared halibut. Her vegetables were placed in such a beautiful little garden. The charred corn and mushroom broth took us from a light springy dish into something a little deeper and richer, just enough that we understood what she was trying to say. This was the best effort I've seen from Melissa in several challenges. I was really impressed by the beauty and the simplicity of her food. I think it really spoke to her author and her literary work, and the agrarian life in the story she was presenting.

 

You could tell that Dougie worked really hard to coax flavor out of his carrots, and cumin, orange, and radish, all complimented each other so peacefully in his "Sunshine in a Cup." It came to the table and really was a ray of sunshine. It was a long day on set for us, and at the end of it getting this gorgeous bowl of simple but gracefully made carrot soup showed how thoughtful he was. There was so much flavor to it. He literally poured his heart into this soup and that's exactly what Emily Dickinson would have done.

 

But Mei was our winner! I think this was an example of a challenge executed perfectly. They all made great dishes, but hers was just one step above the rest. Her dish was so well-conceived: All these immaculately roasted vegetables, with a pile of snow on top to signify winter on Walden Pond, for Henry David Thoreau's iconic work. The snow technique itself can feel like a gimmick, but in this case it wasn't at all. It had so much flavor. It was Tom Kha snow! It tasted of lemongrass and fish sauce and so it gave an otherwise simple dish this incredible intensity. It woke you right up and it made you take notice of the gorgeous vegetables she cooked, which I think is so much the point of Walden, understanding the rhythm of nature, the seasons and the time that Henry David Thoreau spent observing them in solitude. This dish was one of the best I'd eaten all season long.

 

Sadly Katsuji's Stephen King dish, while full of great ideas, didn't come together in the way that we hoped. We liked that it was messy. We had no problem with his display of "blood." I liked the idea that he did a short rib as the mother and a piece of veal as the child for Carrie. The white beans and chorizo, the ham -- all these flavors go together well enough. But his beet puree was very thick and clumpy, it didn't quite have the texture we wanted to compliment the other components, and to symbolize the pig's blood in the story. Not that he had to be so literal with this, because I wanted them to be abstract and get in the mind of the authors that they were representing, but the fact that he didn't use pig in some way here seemed to miss the mark. He used ham and chorizo but, pig's blood -- there's so much you can do there! It's such an iconic moment in storytelling, when Carrie had pig's blood poured over her. I liked that he used hot sauce as her rage, but again, it all just needed to be a little more cohesive. It felt a bit scattered -- and not in the way that Carrie would have felt scattered. In the way that his idea didn’t coalesce. Bottom line: we wanted the sum to be more than its parts. It didn't add up to a cohesive dish.

 

 

Katsuji is such a bright charismatic guy. He has so many great ideas. He has great personality and he's a talented chef. He's irresistible! And he's got Last Chance Kitchen to try and fight his way back.

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