Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Season's Eatings

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

Season's Eatings

Tom has two simple rules for cocktail parties, and he's telling you.

There are now only eight chefs left. They were divided randomly into two teams and given the task of preparing hors d'oeuvres for L.A. Magazine's holiday party on the "Ye Olde New York" stage set on the Warner Bros. lot. Cocktail parties are a big thing this time of year, and I'm asked to do many of them. If I've learned anything over the years about cocktail parties, it's these two things:

1. Keep the booze flowing.

2. Make food guests can eat with one hand so they can take advantage of rule #1. What? you say. Here in (insert city) we go to holiday parties for the sparkling conversation and witty repartee. Not to mention the joy of lubricating ourselves alongside colleagues and the boss! That may very well be the case, but here in NYC, people want good food and plenty of it. And a free hand to grip their Cosmo.

But there's something else that every chef who caters cocktail parties knows. Unlike a dinner party, where guests are seated at length over a few beautifully presented courses and nice wines, a cocktail party demands variety. Hors d'oeuvres are one or two-bite affairs that take mere seconds to eat. The chef's job is to provide a wide array of food so that the guests won't run through them within ten minutes of showing up. Ideally, he or she will continue to send out different items as the night continues to keep the guests interested, and provide diversion from stultifying office banter -- "As for those year-end numbers -- oh, look! Mini quiches!" Herein lay the Black team's big problem.

Elia, as team leader, decided to focus the group's efforts on four items, each one painstakingly executed a la carte. This would have been perfect for a dinner party, but for a cocktail party (especially one with 200 guests) it was a bad idea. Mia tried to interject with her own ideas while the team was planning. As a caterer, she understood the numbers game -- with 200 guests to serve, it is essential to prepare the kind of food that won't suffer from being prepped ahead of time so that you can get a head start on your guests -- many of whom will be coming right from the office and will be ready to eat. Unfortunately, Mia's ideas tend towards the mainstream -- chicken skewers and that kind of thing. Elia and Cliff wanted to aim higher, but in the process they shut themselves off to what she had to say. Michael, wisely perhaps, didn't try to introduce many of his own ideas (twice baked potato, anyone?) although he did hold out for his "surf and turf." Eventually Mia got sick of trying to be heard over Cliff and Elia's two-man show, and simply went along with the team.

The results were fairly disastrous. Although the Black team's hors d'oeuvres were tasty and skillful, guests grew bored with the meager selection and quickly drifted back to the Orange team's table. At times, the team simply didn't have food ready -- a big problem at a cocktail party, where people shouldn't be asked to wait. In my opinion, Elia's ego got in the way. Choosing to make only four items was a self-centered decision. (By that I don't mean a selfish decision -- she wasn't out only to please herself -- but one that originated in her own psyche, as opposed to that of her guests.) Sadly, four items -- even perfect, delicious, beautifully executed items - were not enough. And worse, her decision to make the hors d'oeuvres a  la carte meant that she could never get ahead of her guests' appetites, or even just keep up.

The Orange Team, on the other hand, understood the challenge. They came up with an ambitious list of hors d'oeuvres, and then set out to make them skillfully and intelligently. They managed their resources in such a way that there was enough food at all times, which gave their table a pleasing aura of holiday abundance. They even budgeted for table decorations, which helped give their offerings a professional, upscale feel. The food was respectable -- some of it was even very good -- but more importantly, overall they made the guests happy and delivered the "wow" factor we asked for. Sam showed leadership right from the start by asking Betty and Marcel to put away their differences, which I was glad to see them do. Both he and Ilan are used to putting their heads down and getting to work, so it made sense for them to be the workhorses behind the scenes during the party, while Betty -- who has demonstrated a knack for connecting with guests - served the food with Marcel. It seemed as though Sam was secure enough to allow his teammate's personalities to emerge in the food, but held his ego in check enough not to have to produce anything so complicated that it couldn't be managed in the time frame and quantities needed. As the leader and engineer of the team's overall effort, Sam won this week's elimination challenge.

It was clear who had won the challenge and who had lost. And that's when things started to get interesting. When the Black team was called to the Judges' table, Cliff blamed the team's loss on Mia "bitching and moaning" during planning and prep. Mia insisted she had only been asserting her opinion. And yet I couldn't help but feel if Mia had managed to express herself as forcefully during the planning stage as she did at the judges' table, her teammates would have had no choice but to listen. Cliff tried to frame the Black team's loss as a failure to work together as a team, but frankly, I saw it as the result of a poor conceptualizing from the top down. As the team leader, Elia set the course for all of them, and the responsibility for the team's loss fell on her shoulders. We were ready to send Elia packing, when a funny thing happened: In one of the first acts of genuine selflessness I've witnessed on the show to date, Mia asked to go home instead of Elia.

