Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Finale Part 1

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

Finale Part 1

All food and no drama makes Tom a happy judge. Tom Colicchio explains why this was his favorite episode so far.

This week's episode -- in some ways, until the final Judge's Table -- was my favorite episode to date.

Why?

No drama.

From the first moment that we all sat down with Chef Alan Wong for the celebratory lunch (one of the most delicious meals of my life, by the way) through the end of the evening -- there was a palpable excitement in the air, all due to the amazing ingredients, the spectacular locale, and the sight of four motivated, talented individuals cooking in a beautiful outdoor kitchen, for everyone to see. I really got a kick from seeing how each of the contestants interpreted the challenge -- their choices spoke volumes about them as chefs.

Ilan decided to mix Hawaiian techniques with Spanish flavors. Elia was aiming for a fusion of Mediterranean and Hawaiian flavors. Sam seemed bent on modernizing the Hawaiian dishes with a lighter, sophisticated touch, and Marcel chose to deconstruct the Hawaiian dishes altogether, and apply his molecular gastronomy to recreating them in his own, unique, wacky Scientist way. I strolled the kitchen a number of times and, aside from the minor tension that comes from chefs working busily in the same space with shared equipment, I didn't notice anything awry. I was practically giddy -- I could see how carefully Sam, Ilan, Elia and Marcel had prepared in the two months since our initial shoot. They had worked on a variety of ideas, researched Hawaiian cuisine, and carefully selected and brought along some of the ingredients they had grown to rely upon as chefs. Honestly, it felt as though it was finally about the food.
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And what of the food? It was all really good, but two dishes stood out: Marcel's deconstructed Hamachi Poke with Pineapple "Poi" was terrific. Finally, Marcel had found a context for his molecular gastronomy that made sense. Nowhere was there a foam-for-the-sake-of-foam, rather his esoteric techniques allowed him to accomplish things that couldn't have come from straight cooking, but with a clear respect for the Hawaiian flavors and textures. Witness his clever use of an aerator and xanthan gum to thicken raw pineapple into a light, airy "Poi" (a pineapple custard would have been a more conventional choice, but would have sacrificed the flavor of the raw fruit that is so prevalent in Hawaiian cooking).

Overall the dish was playful but focused, the flavors clean, and the presentation beautiful. The other clear success was Ilan's Morcilla and Squid Lau Lau. The dish truly borrowed from both Hawaiian and Spanish cuisine successfully; at lunch the day before, Chef Wong had emphasized how important cooked Taro leaf is to Hawaiian cuisine, and of all the chefs only Ilan attempted it -- Taro leaves are not easy to work with, and they have a strong and distinctive flavor. Ilan's chopped Morcilla (a Spanish version of blood sausage) and Squid was flavorful enough to stand up to the Taro's flavor and actually enhance it. All in all, a great dish, and one that fully embraced the challenge.
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It felt to me that Sam played it a bit safe with his Poke with Sea Beans and Yuzu juice, and his Macadamia Coconut-milk pudding, delicious as they were. While I have no complaints about his food, neither of the dishes stood out for originality or seemed particularly personal to Sam, and he certainly took no risks by trying to cook using an unfamiliar Hawaiian technique. In fact, neither of the dishes were actually cooked. I'm not saying that a raw dish doesn't have merit -- it just was a safer route than attempting to cook something -- that's one less (major) thing to screw up. Elia, on the other hand, did utilize an unfamiliar Hawaiian technique by steaming snapper in Ti leaves, and we gave her props for that, but unfortunately she chose red bell pepper and peas (evoking neither Hawaiian or Mediterranean flavors) to accompany the fish, and the dish was bland. If Elia was determined to use peas, I would have like to see her connect the dots between peas and Taro -- both are starchy vegetables -- and use them to create her own "poi."

Eli's Poke of raw tuna was also a nice enough dish, though I found the olives a bit overpowering. The problem was, I didn't feel it retained anything of the Hawaiian vernacular the chefs were charged with interpreting. The flavors -- olives, capers, and tomato -- could have evoked Italy or the South of France just as easily, and the fact that the fish was raw wasn't enough of a link to Hawaiian cuisine. One of my favorite dishes to prepare at the raw bar at Craftsteak is crudo -- an Italian iteration of the same dish -- super-fresh fish, sliced and dressed with flavors that enhance the qualities of the fish itself. I felt Elia had given us a lovely dish of crudo, without a clear sense of place or Hawaiian tradition.
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We had more or less made up our minds, when Ilan and Elia suddenly piped up about Marcel's behavior earlier that day in the kitchen. The judges struggled to understand exactly what Marcel had done to provoke the other three -- to elicit a charge of cheating, no less.

The only example of untoward behavior Elia could come up with was Marcel moving her steamer on the stove, so that he could use the burner underneath. Now, for the record, I've worked shoulder to shoulder with other cooks in many busy kitchens. There is never enough time or enough room, frankly, and everyone does their best to complete their work without stepping on someone else. It's not a violation of protocol in a busy kitchen to move a pot -- provided it isn't actually cooking -- to make way for one that needs fire. It's good manners to point it out -- but every professional chef understands the need for a working burner, and every cook has been there. There's no such thing as "reserving" a cold burner for later, at least not in any of the kitchens I've been in. And when Elia admitted that Marcel hadn't caused any injury to her dish by moving the steamer, I pretty much hit the end of my rope.

Now I'm not naive -- it seemed clear that Elia was alluding to other behavior that may have transpired. Marcel, as has been pointed out ad nauseum -- rubs people the wrong way. He's quick to needle, pontificate or toss out unwelcome comments that may have been better left unsaid. He's fairly uncompromising in his vision, and views mundane ideas with contempt. All of this makes the guy more of a social maladroit than a villain. Jokes, insults, and tough banter are part of every kitchen I've ever been in, and most people just let it go. My sense is that by this point, Marcel had already tipped the scales of his competitor's tolerance so far away that anything he said or did, regardless of how harmless, was going to be interpreted badly by the other three.
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At another time I'll be happy to ruminate on how important popularity is to the role of a Top Chef. Sure, it's important to have the support of your troops as you head into battle (or at least their respect). And I know there will be plenty of people who believe that Marcel can't be a Top Chef -- no matter how good his food is -- because of his failures on an interpersonal level. But when Elia stood up and accused Marcel of cheating -- a charge I take very seriously -- I wanted actual examples of malfeasance, or I didn't want to be bothered. Neither Elia, Ilan or Sam could come up with one. And by then I was sick to death of it all. Marcel's annoying -- I get it -- now let's get on with the food.

Ultimately, Ilan and Marcel went at tonight's challenge with the most imagination, creativity and personality. Both adroitly did the thing they do -- applying Spanish flavors and chemical wizardry -- with flair and respect for traditional Hawaiian cuisine. And on that basis, these two were chosen to go forward into the next, and final phase of the Top Chef Finale.

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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

 

Bravotv.com: 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.

 

Bravotv.com: 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!