Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

V For Vendetta

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

V For Vendetta

Padma Lakshmi on Hawaii, tropical cuisine, and watching Sam and Elia's exits.

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I guess Elia's new look should have served as an ominous foreshadowing of the first half of the finale.

While they seemed mild mannered enough on the plane and at the lunch with Alan Wong and the rest of us, the calm, sweet atmosphere didn't last that long in spite of the beautiful surroundings. While it's true that Elia had been defending (or at least not ganging up on) Marcel for many weeks, while the others shined him on, she obviously had a change of heart. She complains about his long description of his dishes that yes, took long, but I don't see why she should care. Why at the 11th hour do you cry foul about cheating? It seemed as if she'd watched the other episodes or been influenced by her colleagues. I was sorry to have to tell her to pack her knives, because I really like Elia. (It's why I look so weird when I tell her, kind of fighting back emotion.)

I remember in the first episodes I would ask her questions just to hear her beautiful accent. But the evidence was clear.
It was really hard for me to tell Sam to go as well. In the end you work such long hours for weeks and weeks and you do get to know these people. Their struggle to win is palpable. I think that's why the show is so compelling, almost gladiatorial in certain ways. Needless to say, it was a very difficult and emotional Judges' Table for me. I could see that they had all poured their hearts and souls into this competition. And you do go on a journey together. It was also my first season, and I will never forget the experience.

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But it was a joy it was to touch down into lush, tropical Waipio Valley, full of taro leaves. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park. There were wild horses and cool streams running through our path on the very steep drive down and we were literally transported to a secret Polynesian paradise. Chef Alan Wong was the perfect host, gracious and knowledgeable; he had a quiet, friendly dignity. He taught us all so much about food and the history of the Hawaiian Islands. It was a pleasure to sit with him at his table. It was also lovely to see that helicopter come down into the valley with our contestants. After slaving for weeks and weeks in that hot kitchen in LA, I thought they deserved a treat like that. In spite of their behavior towards each other at times, they did work hard all season long.


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Now let's get to the food: Sam made a refreshing poke and I thought his addition of sea beans gave his dish a nice fresh crunch. I would have made something a bit more substantial for my savory dish, but it was tasty, and a perfect way to start the birthday dinner. I love that he used the Japanese citrus fruit juice, yuzu; I just wish he'd used a bit more so that his flavors were bolder. I use yuzu myself a lot in dressings for salad and in hot sauces and chutneys. Plus, since there is already so much Japanese influence in the history and culture of Hawaii, it was completely harmonious. His dessert was so yummy and creative. The marriage of mascarpone and coconut milk was a silky sinful experience on the tongue. The touch of sea salt was a successful surprise.


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Unfortunately I and the other judges were the least impressed with Elia's recipes. It was such a shame because as a female chef I was really rooting for her. Her technique was spot on, and her packaging the steamed opakapaka (snapper) fish in ti leaves was traditional, and probably reminiscent of the process used for tamales too, but there was not that much creativity inside that package. Basically she just used local fish to make a vaguely Franco-Italian tasting dish. The peas and carrots were uninteresting too. I wish she had used some of the Hawaiian flavors in her dishes; they would have melded beautifully with her own heritage and technique. Elia spoke so eloquently about why she loves food and cooking at the lunch in the beginning, I just wish she had been more articulate through her food. She certainly has it in her. Her tuna poke with olives, capers and lemon confit only echoed those Mediterranean tastes again. While perfectly respectable, the dishes lacked originality when compared to her competitors.
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I loved Marcel's tiny tapa serving of hamachi poke on a taro chip. I think it was an ingenious way to add a touch of salty crunch and he used an indigenous ingredient to boot. His pineapple poi left something to be desired, even with the addition of the xanthum gum. It was too runny for me to be called poi. I didn't think there was enough of weight to it. Poi has the consistency of porridge, not thick gravy. While it was airy and light, it was too sweet to be on the palate. It would have benefitted from a bit of salt to contrast the tart sweetness. His technique and knife skills were flawless, as was his presentation. The salmon lumi lumi with, yes, yet another foam (I can't believe he did another foam!!), scallion oil and lotus root chip was the best savory dish of the night. It was substantial and had a lot of flavor. All of us had no problem deciding that he should move on to the finale. His mad scientist way of using all those chemicals and gadgets has been interesting to watch all season long.
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Ilan did the most ambitious dish, using taro with morcilla and squid. My main problem with Ilan's dish is that the fibers caught themselves in the back of my throat, feeling itchy and causing the reaction chef Wong warned him about. It felt like eating the peel of a kiwi fruit. The flavor of the morcilla permeated the whole dish, and the squid had a nice texture and was cooked well, but that scratch kind of ruined it for me.

While my co-judges didn't get a bite of it on their plate, we did hear two or three people at the other tables saying the same thing I did. But that didn't make the edit. I still applaud Ilan for working with a product he'd never tried before. And when feeding that many people, I guess a small margin of error is forgivable. His fried dessert was delicious. It had the lovely fragrance and aroma of saffron with that golden hue and I thought it was extremely creative. And Ilan was right about his presentation -- it wasn't beautiful, I wish it had been as he's usually good at plating. Lucky for him, his flavors were spot on. I think the fact that he made his own sausage and brought it with him to Hawaii showed ambition as well as forethought. In the end, I'd rather have something be tasty than pretty, but maybe in the last round we'll get both?

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Gail schools us on the science of innovative cooking and explains why George Pagonis' octopus didn't have any legs to stand on.

