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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

 Make Doug Adams' winning pork dish -- the dish that inspired his team's Four Pigs restaurant.

Braised Pork and Baked Beans

10 lbs of pig trotter
10 lbs of pork shoulder butt
8 bottles of Mexican coke
8 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer
10 yellow onions
20 cloves of garlic
5 lbs of dried navy beans (soaked overnight)
6 bay leaves
Black peppercorn

1. Add pork trotter, 6 bay leaves, and a handful of black peppercorns to the pot. Cover with water. Bring to boil and simmer for 2 hours.
2. Strain and reserve trotters.
3. Season pork shoulder heavily with salt and pepper, and sear in a very hot pan until golden brown.
4. Remove pork from the pan and add garlic until it's lightly brown. Then add onions.
5. Lightly brown onions. Deglaze the pan with the Mexican coke and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Arrange browned pork pieces in a roasting pan and pour onions, garlic, coke and beer over the top.
6. Add reserved trotters to the pan. Tightly cover with tin foil and braise at 325 degrees for 3 hours until the pork is tender.
7. Slowly simmer the beans with the trotter stock until tender.
8. Mix braised pork with tender beans and cook until it is hot and mixed well. Serve with pickles and bread.

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