Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Where Do I Start?

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

Where Do I Start?

Padma Lakshmi was very happy with the food this week. But she can't say the same about the chef's behavior.

Where do I start? How the hell can you behave like that?! I don't care if you want to shave your head or any other body part. No one has the right to touch and manhandle another human being. It wasn't in fun; they weren't all chummy with Marcel. I bet he was very scared being woken up like that from a sound sleep and dragged onto the carpet.

In a previous blog, I said that Marcel was their Piggy in some "Lord of the Flies" scenario, and unfortunately it turns out that I was right. How dare Cliff lay his hands on Marcel? And nevermind human decency -- how stupid can you be? Leaving aside the fact that you're on national television, or that potential investors, employers, and millions of the general viewing public are watching, why would you jeopardize your chance at $100, 000 dollars after you've spent weeks and weeks slaving your heart out with little sleep, away from all your family and friends? Elia, Ilan, and Sam were not innocent in it either. None of them said to stop. In fact, Ilan eggs Cliff on so boisterously off camera and Sam sits there laughing on the couch. I guess Elia was holding the camera? I felt awful when I heard and even worse when I saw the footage. I always thought that our show was better than many reality shows because it was about people trying to be the best at their craft, and that that dedication was compelling to watch, I saw no one trying to be better that night. What a shame. Now, about the food.
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This week's Quickfire was simple: Work with chocolate to make a savory or sweet dish. The chefs had 90 minutes to prepare something for Eric Ripert, whose presence they were understandably moved by. Elia turned again to her roots to do a version of chicken with mole sauce. But the poached chicken lacked flavor -- I don't think she added any seasonings to her poaching liquid. The chicken was moist but lacked flavor. Then she poured what tasted like pure melted chocolate over it. It lacked subtlety and I think Eric, while noting this, managed to be diplomatic in telling her so. She would have won hands-down if she'd let her dessert stand by itself. It was fantastic. It was airy, creamy and felt like velvet on the tongue. The ginger added a delicate fragrance, complementing the mousse and the strawberry crumble added the perfect contrasting texture. I loved that she called it a "kiss" because that's what it felt like, soft and sweet in the mouth.

Sam, who seemed to be at a disadvantage because of his diabetes, actually did a dish that was very innovative. Using chocolate as an accent, he created something totally unique. The banana echoed the sweetness in the chocolate chipotle and black bean sauce and the cilantro pesto acted as a peppery counterpoint. I think the shrimp was a perfect canvas to showcase all these flavors. While the chocolate, chipotle, black beans and cilantro were all Mexican ingredients, the dish itself had an unusual character that was hard to place.

Cliff's braised chicken with piquillo pepper, rosemary and chocolate sauce with potatoes was robust and hearty. It felt like a complete meal on the plate, and while it was just fine, I thought that it didn't showcase the chocolate in any particular way. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with his dish, it's just that compared to the sophistication of Sam's dish and Elia's dessert, it lacked a bit of originality. Again, it wasn't that his dish was bad but that his competitors were better. padmasblog_ilan211_320x240.jpg

I'm not sure what Ilan was thinking, but liver imbedded in chocolate? I guess he was trying to do something totally new and different, but I don't find anything sensual or sumptuous about chicken livers. If you watch Eric as he puts it in his mouth, he almost doesn't know if he should swallow it. He raises his hand up as if he's going to spit it out. Maybe if Ilan had done the chicken livers with some type of chocolate sauce it would have been better, but Eric's comment that it felt like a dessert was spot on, I think Ilan did want to do a dessert, or a candy as he put it, but no one wants to bite into a morsel of liver imbedded into their candy or dessert. The meaty aftertaste of the liver fought with the rich chocolate ganache, leaving an awful pasty, salty, muddy feeling in the mouth. Ilan has made some excellent food this season and while he redeems himself later in the elimination challenge, that ganache a stinker! We've all been there. Sometimes you think you've got the cleverest idea and it turns out to be ...well, too clever for your own good, not to mention the good of your diners.

I was proud of Marcel for trying something he's never done before. Those potato cannolis were crispy and perfect. With a hint of salt, they really encased the two fillings well. Both the chocolate mousse and coffee whip cream were light and airy, while still feeling quite rich and luxurious on the palate. His dish was polished, and his sauces were spot on. As always, his presentation looked very professional, clean and pretty.

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Chef Ripert chose Sam's dish as the winner and I concur with his decision, but Marcel's dish was very close behind.

