Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Molecular Gast-snobbery

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

Molecular Gast-snobbery

Tom talks comfort food, high-end cuisine, and of course, Marcel.

One of the things that distinguish a great chef is his or her love of food. Notice I didn't say fine food. Or fancy food. Good food doesn't have to be fancy, but it takes a lot of maturity and self-confidence to realize that.

My first cooking job was in my family's swim club in Elizabeth, NJ. I ran the grill, making burgers and hot dogs and grilled cheeses. My next job was at Burger King. By the time I got to Evelyn's -- a big, homey seafood restaurant -- I was hitting my stride. I started out as the guy who peeled the shrimp -- pretty low on the totem pole. By the end of my time there I was responsible for all the purchasing, and I pretty much worked every station in between. Now, Evelyn's is not fine dining. It's a good, run-of-the-mill seafood place. But I don't remember ever thinking that preparing that kind of basic food was beneath me. Maybe that's because the idea of a "celebrity chef" didn't really exist back then, and it wasn't something I or anyone I knew aspired to. I think even back then I derived a sense of satisfaction from preparing food well, regardless of how basic it was. I'm a great admirer of conceptual chefs like the great Ferran Adria (El Bulli, outside Barcelona) or Wylie Dufresne (wd-50, NYC) who experiment with culinary practices to push the envelope of flavor and texture. But when it's time to eat at home, I'm pretty certain Ferran isn't serving beet foam or foie gras cotton candy to his family. The man has a solid command of the basics, and probably roasts a chicken, or braises a piece of meat, just like the rest of us. Just as a great abstract painter starts with exceptional drawing skills before branching out expressionistically, Ferran started with a complete command of the basics, and used that as the stepping off point for his stylistic evolution.

I guess that's why I'm always kind of surprised and amused by young chefs who label themselves "molecular gastronomists" before they've had a chance to establish their own foundation, or who insist that basic food is "just not what I do." For one thing, I think the idea of a chef who only does one thing is silly. To do any food well (especially fine food) requires that a chef be well-rounded, and have a solid command of the basics. Eventually, a chef will arrive at their style, but it takes years of grinding out good, well-executed food to get there. Our Guest Judge this week, Stephen Bugarelli, is the Senior Executive Chef for TGIFriday's, and good, basic food is the concept behind his entire organization. TGIFriday's is not trying to reinvent the wheel or take American food in a new direction. It seemed clear to me when Stephen arrived on our set that he sees TGIFriday's menus as an opportunity for diners to revisit the foods they loved growing up, only updated with an adult twist. The Elimination Challenge was designed to give our chefs a chance to do exactly that with one of their own childhood favorites. It allowed them to show off their personal style while also demonstrating that they could adapt that style to the taste of the general public. Best of all, the winner of the challenge was going to have their name on menus in over 500 TGIF locations -- huge exposure for a fledgling chef. The chefs were each given $100 and 30 minutes to shop. After prep and a couple hours in the kitchen, they had 15 minutes in the kitchen at the South Pasadena Fire Station before presenting their food to the two groups of happy firefighters seated with Padma and Gail, and the poor suckers who ended up sitting with me.

Right off the bat, some of our chefs took on a superior attitude towards the challenge. Marcel reminded us that, as a molecular gastronomist, "Comfort food isn't what I do." Emily sniffed that she was a practitioner of four-star cuisine, not a mass producer. As I'm sure you can tell by now, I don't have a lot of patience for this. Just cook the damn food, will ya? Some of our other contestants -- notably Michael and Mia -- seemed energized by the challenge, seeing casual, comfort food as their particular milieu. Michael, especially, seemed to have an advantage, since he'd worked at a TGIFriday's. We figured he may have absorbed some of the company's mission and philosophy while there, and could tailor his efforts accordingly. That's why I was genuinely surprised to see his dish -- possibly the sloppiest, least tasty steak sandwich I'd ever encountered. The cooking lacked technique, was presented haphazardly, and gave off the impression that he didn't care. The sad part was that Michael genuinely believed he had given us a great dish. Frankly, I couldn't tell if Michael was simply underestimating his diners, or genuinely doesn't know from good food. And presentation aside, the dish would have tasted a lot better if back in the store he had kept the cheese, and returned the beer.

