Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Breakfast Of Champions

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

Breakfast Of Champions

Tom Colicchio's thoughts on why Frank blew the breakfast challenge.

I get a kick out of the notion that our producers manipulate the action on Top Chef in order to create drama. The truth is they don't need to. For one thing, by now our remaining chefs may look fine, but appearances are deceiving. The weeks of very long hours and too little sleep are taking their toll. I know what you're thinking: Big deal, I work long hours, too, and I'm no drama king/queen. But a number of other factors are starting to push the group towards the edge. For one, they have been removed from their usual support networks of spouses and loved ones and are thrust into very close living quarters with virtual strangers. In addition to the stress of having their work judged, they are also subject to the unending scrutiny of cameras and crew (except for bathroom jaunts) which creates its own form of performance anxiety.

The chefs have few pressure outlets; they're allowed limited internet access in order to research food, but they aren't allowed to disappear for a long walk, or hole themselves away with headphones, etc. since the show depends upon their engaging with one another. They can't even listen to music, since this would interfere with recording dialogue! One of the only ways the chefs can blow off steam is by drinking -- which only contributes to the exhaustion. To top it all off, they have been, by necessity, divested of their money to discourage independent forays out into the world and are kept isolated from other people (except the judges, crew, and the people they feed) which gives their world a surreal, hermetic quality.

Is it any wonder that they flip out when someone touches their toothbrush? But the most obvious effect of all the stress and exhaustion is that it seems to compromise the chefs' chief asset -- their imagination. That amorphous place from whence springs ideas, inspiration, solutions, sense memory, and innovation. True imagination can be nurtured, but not taught. It can manifest through an intuitive understanding of how to juxtapose taste and texture, or through wild flights of fancy. Some chefs' imaginations give them a unique understanding of the emotional value of food -- the way in which it can provoke or comfort. For others, imagination leads them into arch, whimsical interpretations of culinary classics. Regardless, when people get stressed out and tired, imagination is often the first thing to go.

The result of this is a tendency towards inflexibility, an inability to adapt or handle curveballs. This was definitely the case when we brought the chefs to the beach in Malibu. After too little sleep, and without a chance to psychologically gear up for the challenge of cooking over a fire pit, some of the chefs' imaginations simply shut down. Frank was perhaps the best example of this -- he had planned to bake a quiche, which was impossible over an open flame, and he lacked the ability to recover in style. Sam, with his (burnt) toad-in-the-hole eggs and bagel combination seemed more rattled by the lack of sleep than the fire-pit, but the result was the same. Cliff was thrown by the environment enough that he got sloppy -- of all the food prepared, his was the only dish that featured sand as an ingredient. So many of my previous blogs have rambled on about a chef's need to adapt that I'm not going to go there today. But I will bring up a quick anecdote to illustrate how a chef can use imagination to override a difficult situation:

About eight years ago, I donated a private, home-cooked dinner party to a charity auction. A very social New Jersey woman cast the winning bid, and we made arrangements for me and a couple of my cooks to come to her house and prepare an elegant tasting menu for twenty or so of her close friends. The day of the event we carefully prepped the ingredients and packed them, in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, into my truck. En route to the party the turnpike flooded, causing a number of cars to spin out of control and skid off the road. Entire swaths of highway were shut down and rerouted, and the result was total gridlock. Although we had left extra early, it made no difference -- we were stuck, so I called our hostess to explain. At first she was calm about it, but soon she was calling me every few minutes, increasingly hysterical, as her guests started to arrive and we still weren't there. When we finally pulled up at the woman's house my cooks and I immediately kicked into high gear. We skipped the hors-d'oeuvres and plowed right into dinner, churning out the first two courses, while the hostess grew steadily calmer. Soon the guests were happily enjoying the food and all was forgiven. We prepared to launch into our third course -- a spectacular lobster with green onion chutney -- when suddenly we realized we had a problem: No lobster. Somehow we'd left it behind in the restaurant.