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The Elimination Challenge: To make a five course romantic meal for couples celebrating their anniversary. Sam was able to choose his course and the protein, and no other chef could use the same protein he did. I think Marcel overreacted when Sam chose his protein and when he chose to do beets; as if Sam would choose to do beets simply because Marcel wanted to. I don't believe Sam thinks like that. Marcel is a good enough cook to be able to adapt to the situation and do something else. Marcel also showed poor sportsmanship when he refuses to help Sam plate and serve his dish. I can see how Marcel would want to concentrate on his own dish, but then he shouldn't expect anyone to help him -- fair is fair.

Sam's organic beets and seared scallops with a lobster and umeboshi plum sauce was a very successful first course. It was delicate and balanced and I loved the plum and lobster sauce. The scallops were voluptuous and silky and cooked perfectly. The magenta juices from the beet slice on top bled down into the scallop with a lovely swirl of color. This was visually impressive and sexy on the plate. The micro greens were fluffy and still crisp to the bite with not a drop of extra dressing. Micro greens are easily wilted and buffering them with a slice of beets to insure the heat from the scallops wouldn't destroy them was a smart move. You could also see the goodwill that Sam had garnered from his colleagues all season long in action. Ilan and Cliff worked diligently on Sam's plates as if they were their own. That kind of teamwork is admirable, and should always be the case in a professional kitchen.
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Ilan's fideos and clams with saffron was the best thing I ate all season long. You don't really hear me say that on the edited version, but it was true then and in hindsight is still true. In fact, I think I even finished whatever was left on Eric's plate as well as mine. The fideos were oven-toasted to perfection, the clams were moist and juicy, and the seasoning of the dish as a whole was savory and delicious. I can still recall the taste. It was also a textural winner especially on a date or romantic dinner. I saw couples all around me feeding each other, and smiles of pleasure everywhere. padmasblog_padma211_320x240.jpg

Marcel's salmon was fine but nothing to write home about. I also thought those mini cut out hearts adorning the fish were a bit literal and cheesy. An easy mistake when you're as young as Marcel, but had his dish been tastier, we would have all forgotten those little hearts. The salmon needed some added flavor, and really needed some tartness to balance the richness of its flesh, especially with the accompanying puree. Any acid would have helped: Yuzu juice, Kafir lime juice, dried green mango powder, tamarind, sumac powder (would have given it not only sourness but great vermillion color), or just a squirt of plain old lemon juice would have helped. While Marcel has great technique, his cooking can sometimes lack soul, and that's when the flavor of the dish suffers. If he had helped Sam, who by the way took the high road and helped out when he didn't have to, Sam may have tasted his dish and told him to add the sourness, because using liquid acid ingredients like vinegars, etc., to flavor food, as we know, is Sam's forte.
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Given Cliff's behavior outside of the kitchen, I don't feel I need to comment on his dish, except to say that the lentils were an ugly pureed mess with no flavor, and the rest was forgettable. Elia's dessert was delicious. While the idea may have seemed good when she thought of it, it wasn't well thought out. She realized this in retrospect. The cremeaux (with puff pastry) was good but not as good as what we had in the Quickfire. We did finish the dessert though, and after a five-course meal, that's saying something. Let's hope they behave better in Hawaii, and that the focus is where it should be: on the food.

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Hugh Acheson wonders about the health of the kids at Emerson College and debates the cost of roasting that much foie gras.

In this, the tenth episode of this 12th season, we open in the kitchen of the chefs super secret lair. Katusji has taken his wit, wisdom and wherewithal back to his Kosher Japanese Cal-Mex empire to work on a masa matzoh ball taco. He is described as "the most loveable dick in the entire world," which seems pretty on point. These remaining five seem saddened because Katsuji provided respite from the drudgery of competition. They mourn as well, because all understood, though it was never talked about, like a solemn vow, that they could all beat Katsuji in this cooking game. He was the San Diego Padres of Top Chef, the team that all the other competition knew would be an easy beat when the time came.

So the quintet of Mei, Gregory, Dougeeeee, Melissa and George remain. They are all have the stuff that could allow them to win the dough, but Mei and Gregory have really shown that if we must have hierarchy then they are the top two contenders.

Quickfire begins with Andy and his college roommate. Andy just told the roommate that those "games" they played late at night in their bunkbeds WILL be talked about in his next book, so Dave, you have some explaining to the wife and kids. Andy, we are told, is "known for his antics." That he is.

