Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Deadly Sins

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

Deadly Sins

Padma Lakshmi on what she thought went wrong in the seven sins challenge.

This week's Quickfire was not one of my favorites: It required the contestants to make a dish based on color, and I think that threw some of the chefs off, even one taking it too literally and not concentrating on the overall objective of Top Chef, to make delicious and appetizing food that is also presented well as it would be in a professional kitchen of some standing.

I felt badly for Cliff who is color blind and got the worst color, or at least the hardest color: purple. I do think he made a valiant effort by trying to match the color of eggplant. But Cliff's own instinct was right, often eggplant does just look black, or close to black. Perhaps if he had chosen a red cabbage which has that lovely purple magenta color, he'd have done better.

I think it's important to note that Marcel offered to help him choose, yet Cliff's reluctance to trust Marcel kept him from taking that offer. More on the Marcel matter in a bit. I thought Michael showed surprising sophistication with his choice of the salmon. The dish had a delicacy and prettiness not often seen in Michael's dishes. Maybe the distraction of his pain led him to stop thinking so much about what he usually does (fry things), and make something that catered to the parameters of the challenge. I was a bit sorry for him that the one Quickfire Challenge he finally did win, did not give him immunity. I am in a way glad, however, as I wouldn't have liked to have him sit the Elimination Challenge out.

I don't know if he'd have even been allowed to actually sit it out, we would have had to sit around and talk it out I suppose, which invariably takes a long time. Everything you see on TV is only a section of what happens -- Judges' Table, for instance, can take hours -- often after the end of the day and a large heavy meal. All this in that heat wave made for very tense talks at times. But each of us judges has equal weight, and all of us have to say our peace. It's only the Quickfire that has just one judge, the guest judge for that episode, while I am there as a guide, and I do taste everything and report some of that to my co-judges, as does Tom when he does a walk-through of the kitchen during Elimination Challenges and reports back to us. The reason we have just the guest decide the Quickfire is a good one: It keeps the judging fresh. When that guest judge walks in he has no idea of what's gone on in the previous episodes, the personal conflicts between them, or who is the weak or strong competitor. He or she is just judging what is put in front of them. That, I think, is very healthy not only for the chefs but for us, as it brings the perspective of another palate.

But back to the Quickfire. What was Betty thinking?? Why would anyone want to eat a hollowed-out zucchini filled with green beans and sunflower seeds and topped with a pesto-like messy sauce? OK yes, she did get the color green, and when you see her interview, you can see how she's locked into that and so steadfast about making it GREEN that she loses sight of the bigger picture. She took the challenge too literally and also her lack of attention to presentation showed, badly. When I look at her plate compared to say Sam, I'd rather eat Sam's. It was yellow, but not all yellow, in the way that any food all one color isn't that appetizing. Also the savory and sweet layering of Sam's flavors was more sumptuous and inviting bite after bite than Betty's green grub. Betty lost sight of the taste, the presentaion, everything. I know it's only half an hour, but so? Her competitors came up with much more interesting, delicious and adventurous plates. Betty has a wonderful way with people and her customer service is excellent, but she lacked a bit of imagination in the Quickfire, latching on to the idea of GREEN so hard it prevented her from addressing whether her dish made one want to dig into it, and come back for more. Also, green is the easiest color in my opinion, and she could have done a dish more substantial than just some veggies; it looked like a health food preparation gone wrong. I love the Quickfires because they bring out the instinctual cook in the contestants, I feel they don't have time to overthink it, and it's thinking fast on your feet in the kitchen that separates the good chefs from the great ones. padmasblog_dinner_320x240.jpg

The dinner for Debi Mazar. I thought the idea to do a dinner inspired by the seven deadly sins was not only fun but poetic in a way. I was really very curious to see what the chefs would come up with for each of their deadly sins. There are times when I've been inspired to write a recipe based on something I've read: MFK Fisher's tangerines in Paris prompted waffles laced with the aroma of orange blossoms, a beautiful banquet set on a table painted in all its Renaissance glory at the Metropolitan Museum inspired me to make an old-fashioned roast with all its trimmings, a scene in Pan's Labyrinth, which I just saw the other night, reminded me of the garnet beauty of a fresh cut pomegranate, and so I have been sprinkling them in my salads as well as into a crumble that is normally made with cranberries and pineapple. Many things in life inform our inner creative process and it is the special person who can let all the brilliant hints life shows us into his or her subconscious.
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Debi was a dream, a real gal's gal, and her friends were really up for being part of our little exercise. Again we were in LA in a heat wave and I almost fainted that evening when I got out of the air conditioned car and was hit by a wall of heat outside. Sam's ceviche was very refreshing and also showed great imagination as well as forethought to the environment he was serving his dish in. He had wrath as his sin, and he could have done something not only spicy, but something piping hot, which would have been a mistake. He went first, which I always think is smart because your audience is hungrier at the beginning of a seven course meal. His dish was delicious and pure and refreshing, and his chile popcorn had a great amount of heat packed into these innocuous looking little kernels of popcorn, surprising you when you popped one into your mouth, much as a person with a short temper surprises you with his unexpected anger.

