Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Snack Time

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

Snack Time

Padma Lakshmi talks restaurant wars, Mike's elimation, and the perfect snack.

This week's Quickfire was one of my favorites. I love snacks, I always have. They are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my favorite food item to conceptualize, concoct, and, most of all, devour. You can tell a lot about a chef's personality by what they consider to be a great snack, and how well they execute it. A successful, winning snack is something that is the right size -- much bigger than an amuse bouche and considerably smaller than a main course, it shouldn't fill you up like a meal but rather curb your hunger until the next course. The best snack is something savory, preferably with a crunch to it, but there can be great sweet snacks, too, such as a midnight snack of milk and cookies.

Successful snacks are also built to share and many benefit from being finger foods rather than something one has to eat sitting down with a knife and fork. I was very curious to see what the contestants would whip up. And I was pleased that none of them turned their nose up at working with mayonnaise, because this is an ingredient all of us are familiar with and a staple in almost every pantry in America. Some of the best snacks come from spontaneously using what is at hand, and this is perfect for the nature of the Quickfire Challenge.
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While I would normally consider large chunks of lamb a bit heavy for a snack, Marcel executed his kabob with great skill. They were cooked perfectly, moist and succulent, with great flavor and balance because the zesty Madras curry powder that cut through the richness of the mayonnaise and meat. I've used this trick myself. Curry powder is great to mix into mayonnaise when making a quick tuna, egg or chicken salad. Since it is a melange of various spices, the work is largely done for you. So his snack was a winner. padmasblog_michael2_320x240.jpg

Mike seemed buoyed up by his "history" making sweep from last week, and decided that he would go all-out with his snack. I think he went too far. First off, the size of his snack was more like a meal, and the combination of shellfish and cheese and mayonnaise was a nauseating one. Rather than dump that huge glob of pure mayonnaise on top of his chopped lettuce and tomato, he could have made something more delicate to drizzle on top, such as mixing two or three of the required condiments with the chipotle pepper. This would have at least been a bit innovative. His snack was heavy and unpolished. A snack is supposed to whet your appetite, not smother it. But taste is subjective, and Mike is someone who "eats Mayo right out of the can." I've never even seen mayonnaise in a can.
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Cliff's tartare was tasty and I liked the crispy toasts he made to scoop it up, they allowed the diner to decide how much of it to consume. Sam's sandwich was an ingenious one. It used all three Kraft products, layered sweet, salty, and sour notes all in one bite, and met the crunchy textural criteria by not only toasting his bread, but adding crispy fried tempura shrimp. His forte is definitely pickling (even back to the firehouse episode), and here his talent and creativity served him well. I would have never thought to pickle peaches in Zesty Italian Dressing, but it worked brilliantly and many great sandwiches are accompanied by some type of pickles. Usually they're sweet or sour pickles, but Sam brought an inventive new twist to this practice.

Elia also showed great creativity by mixing the yogurt and barbeque sauce with honey for a sweet snack. Sweet snacks are harder to pull off; especially when you don't know what order you'll be judged. Most people want something savory, but her snack was sophisticated, light, and well balanced. She also showcased gorgeous fresh summer figs and complemented them with the other ingredients. The cinnamon toast and almonds completed the snack in an exquisite, perfectly light-handed way. The biggest reason her sweet snack worked for me was because while it was sweet, it wasn't too sweet or overpowering. The flavors were clean and each played its music on the palate. I was very impressed with her.
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Ilan's Napoleon of tomato and salmon was OK, but he would have benefited by using flour tortillas rather than corn -- they tend to dry out quicker, as was the case with his dish. It's a shame he felt the need (again) to send up Marcel by joking of foaming the Italian dressing. Marcel's comment about it backfiring was spot on. Why take the Judges' attention away from yourself by mentioning your competitor when you have only mere seconds in a Quickfire to prove yourself? It seemed like an insecure waste of his energy, and he's a good enough cook to not need to do any of that. What's becoming apparent, episode after episode, is that he considers Marcel his biggest rival. Maybe that's not only to do with a personality clash. Perhaps that could be said of the other contestants, too. Elia, of course, is the exception in this.

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Our guest judge picked Sam and Marcel as his two winners. While I agree with him about Sam, I would have picked Elia over Marcel because her snack was much more innovative, clever and unusual.
Here are two recipes for snacks from my new cookbook Tangy, Tart Hot and Sweet, to be published in September of this year. They are really easy to make.