Marcel was quick to blame Michael for the fat in the deep fryer being too cool to cook onion rings. I give him credit for leaving them off the plate -- this showed confidence in his other components. His pork chop with mushroom sauce was good, if not memorable, but I would have liked to see Marcel shelve his natural petulance and roll with the problem he'd been handed. Kitchen equipment breaks down occasionally, and older equipment isn't always up to speed. It's a chef's job to adapt. Marcel's inability to let it go, coupled with his need to provoke his peers, could end up a real liability for him down the line. Cliff also went for comfort food, with a delicious mac n' cheese (about as comforting as comfort food gets) and fish sticks -- both items that immediately convey childhood. My only quibble (and it was a small one) is that I think the mac n' cheese would have been better baked to get that nice, crispy edge. But, overall, the dish was good and well prepared. Ilan's childhood memories were of corn in the summertime, and since it was in season, he turned it into a delicious side dish, adding layers of smoky, salty flavor with bacon.

Frank's dish of "mushrooms" on a hollowed bread stem, stuffed with mushroom duxelle, greens, and oven-roasted tomatoes, was a head-scratcher. I could see he was aiming for a whimsical toadstool tableau straight out of Alice in Wonderland. The problem was, Frank lacked the finesse to pull it off. Very few chefs have the true technical precision to make whimsy like that work and taste delicious. (My friend Thomas Keller comes to mind, with dishes like his Oysters and Pearls -- a savory pearl tapioca custard garnished with oysters and caviar.) Unfortunately, Frank's dish was a clunker. Now here's a bit of insider, only-in-the-blog info: The day of the Elimination Challenge, L.A. was basting in its own juices at a temperature of about 110 degrees and the fire station lacked air-conditioning. We were sweltering. Sam's decision to serve a summer fruit salad was a stroke of genius. Not only did he display impeccable knife skills and a confident use of fresh herbs, he showed true chef instincts by responding to his diner's environment. The dish had great flavor and was completely refreshing -- which, on a day like that, was its own form of comfort. Emily's surf & turf was, quite simply, inedible. Somehow she had managed to oversalt the dish to such an extent that we could barely choke down a bite. One of the first things every neophyte chef learns is the necessity of tasting their food as they go (using a clean spoon, NOT a finger). Emily insisted that she had tasted her dish, but either she forgot and didn't, or her taste buds are calibrated very differently than the rest of us. Elia's fish tacos with guacamole spoke of her Mexican childhood. They were tasty, and fun to eat. The guacamole did a good job of offsetting the heat of the salsa in the tacos.

Carlos' dish of chicken-fried shrimp with corn, red pepper and lime was also good, but in the oppressive heat, it was starting to get hard to appreciate the heavier, fried dishes. Same goes for Mia's meatloaf sandwich with spicy ketchup relish. Good, but better suited to a cold, winter day. Marisa made dessert, where she is most comfortable. And while it wasn't bad, the dish had an unwelcome busy-ness to it; strawberry crisp with pecan-streusel topping, caramel sauce, vanilla whipped cream. There are plenty of people who think a dish is better if it trumpets a long list of ingredients, but I'm not one of them. There was a certain irony to the fact that Betty, like her nemesis Marcel, faced equipment issues. In her case, the griddle lacked heat, so she ultimately switched her grilled cheese sandwiches to saute pans, finishing them with only seconds to spare. Marcel deliberately tried to mess with her head, but Betty had the support of the rest of the chefs who cheered her on, right down to the wire. Her grilled cheese with portabellas and red pepper soup put an adult spin on a childhood classic (grilled cheese and tomato soup) and the flavors were clean and good. Because Betty didn't consider the challenge beneath her, her choices were exuberant, innovative, and they hit just the right midpoint between comforting and healthy. I'm not sure that she taught the molecular gastronomists anything, but as far as I can see, the brass at TGIFriday's could not care less.

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!