Betty's soup course represented Sloth. I'll say. Again, maybe too literal an interpretation. No one wants to drink a hot liquid from glass, especially a tall flute. And the residue left by not straining the soup enough was unappealing. Unfortunately, Betty failed to be imaginative again. Those soups were nice but nothing to write home about. Perhaps she could have done something slow roasted, like a roast, not faux slow roasted soup combination. I think I kept picking tiny pieces out of my mouth for fear I was smiling with Betty's soup still stuck between my teeth.

Cliff's Greedy South Asian Bouillabaisse was interesting but not nearly as "greedy" as it could have been. I appreciate the abundance of seafood in it, but whenever we eat a stew like that with coconut milk at my house, we tend to get greedy about the broth more than anything, that's where all the flavor is. I think a number of the diners commented on this. I think Cliff was trying to present the dish in an elegant way by piling the seafood into a pyramid in the bowl so that it would seem like a little mountain of pricey seafood, but what resulted for some of us is that the seafood which was not submerged became a bit cold or dry, and we all longed for more of that broth.
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Other highlights: Michael again, surprised us with his envious fish course. It was prepared well, was tasty and delicate, as well as appealing on the plate. Again, if Michael himself hadn't told us he prepared it, I never would have guessed. I wish Michael would do more of this kind of restrained tasteful food than the bar plates he usually comes up with. I'm glad that he did show us some of this side of him, even if it was late in the game. But he's still in it, despite losing his eggs at the beach, and all the other strange food (Thanksgiving and the Snickers and Cheetos concoction come racing to mind) somehow Michael has hung in there. We'll see for how long. Elia did well with her proud chicken and she always succeeds when she chooses to do a dish that is simple but very well-executed, and she has enough training to do that, again Thanksgiving somes to mind.

And now for the desserts. I know many may have wanted to taste Ilan's dessert over Marcel's when the viewer polling was done when it aired -- but I was there. And leaving the played-out foam aside, Marcel's dessert beat Ilan's to a pulpy mess. Ilan's ill-conceived Gluttony platter was too sickly, wet, and limp to win anything, especially as a last course. There was what looked like a brick of brownie, with a macadamia nut brittle with creme anglais sauce and a funnel cake drenched in simple syrup and powdered sugar. A case of too many weak flavors fighting on the same plate against each other. Now Ilan is a good cook, and he's capable of some excellent and delicious food, and I'm sure that funnel cake was tasty and the right consistency when he originally prepared it. But funnel cake, like many fried sweet foods, does not travel well and doesn't need pairing with other desserts. If he wanted to make a gluttonous dessert, what about going the way of simplicity as Elia did and making a big banana split with some clever flavor twist if he wanted to be creative? Marcel didn't do a lustful dessert but his concept of using cherries was a good one, and it did taste like cherries. My mouth was bursting with cherry flavor; he used fresh cherries in the height of summer in California, and it tasted like it. His portion and presentation were anything but lustful, but he is young. I'd still order that on a menu any day over the toothache soggy surprise that Ilan served us.

I understand the pressure is getting to the chefs, it was getting to me just watching them and it was a very hot day, but there is no excuse for ganging up on Marcel like that. I know that he can be annoying and I'm sure living with him isn't exactly fun. We've all had that kid in school that everyone loved to pick on and I do think somehow this group has decided that he's their bespectacled Piggy in their "Lord of the Flies" scenario. I felt bad for him watching the tape of the show. I saw what he said to Betty and he didn't snap at her, he just told her to wait firmly enough to get his point across. The voice you hear telling Marcel to "hold up" is the voice of our Assistant Director Sean who relays when the cameras are ready to film the one and only time that food is served to that bunch of live waiting dinner guests, and if Marcel hadn't waited or told Betty to wait loudly enough, we would have missed the shot. And Betty and others know that. They just decided that whatever little thing he did was an excuse for them all to behave in that way. Who's heard of kitchen folk being that thin-skinned? If you don't like being barked at now and again, you should really get out of the kitchen. I do think they're a little frightened of him and his skills, whereas they aren't threatened by, say, Mike -- who they seemed to helped along on more than one occasion. I'm not saying that Marcel is completely innocent, but watching tonight's episode, I was shocked by the level of aggression on everyone's part. I do hope this doesn't continue to be the case. This is supposed to be a professional environment, not one where personal attacks are commonplace.