Mushroom and Goat Cheese Taquitos with Mint and Date Dipping Sauce 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1/2 cup chopped shallots 8 ounces fresh Portobello mushrooms, diced 1 teaspoon oregano 1 teaspoon thyme 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper 8 ounces feta cheese 4 ounces ricotta cheese 8 8-inch diameter flour tortillas Canola oil, for frying salt

Taquitos 1. Over medium high heat, heat olive oil in a large skillet. Toss in the shallots and after 2 minutes add the mushrooms. Saute for 2-3 minutes. Add the oregano, thyme and red pepper; stir for 3 more minutes. Add a sprinkle of salt and saute for a few minutes until the mushrooms are browned. Remove from heat. 2. In a large bowl, combine the feta and ricotta cheeses with the sauteed mushrooms, mixing well to form a paste. 3. Lay one tortilla flat on a cutting board. Spread two heaping tablespoons of mixture into a line across the tortilla, horizontally, near the end closest to you. Roll nearest end over the mixture and keep rolling until the tortilla is in the shape of a flute. Press down gently as you roll to distribute the cheese mixture throughout the inside of the flute. Be careful not to push too hard letting it seep out of the sides. 4. Secure the tortilla closed using a wooden toothpick as a straight pin (not perpendicular, but parallel to the flute) to hold the end of the tortilla shut. Do this with all the tortillas.* 5. Place a large skillet filled to a depth of one inch with Canola oil over medium high heat. When the oil gets hot, turn the heat down to just lower than medium and fry the taquitos on each side until golden brown. This should take no more than 1-2 minutes total; turn to brown each side every 30 seconds. 6. When done, immediately place the taquitos on paper towels to drain excess oil. When cool enough to touch, carefully ease out the toothpicks before serving. 7. Each taquito can be cut in half on an angle to serve, as they are quite filling (this also makes it easier to remove the toothpick). Serve with fresh mint and date dipping sauce. *Using tortillas that are room temperature or slightly warm are easier to manipulate the toothpicks into. So if you keep tortillas in the fridge, take them out enough in advance.

Dipping Sauce 2 cups fresh mint leaves 3 dried dates, pitted and chopped 5 serrano chilies, stems removed 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice Put all the ingredients in a blender or processor and puree to form a smooth uniform dipping sauce. A tablespoon of water can be added to blend if needed. It will keep for 2-3 days in the fridge. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Pan Asian Lettuce Cups with Curried Beef 2 heads butter lettuce 3 tablespoons canola oil 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil 1 cup diced yellow onions 1 teaspoon minced garlic 1 tablespoon minced ginger 1 1/2 pound ground beef (turkey or lamb can also be used) 1-2 tablespoons light soy sauce 1 teaspoon Madras curry powder 1 teaspoon dried mango powder (Amchoor) 1 cup roughly chopped fresh mint 1 cup roughly chopped fresh basil 4 green Serrano chilies, chopped with seeds 1 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice 1. Carefully separate the leaves of the lettuce to form cups. The firm middle leaves are best, and you'll need 6-8. 2. In a skillet, heat the Canola oil on a medium flame. Saute the onions, garlic, ginger, and green chilies until onions are glassy, about 5-7 minutes. 3. Add the meat, soy sauce and powdered spices. Cook on medium heat, stirring often to break up meat into tiny, tiny bits with no lumps. After the spices have been mixed into meat well, about 5 minutes, turn heat down to medium low and cook for an additional 35-40 minutes, until meat is well cooked and browned. If meat becomes too dry, a tablespoon or two of water can be stirred into it to keep it moist. Remove from heat. 4. Stir in mint, basil and lemon juice. Spoon mixture into lettuce cups and drizzle the toasted sesame oil over the top. Serve warm. Serves 6-8.


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Now for the Elimination Challenge: I did feel a bit sorry for the contestants. The parameters of the challenge were to come up with a concept for a restaurant, decide on the menus, and execute this for up to 24 diners. They had a $500 budget for food, $500 for restaurant supplies, and $500 for restaurant design/decor, and one server. Not easy or realistic. And I was shocked to see the walls of the place were not even painted. I think the designers left a little to be desired -- neither place looked remotely designed or decorated. If doing a diner, why not decorate with old 45 records and school pennants like Arnold's in Happy Days? They don't cost much.

Doing a casual Italian, or Trattoria, why not get simple red and white checkerboard tablecloths for a fabric store in bolts and old framed black and white pictures of Sofia Loren or some Fellini movie stills? What was that cheap looking floral tapestry? And the potted cactus, why? On Hollywood Boulevard you can get really cheap 8x10 pictures of almost anyone, how about Pavarotti, or Anna Magnani? The diner, too, could have used pictures of say...Doris Day. Anyway, you get the drift. The same challenge was done in Season 1 of "Top Chef", and I think to better effect. This is because the contestants took the decorating into their own hands, the space while raw was at least finished.
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While things like tempura don't usually come to mind when thinking of a diner, I felt that Cliff was that team's greatest weakness. Why didn't Elia stand up to Cliff? He can be intimidating but she knew she would have been better for the job. Sam's team had bigger problems with stray olive pits, no bread plates and no wine; their team was the worse of two losing teams. Their biggest weakness was Mike. Finally Mike's lackadaisical attitude caught up with him. Relying on his list, he failed to think on his own and take responsibility for at least the shopping. He kept saying he followed the list, I think "Top Chef" is looking for leaders, not followers.

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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