I exchanged a look with Johnny Schaeffer, my long-time right-hand at Gramercy Tavern, and without a beat, we got to work. We reached into our unused prep for hors-d'oeuvres and pulled out a lobe of foie-gras. We quickly roasted it off in tasting portions and plated it with the original green onion chutney which we turned into a sauce that nicely cut the unctuousness of the liver. We tasted and seasoned as we went, and reworked the presentation so that it made sense with the new dish. The course was a hit, and our hostess came back into the kitchen to compliment us before rejoining her guests and getting good and drunk. I mention this not to toot my own horn (though Johnny deserves some credit for unflappability) but to illustrate just how important it is not to be locked into one single idea when cooking. When I teach cooking classes, I always ask my students to put down their pencils and papers (they hate this) because if I've done my job well they will be able to replicate the dish I'm about to teach with just about any ingredient they like. I am teaching techniques, not recipes, and I want them to substitute the elements that they most enjoy when the time comes to cook on their own. Not a salmon lover? Use sea bass instead -- the important thing is not the fish, but to know how to test for doneness. In other words, I refuse to let them shut down their own imaginations and take safe harbor in a single, fixed recipe.


Of all the cooks, Mia seemed most comfortable with the setting (as she reminded us, she used to cook for cowboys,) and Elia and Betty also did a good job making their dishes work on the fire pit. All three made sure that their presentations were clean and attractive, which made the dishes even easier to appreciate. Mia's Crab Cake Benedict seemed to be the surfer's favorite, Elia pulled off an unusual combination of sweet and salty flavors with her waffle and eggs, and Betty surprised us all by managing to cook the eggs in her egg/ham/leek bundle like the delicate ingredients that they are; unlike some of the others, she didn't resort to a mindless scramble, but kept the egg yolks intact, and then cooked them gently and perfectly. tomsblog_betty3_320x240.jpg

Elia's dish was Guest Judge Raphael Lunetta's choice for winner. Interestingly, this was one of the few occasions this season when Elia didn't take issue with the judge's opinion. With the exception of Mike and Marcel, the remaining chefs made mistakes with their eggs -- overcooking them, or presenting them in visually unappealing ways. The eggs in Ilan's Spanish tortilla dish were a bit brown for my taste, but he was saved by the rest of his dish, which tasted great. As I mentioned earlier, Sam and Cliff weren't so lucky.

But it was Frank who really blew it. If he could have let go of his quiche idea, he would have realized he had all the ingredients for a great frittata, easily pulled off in a pan over the open fire. Instead he opted for a zucchini salmon scramble, but his distraction got in the way of good technique and his eggs were way overcooked. The little side of cannoli cream with strawberries tasted good, but wasn't connected in any way to the larger dish -- I would have rather seen him put al his focus into getting the eggs right. Of all the misses, his was the worst, and on that basis the judges chose to let him go.


Frank was a good guy, and I know most of the other chefs were sad to see him go. Frank's got plenty of ambition, experience and heart, and I wish him well. I'm sure he'll be a success in whatever culinary venture he undertakes ... just so long as no one messes with his toothbrush.

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

So she's going to take more time shopping at Whole Foods -- and ask for the best of Melissa's basket and Adam's shrimp. Let's dive right in. How did it feel to go shopping?
Gail Simmons: Shopping at Whole Foods was fantastic and hilarious. It made us realize that you need to be strategic, which was the point of the exercise for us. They gave us 30 minutes, but we took a little longer. We didn't let the producers push us around! We’re not contestants and we weren't going to stand for it! So, you realize how little time you have, and how big Whole Foods can be. You spend a lot of time running around.