Bravotv.com: Let's talk about the Elimination Challenge, which was to create an innovative dish that pushed culinary boundaries.

Gail Simmons: I was really happy that Wylie was there for this challenge, of course. But I think the set up was a little anti-climactic in honesty. As a viewer, you didn't get a full explanation of how and why they were given this challenge. It was specifically because there are so many people pushing these boundaries, many of whom are in Boston, and particularly Michael Brenner. He is innovative for a lot of reasons -- he’s a physicist, but what he’s become known for in the culinary space is teaching an in-depth course at Harvard about the science of food and cooking, incorporating people like Wylie and as well as a long list of exceptionally talented and renown chefs from around the world, like Ferran Adrià among others. It is exciting and extraordinary, and having him there allowed us to present our chefs with this challenge. We always think about how the dishes taste and look, whether the meat is cooked well enough or the appearance of knife cuts are appropriate. All of that stuff is in affect science -- cooking is all chemistry and biology, reaction of cells to knives and fire essentially. Everyone has their own definition of innovation, and I think there was a lot of pressure to "innovate" in this challenge. Our chefs did well, but I wish they had been given more time to really push their own personal boundaries more.

 



Bravotv.com: Let’s start with the winner, Melissa, who had the seared duck breast with farro, walnut miso, and pickled cherries.

GS: Melissa really has stepped up her game and soared in the last two challenges; she won the last challenge (and a spot in the finale in Mexico), and now she’s won this challenge, too. Her duck was beautiful, though not necessarily the most groundbreaking dish I’ve ever seen in my life. But she was innovative enough that we felt her flavors were new, but the dish was at the same time beautiful, delicious. Here’s the tricky thing about being innovative, which I think George touched on when he was talking about the challenge too: is it takes time and practice to truly innovate. I can only assume that someone like Wylie tries a dish fifty times before it goes on his menu as a full formed creative work, that changes how we all perceive food. Innovation takes patience and some serious brain power. To come up with something in a few hours is a tall order when it needs to be totally delicious AND have a level of innovation that surprises and impresses us. Melissa knew her strengths and perhaps was more relaxed then she would’ve been otherwise, so she made that walnut miso pesto and incorporated it in a really creative, unusual way. It made her dish stand out, and by far it was the most delicious.

Bravotv.com: And then we had our runner, Mei, with her duck curry with vadouvan and yuzu yogurt.

GS: There was something about Mei’s dish that made me think it was the most innovative of the day in a number of ways. However it wasn’t the most successful, and that’s why Melissa took the win. Mei’s dish was not only breathtakingly stark and beautiful, looking so modern on the plate, but she also combined several unusual ingredients, which made for a very untraditional, very modern curry. It was innovative and it stayed with us. You could even see in Tom's reaction that it was a dish to think about. When you tasted it, you weren't sure it worked, but there was something enjoyable about it; the dish didn't simply come together in your mind. It wasn't straight forward. You needed to take a pause, then a second bite, and by the third and fourth bite you started to understand all the different parts, which were very exciting. I think with a few more tries, Mei would’ve really nailed that dish. I was proud of her for pushing us all that way.

Bravotv.com: Then in our bottom two we had Gregory and George. Gregory did the salmon in tom kha broth with roasted tomatoes, crispy chicken skin, and crispy salmon skin.

GS: There were a lot of fun, tasty components to Gregory’s dish. If this challenge had been to show us an interesting representation of salmon or Thai flavors, he would’ve gotten it right. The thing with Gregory is that as skilled as he is, we were really hoping that he would come out of his comfort zone. The flavors he used were what we have seen from him previously. We didn’t really see a lot of innovation from him. That doesn’t mean we don’t think he worked hard or didn't do a good job. He gave us something that he felt was different in presentation, but the flavors were definitely in his usual wheelhouse. As he said himself when cooking beans in the Quickfire, he felt uncomfortable because he's more accustomed to using Asian flavors and ingredients. So here he was in the Elimination Challenge using Asian flavors. On the other hand the dish tasted great! We loved it, we just didn’t think he fulfilled the challenge of being innovative like we know he could have. And then there was George. . .

Bravotv.com:  Yes, he had the charred octopus, yellow split pea puree, and green apple harissa.

GS: George also stayed in his comfort zone in some ways -- he's cooked us octopus before, so charring octopus did not feel innovative at all for him, I actually felt disappointed when he told us that's what he had made. However, there were probably twenty other components of that dish that did make it feel somewhat innovative. The green apple harissa was one of them for sure. The fact that he called it harissa may be taking some license, but that's OK. I loved it, it went so well with the octopus, and it was something new that all of us had never seen. That said, the rest of the dish didn’t make sense all together. At least three or four of the garnishes he added didn’t serve a purpose on the plate, rather, they detracted from the dish. He spent his time making too many components. They may have shown technique, and you could tell that he was really pushing himself, but it all still has to be one cohesive plate of food, first and foremost. I think it didn’t work because he let himself get preoccupied with all the other pieces instead of focusing on doing one thing really well in an innovative way.

Charring octopus did not feel innovative at all for him, I actually felt disappointed when he told us that's what he had made.


So George's was the dish we least enjoyed eating and thought was the least successful, that’s why he went home. I think George did a tremendous job. He came back once already, and he could come back from Last Chance Kitchen again. He’s a great cook, has a great attitude, and I think he absolutely gave his best throughout the competition, which made everyone better. I don’t always say that, but I think when he came back, he really changed the game and the whole season was better for it.

Now, onward to Mexico!