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Gail can't believe that Keriann wouldn't have shown her teammates how she wanted her dish executed.

Bravotv.com: This week was Restaurant Wars!
GS: Restaurant Wars is always an exciting episode because it’s so hard to do what we are asking of chefs to do. Opening a restaurant is truly so difficult, on a good day if you’re dealing with people you love and work with all the time, let alone with three people you’re competing against and have never worked with in this way before. You don’t really know their strengths and weaknesses, and this is where that it all comes out.

Bravotv.com: So looking first at the Grey Team, Melissa, Doug, Mei, Adam
GS: I knew it was a strong team from the start, but we’ve had plenty of strong teams that have failed in the past. You never know until you sit down at that table to eat their meal. I could tell that they were all serious and they have all performed pretty well up to this point though. Although the other team was stacked too, with Gregory who's won a lot and Katsuji who was coming off his win in the Thanksgiving challenge. Keriann and Katie have made some great dishes too. It was anyone’s game.

I think it was smart of the Grey Team to chose Adam as their front of the house man. He’s gregarious, he’s affable, he is a great storyteller, a great talker, and he has a sense of urgency and confidence. Sometimes he can be over-confident maybe, but I think you want someone working front of house who’s willing to take on that risk. Plus he’s done it before. He understands the importance of that role.

Putting Keriann in the front of the house could have been a good move too. She’s certainly a lovely person. She’s well-spoken and definitely wanted to take on the challenge. I just wasn’t sure if they put her out front because they didn’t want her in the kitchen or because they really thought she’d be good for that role. Either way, that’s the way the cards fell. Katie taking on the chef position I thought was a real risk -- she doesn’t run a kitchen day-to-day. I was proud of her for wanting to do it, maybe because she runs pop-ups, she knows how to do something really quickly like this and that experience could come in handy. The other team chose Doug as their chef, who also doesn’t run a restaurant every single day; he is a sous chef. But you can tell he has that drive and understanding of service, he expedites every day in his restaurant and that’s a really huge piece of how a good restaurant runs. It seemed like everyone knew their roles and everyone was happy at the start. They weren’t forced into anything.

I actually liked both restaurant concepts in theory. "Four Pigs" was family style, rustic, comforting, American, bold flavors, relaxed environment. I think that suited who they were, and I think they did a great job. The concept of "Magellan" was a really great idea too. Magellan being an explorer, the spice route, all of the dishes having complex spice elements. The issue you run into with that concept though is that if it’s too loose, everyone is literally all over the map (pun intended). So even though the idea’s inspiration is exploration, when you as the customer sit down and eat that meal, do you really want to be eating things from all over the map? Do they go together? Sometimes the chefs get carried away by the idea of that exploration, and forget that a meal still has to feel cohesive. I don’t know who would want to be eating seven different cuisines all at one table. There needs to be a common thread between them more than just that they all have spice. All spices don’t taste good when they’re combined. I think that’s the first issue this team had. They were all making their own dishes and not really discussing how those dishes would talk to each other when they were actually put on people’s plates.

Bravotv.com: So, let’s start with the dishes from the Grey Team.
GS: The Grey Team started with Adam’s salt-baked clams with ramps, bacon and sunflower seeds. Very seasonal (we filmed this in the spring), very New England. I love clams from that part of the country. We saw that he got in a little hot water when he lost his first set of clam shells, but he was able to completely bounce back. The dish was tasty, it was a perfect starter, a savory little bite. And you were really able to taste all of those flavors without overshadowing the clam itself, which with ramps and bacon is a hard thing to do.

Mei’s chicken liver toast with plum puree was also delicious. The plums cut through the fat in the chicken liver which I loved. It was a little bit too wet though, so the chicken liver dripped and was a little bit looser than what I wanted. I like it to be just a little thicker so there’s a more texture to it, and also so it doesn’t drip all over your hand. It did remind us of a very sophisticated peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was salty and tart, and had just enough richness from that liver to satisfy you but not fill you up. Beautifully presented.

We all loved Doug’s braised pork shoulder. The baked beans, onion, and mustard went so well together. The mustard lightened up the dish and the pickled onions of course did too. It was a homey, comforting dish. The pork shoulder just melted in your mouth. I wish I had a bowl of it right now actually.