My strategy with my pantry was to get a lot of fresh, delicious food that you can cook in lots of different ways. A good balance of proteins, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, fresh herbs, grains. But I didn't want to get too much. Everyone has different strategies; Padma got a ton of different ingredients. Tom's pantry was very pared down. Richard and I were somewhere in the middle. Let's start by talking about the two dishes that came from your pantry?
GS: Katsuji and Melissa. They used the same protein, but their dishes were very different. They both used shrimp which one of the proteins that I bought. I bought something else too, something that I know has given people trouble in the past (which is why I specifically chose it) -- chicken wings. And I really wanted people to use them. Instead, they chose the easy way out because shrimps cook quickly.

Melissa's used a lot of fresh vegetables, which I was hoping she would: dill, mint, artichoke. I was so excited about all of it. I think it was beautifully done, a lovely salad with that little shrimp on top with spiced yogurt. But it was just a salad with a quick-cooking seafood. It was so similar to what she had done in Restaurant Wars when she made a scallop with grapefruit salad. I believe she could have done so much more. Melissa keeps saying she wanted to focus on her knife skills, and, of course, your knife skills have to be precise. But I need to see more than just knife skills. I want to see cooking skills, I want to see roasting skills, braising skills. I want to see her hands get a little dirtier and her dishes not be as superficial. It was a light, lovely dish. I was happy to eat it for lunch. But when you're competing against six other really talented chefs, we all want to see a little more depth. Katsuji on the other hand went big. He used his ingredients in a really powerful way. The potato salad, the poached shrimp had bold seasoning and I loved how they went together. It was a great dish. It may not have been the best of the day, but I was actually really happy with what he chose to make. So for the rest, let's talk about who was on top and who was on bottom.

GS: At the top there was Gregory who really was going for Padma's heart there. He did great with his coconut milk curry. A really balanced, powerful dish. But it's something we’ve seen from Gregory many times in the past. In fact, in the first challenge he made a similar spicy curry dish with chicken. As much as we thought it was a delicious bowl of food, it was so typical of what we expect from Gregory. George's food was really exciting for us. This was my first time tasting his food and meeting him on Top Chef. He did a great job. The kebab was moist, seasoned really well, and the lentils were beautiful too. My only small issue with the dish is I couldn't understand why he separated the lentils from the kebab in two separate dishes. Why not put lentils on the plate and the kebab right on top, with a dollop of the yogurt? It seemed a little bit disconnected to me. But all-in-all, a really strong dish. Doug had the winning dish of the night. He used Richard's crazy pantry in a way that I thought was smart, clear-cut, and creative. The chorizo and mussels and peppers, just how Tom said, go together well, as do the cauliflower and the garlic. There was sweetness, there was spice, it was light and fresh but had a soulful, rustic flavor we all loved. You could see use of technique. On the bottom were dishes that tried to stretch and didn’t come through. Mei did a great job overall, except her lamb was undercooked. You want lamb medium, medium rare, but the center of that meat was raw to the point where the texture was chewy and almost cold. It would have been better if she had been able to cook it five minutes longer. We talked about Melissa's mistakes already, which also landed her on the bottom. I totally applaud Adam for trying to make a quick-flash marinade. He's been in the middle for so long and he thought "I gotta go big or I gotta go home." He tried to go big and unfortunately, he went home because of that technique. I get the idea of what he was doing, I don't doubt that it could've been successful if it were perhaps done in a different setting, with a little more control. But the flash marinade of his shrimp did not cook it as needed. It was still grey, it was still raw, and the texture of raw shrimp is not appealing. It's squeaky, it's squishy, and it becomes sort of mushy. We wanted it firm and cooked through. It's not like fish that you can eat sashimi-style Unfortunately Adam's hard work, his big risk sent him home.

I will miss him. I think he's an incredibly articulate, clever chef. I think he has an extraordinary career ahead of him. I'm excited to see him back in New York City. I can't wait to eat his food again. Also I want to say of this entire episode that was it was thrilling to see our superfans in the kitchen. We've never let people come into the kitchen in that way before, even though people ask us all the time. It brought so much good energy to have basically a live audience with us for the day. Everyone was so psyched. It was amazing to be around people who really love the show, to let them eat food from our talented chefs. SO much fun!