Andy exorts the contestants to hook up with each other and I immediately think of Dougie spooning with Georgie. I then have to wash my eyes out with steel wool and bleach to remove the image. This hurts and still the image remains.

Padma gets Andy back on task and she introduces the Quickfire. It is a collegiate showdown of ramen proportions but the catch is that they must use the contents of the fridge of some poor frosh. Out come the stoner, the nerd, the sorority girl, the lady who should have graduated in '05 and one other innocuous soul. Their fridge contents make me worry about a scurvy outbreak at Emerson College.

We are regaled with stories of the craziest things they all did in college. Melissa built a 24-story beer bong. I went to school in Montreal so my craziest times were hanging out at Biftek on St. Laurent and getting drunk playing pool. Oh wait, I DID THAT EVERY NIGHT until I dropped out of college. Luckily I had some cooking skillz.

Gregory concocts a bacon, Doritos, leftover pizza broth, and I am immediately worried about the future of our country. Dougie has made a Cobb salad ramen with a "coconut-pineapple" broth, and I start looking for my Canadian passport. George, who has no idea what ramen is, 'cause Mike Isabella has never let him out before, is cobbling together a version of SpaghettiOs 2.0s. It has a hint of hot dog, but so does Andy, so this may be well liked. Melissa is making a "Crunchy Carbonara Ramen" which is probably already dispensed out of a coin machine in Tokyo and actually sounds pretty tasty. There is hope. Mei makes a smoked tomato miso with upcycled sushi. Sounds okay, so I stow the passport back and the "go bag."

There is no immunity but the winner gets 5K. Not bad for fifteen minutes of work/fame. Bottoms are Mei and Dougie. Tops are Gregory and George with Melissa winning this murky challenge.

They go to the little room of stewage and watch Julia Child. Then Jacques Pepin stops by and everyone gasps in amazement. I do too because if you don’t love Pepin you are not a nice person. He da bomb.

The Elimination Challenge is to come up with a dish inspired from Julia's cooking. Three hours to cook and one hour to finish on site tomorrow. They chat with Jacques for a while to learn the secrets of Julia, other than the fact that she was totally a CIA spy.

Doug is silent because of where he comes from. Texas shrugs as he says, "I grew up in East Texas and here I am meeting Jacques Pepin." Then he follows this ode to the state of Texas with, "I am from Texas so I can't pronounce things very well." C'mon Doug, your state gave us that Rick Perry character! He's fun to watch!

Doug is insistent on making a whole roasted foie gras. George is braising some veal and presenting it with some vegetables and pommes puree. There is some French going on around here. Melissa is challenging herself with shortribs. Mei is making duck a l'orange but you know it will show off some of herself. You can't spell Mei without ME. Gregory is making Coq au Vin. Tom wanders in during cooking to advise them to channel Julia and then they all try to sound like Julia. None of them will ever be known for their impersonation abilities.

We eat. It's outside. It's beautiful. The diners, or the we, are Dana Cowin, Jacques, Alex Prudhomme (related to Julia), Tom, Padma, Boston chefs Barbara Lynch, Joanne Chang, Mary Dumont, and little old me. I am hungry so don't talk much.

The food is really good overall. There were some issues like drier ribs, monotonous veal, raw foie, and maybe some flabby duck skin, but pound-for-pound they did the dishes well. Tops are Gregory and Mei, and the verdict is an interesting one. Gregory nailed a classic, but it was like he channeled Julia too much and did a textbook version, while Mei nailed a riff on a dish with her duck a l'orange. It is arbitrary who should win but Mei pulls it off and wins a just decision.

Not so arbitrary but still close is the bottom trio of Melissa, George, and Doug. Melissa erred in rib cookery. George cooked stunning veg but it was the veal that was a yawn. Alas, Doug bows out with his dish, a dish that he had never done but dreamed about. You don't just do roasted whole lobes of foie at the restaurant you work at, cause the owner chef would probably stab you if you ruined the 300 bucks in product. But this is TV money so he took a chance. The problem is that cooking whole foie is tricky. You can''t sear it too much or you will render away the beauty, and then you need to temper-roast it in a medium heat oven. Then it comes out and you rest it on a wire rack. It is pretty much served just warm. He did all of those steps, but over-seared it and then cooked it a hair hot, and not long enough, resultingin a greasy, yet raw internal. Funny thing is that the rest of the stuff on the plate was awesome. Well Doug, you were a favorite of ours and I wish you much success in Last Chance Kitchen.

And now we are four. Until next time.

For a good time, follow me on Twitter @hughacheson

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