Melissa’s scallop was probably the weakest dish on that team. By no means does that mean it was awful. It was a lovely idea, light and fresh. Scallops and grapefruit and radish are a perfect combination. It felt a little bit more like an appetizer salad though than a main course. Her scallops were on the salty side and a little bit overcooked too. We wanted them a bit softer, a little more rare in the center. It was a really nice dish, but compared to the other dishes on her team, it felt a simple and slightly out of place. Everything else had a soulfulness to it and this seemed to be sort of off in the corner, but I was still happy to eat it.

Mei's brussels sprouts was their side dish and they were also really tasty. Brussels sprouts and anchovies go surprisingly well together! But they was over-dressed and the brussels were a little overcooked. They just needed to be toned down. I can remember when we were finished eating them, there was a pool of vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl. If she had been a little more light-handed on the vinaigrette when she tossed it, it probably would have been a better dish.

Melissa’s dessert was very well-made -- apples, mixed-berries, cardamom cream, a classic fruit cobbler. I just wish she had done something a little more interesting. Berry cobbler is something anyone can make at home. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a good dish. You’re a professional chef though, and this is Top Chef so if you’re going to give me a cobbler, show me cobbler in a way I haven’t seen before. Whether that’s a special biscuit on top or a combination of flavors of fruits, or a presentation I haven’t seen. In every way this cobbler was basic. I enjoyed eating it, it just was a little boring.

Bravotv.com: And then Magellan…
GS: Oh Magellan. We all were really excited when Katie’s roasted beets came to the table. It sounded fantastic. But she made the dish in a composed way, meaning that the beets were on one side, the curry was just underneath. Everything was separate, so it was very difficult to taste all together. Her flaw was that there wasn’t a conversation going on between all of the components in the dish. She left the beets completely dry on the side of the plate, but she had this beautiful curry and this coconut and this pickled cauliflower, she could have dressed them wonderfully, had she mixed them up, had she presented the dish in a different way. It really shows you that ingredients are only one piece of the puzzle. You can have five different beautiful ingredients, but unless you put the dish together in a way that highlights them, it falls flat.

Katsuji’s hamachi sashimi was totally fine. The hamachi was very big and cut in a bit of a ragged way. I wish they had been smaller or more smoothly cut, so that they weren’t as messy to eat and a little more refined. But the dish itself was perfectly well made. I liked his dried pozole too; I thought it was very interesting. A little odd, a little out there, but I applaud Katsuji for pushing boundaries of what we think of as pozole with it.

Gregory also made two dishes. His seared haddock was my favorite dish of the night. The fish was great, the tomato was flavorful. I thought the dish came together nicely, it was cohesive. I liked the garam masala. Although he could have probably simplified a little bit. His pork tenderloin was perfectly cooked too, it sounded so rich and delicious in its description, but was a little disappointing to eat because it was a little less flavorful than I expected with all of those components. Like Katie, he also separated out all of the ingredients. I was hoping to get a dish that was really bold in these Chinese flavors, the hosin and the XO sauce. I wanted it all to be mixed in a way that every bite had all of those tastes and it wasn't.

And then there was our dessert, Keriann’s vanilla crepe. I’m still totally confused as to how she wanted it. She wanted it room temperature, she wanted that mousse to be stiff and hard, not spreadable? I can’t understand how it would’ve been served that way and been successful either. But I do know that the way it was served definitely didn’t work. As much as I’m sure she was devastated by the way her team chose to change her dish, and especially that they didn’t tell her before they did so, I still think it would not have been a successful dish had she served it her way either. I’m just totally baffled by how it was supposed to be, and how she didn’t notice until the second half of service that it was being served in a different way. What I especially don’t understand is how she didn’t plate one for them first. If she had just plated a full dish, showed it to all of them and they all tasted it before she went out to service, they all would’ve known exactly how she wanted it and would’ve done it that way. How do you create a dish and leave people to execute it but not show them how it’s supposed to be? That’s why we decided Keriann had to be the one to be eliminated. There were a lot of problems with service at Magellan. Clearly, customers weren’t getting dishes, or they were getting dishes twice. No one knew where anything was, it was impossible to get water or a server. It was impossible to find Keriann. She put food down and then walked away without explaining it. There were so many times when we were completely thrown off by the service. And, in addition to all this, her dish didn’t make sense -- not only because of how Katie and Katsuji changed it, but in her vision in the first place. Keriann worked hard, she pushed herself, I’m proud of her. I think she’s a strong person, a good cook and will have a successful. I just don’t think this was her day.

Next episode: the judges hit Whole Foods!

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