Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

V For Vendetta

Gail: Mei's Menu Was Almost Flawless

Make Top Chef Mei Lin's Winning Dessert!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Make Mei's Sushi Style Guac!

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

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

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

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

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: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Gail dishes on Doug Adams' flawless return to the competition and why Melissa King's dish failed to hit the right artistic note.

Bravotv.com: This week we had the Last Chance Kitchen finale between George and Doug, and Doug ended up returning to the competition.

Gail Simmons: It looked like a really close battle -- Tom was really happy with both of their dishes. I will say if I had to put money on it, I would have guessed it would be between George and Doug at the end. They really are two of our stronger competitors. Obviously George was just coming off of his elimination, and it didn't surprise me that Doug stayed at the top of Last Chance Kitchen since being eliminated. I was thrilled to see him in Mexico with us.

Bravotv.com: Great! So he comes back, he wins and then onto the Quickfire Challenge. Any thoughts on this part of the competition?

GS: I'll just say that I’m a big, big fan of Chef Olvera, and I’m so glad we were able to get him on the show. His main restaurant, Pujol, is in Mexico City, but he has Moxi at the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel, where we were  lucky enough to eat the night that I landed, and a new restaurant here in New York that I am really excited about called Cosme. His food is very much rooted in Mexican ingredients and Mexican cooking, but his food is so modern. He really is one of the most talented chefs in the world at this moment, and I’m glad he judged the prickly pear Quickfire. They filmed it right in the center square of San Miguel; it is an amazingly gorgeous place. It was a really great setting for our first challenge in Mexico.

Bravotv.com: Then we have the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a dish inspired by an artist's piece of work, and Doug won with his brisket.

GS:  This challenge is interesting, because San Miguel is such a mecca for artists; it’s an artist colony that has produced incredible work for years. The city itself is so visually inspiring, as are the artists that work there. Their work is so varied, so vast. What was unique in this challenge was that it forced the chefs to take inspiration from an unusual source and think about their dish in a different way. All of the artists are very different, from a graffiti artist to someone who does more abstract landscapes. It was truly exciting to see what the artists did with the canvases they were given and what they shared with the chefs.

I tasted Doug’s dish first and understood it in an instant; it needed no explanation. But when he did talk about it, I realized it had so much depth not only in flavor, but in its purpose. He had an immediate connection with the artist he was paired with -- they were both from Texas and she reminded him a lot of his mother. There was a deep sense of home and comfort between them, which I think allowed him to cook so purely, so simply. The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not "chef it up" too much, he kept it pure. He modeled the presentation of the dish exactly off of the painting itself with those colors from the Mexican landscape -- the deep reds of the earth, those dark greens and browns -- which made perfect sense. His brisket obviously tasted like Texas, but it definitely had an air of Mexico. It had the tomatillo, the masa, and even the red brisket itself was reminiscent of Mexican flavors, since Mexican cuisine has had such an influence on Texas to begin with. The dish was about his roots on a lot of levels. I devoured all of it, it was so hardy and comforting, but it had an elegance and finesse to it in the plating -- the ingredients he chose to put side by side as opposed to stewing them together -- made it special.

The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not 'chef it up' too much, he kept it pure.

Gail Simmons

Bravotv.com: And then we had Gregory's grilled strip loin with ancho chile, beets, cilantro puree, and valencia orange sauce.

GS: Gregory’s dish was excellent too. He did a perfectly grilled strip loin. He was worried about it before we tasted it, but it came out perfectly. He made three incredible sauces to go with it, which drew a lot of inspiration from his artist's painting. The first was this ancho chile sauce and then this beautiful green cilantro puree. The ancho chiles were reminiscent of the peasant farming, the green cilantro tying into the earth. Then there was the orange sauce, which completely changed the dish. When you first tasted it, the dish was earthy, it was deep and complex, it had the Mexican chiles that really shone through with the beef. Then you got a splash of that orange sauce, and it balanced everything out in a way that surprised us. It was so inspired, you could tell that it echoed the sunshine in the painting. It conveyed the artist’s vision of this peasant toiling in the soil through this glorious sunshine, and that’s exactly how the dish tasted.

It was a really close battle between Gregory and Doug in this challenge; both of them did such a great job. Ultimately we chose Doug, because we thought there was an unmistakable depth to his food and it was completely flawless.

Bravotv.com: Let's move on to Mei, who had the snapper and bass crudo with chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles.

GS: In true Mei fashion, her dish was completed beautifully and precise. It was very tightly conceptualized -- every drizzle, every piece of fish, every garnish was perfectly placed, and it was a gorgeous plate of food. I loved her relationship with the artist she worked with, Bea. They had a lovely conversation, which was great to see, and the dish clearly reflected Bea’s work. The chicken skin, the fish, the splashes of color were all inspirations from the painting. Every bite of Mei's dish had a little surprise; there was a little spice, a tiny bit of salt, and a beautiful splash of sweetness, which made it so fun and so playful.

My only criticism of Mei’s food comes from a presentation standpoint. Because Bea’s art was so outrageous and so loud and loose and free in a way, we had hoped that Mei’s food would’ve reflected that. We thought it would have allowed her to loosen up her presentation a little bit. Of course, I respect that she stayed true to who she is and how she presents her food. It was a dish that took a lot of technical skill and was really enjoyable when we ate it, we had just hoped to see more playfulness.

Bravotv.com: And then we had Melissa's smoked eggplant ravioli with shrimp, chorizo, and cotija.

GS: Melissa’s dish was absolutely decadent, delicious, delightful. We all agreed that her smoked eggplant ravioli was perfectly made -- it was smoky, very rich, and the pasta was well cooked. That alone was as good as anything else we had eaten that day. Where we thought she fell short, relative to the other dishes, was that there definitely was less cohesion between the artist's work and her dish. Shrimp, chorizo, cotija cheese, and eggplant can go together, but in the way she plated them, they weren’t really talking -- the shrimp was over here, the sauce was somewhere else, then there was the eggplant ravioli. There didn’t seem to be a line that connected them all. And when she described it in relation to the artwork, we really weren’t sure it conveyed that dramatic splash from the graffiti art. We needed more from her. There was such a direct conversation between Doug and his artist, and it really felt like they were working on the same piece of artwork together. Melissa’s dish, although tasty and very pretty, did not have that same depth. I’m not just talking about flavor; it’s really about the inspiration and the connection, not only between the ingredients on the plate, but between the chef and the artist. His work was really beautiful (and watching the show I regret not buying a piece from him at the time). But it can be hard to translate art, because it’s something so personal. In the end between the four of us we decided that on that day it was Melissa’s dish that did not measure up in terms of the inspiration and connection like the other dishes did. So she was eliminated.

Bravotv.com: It seemed like one of the tougher eliminations this season.

GS: Yes, it was. It always is at this stage of the season. But it was a really great challenge too. I think regardless of winning or losing, Melissa really loved the process and that was so great to see. It was an intellectual challenge that was hard to interpret, and I think they all did an incredible job. I’m really going to miss Melissa. I honestly think she is a huge talent, and I know she is going to do well wherever she goes next.
 

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