I guess Mia looked around at the other chefs and realized that it was unlikely she was going to be the ultimate winner. Not that she lacked the heart or hard work. But she was seeing people like Sam and Ilan and Elia, who have had the benefit of training and the tutelage of notable chefs, cooking at a level of sophistication and skill that eluded her. Mia felt herself out of her league and truly believed, but for tonight's error in judgment, Elia had a shot at going all the way. So she volunteered to go home so that Elia could stay. We were all incredibly moved. During the taping of the show I hadn't formed any personal connections or preferences among the chefs. I had very little interaction with them beyond my brief jaunts into the kitchen and at the judge's table. I definitely grew frustrated with them at times -- but always as competitors, never as individuals. I hadn't even seen the audition tapes the Producers used during casting, so I went in with only the most rudimentary knowledge of the chefs' backgrounds. Nonetheless, over the weeks of competition, bits of information filtered through. I learned that Ilan had worked for me very briefly years before at Craft (embarrassingly, I didn't recognize his face).

I learned that Marisa's specialty was pastry, and that Elia had trained with Joel Robuchon. I also learned that Mia had once been homeless and was inspired by her story. I don't think it affected my judgments of her cooking -- if anything, I respected her enough that I wanted to give her my honest opinion when her food fell short. But when Mia opted to leave the show, I was genuinely sad. A piece of me would have loved to see the fighter in her stick it out.

The truth is that Mia is already a winner in every sense of the word. In many ways her accomplishments -- a successful restaurant and catering company and the respect of her peers -- are more notable than most because of the overwhelming odds she faced in achieving them. She is a real role model -- self taught and self made -- and I, for one, feel lucky to know her. Happy Holidays -- Tom p.s. To CWE, the high-school age valedictorian who wrote in last week to ask if I thought opening a restaurant to pursue his passion for healthy cuisine was "selling himself short" as some people had told him -- I would like to say that in my opinion it is never selling yourself short to pursue the thing you love. In fact, it would be selling yourself short not to.

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Gail schools us on the science of innovative cooking and explains why George Pagonis' octopus didn't have any legs to stand on. Let's talk about the Elimination Challenge, which was to create an innovative dish that pushed culinary boundaries.

Gail Simmons: I was really happy that Wylie was there for this challenge, of course. But I think the set up was a little anti-climactic in honesty. As a viewer, you didn't get a full explanation of how and why they were given this challenge. It was specifically because there are so many people pushing these boundaries, many of whom are in Boston, and particularly Michael Brenner. He is innovative for a lot of reasons -- he’s a physicist, but what he’s become known for in the culinary space is teaching an in-depth course at Harvard about the science of food and cooking, incorporating people like Wylie and as well as a long list of exceptionally talented and renown chefs from around the world, like Ferran Adrià among others. It is exciting and extraordinary, and having him there allowed us to present our chefs with this challenge. We always think about how the dishes taste and look, whether the meat is cooked well enough or the appearance of knife cuts are appropriate. All of that stuff is in affect science -- cooking is all chemistry and biology, reaction of cells to knives and fire essentially. Everyone has their own definition of innovation, and I think there was a lot of pressure to "innovate" in this challenge. Our chefs did well, but I wish they had been given more time to really push their own personal boundaries more. Let’s start with the winner, Melissa, who had the seared duck breast with farro, walnut miso, and pickled cherries.

GS: Melissa really has stepped up her game and soared in the last two challenges; she won the last challenge (and a spot in the finale in Mexico), and now she’s won this challenge, too. Her duck was beautiful, though not necessarily the most groundbreaking dish I’ve ever seen in my life. But she was innovative enough that we felt her flavors were new, but the dish was at the same time beautiful, delicious. Here’s the tricky thing about being innovative, which I think George touched on when he was talking about the challenge too: is it takes time and practice to truly innovate. I can only assume that someone like Wylie tries a dish fifty times before it goes on his menu as a full formed creative work, that changes how we all perceive food. Innovation takes patience and some serious brain power. To come up with something in a few hours is a tall order when it needs to be totally delicious AND have a level of innovation that surprises and impresses us. Melissa knew her strengths and perhaps was more relaxed then she would’ve been otherwise, so she made that walnut miso pesto and incorporated it in a really creative, unusual way. It made her dish stand out, and by far it was the most delicious. And then we had our runner, Mei, with her duck curry with vadouvan and yuzu yogurt.

GS: There was something about Mei’s dish that made me think it was the most innovative of the day in a number of ways. However it wasn’t the most successful, and that’s why Melissa took the win. Mei’s dish was not only breathtakingly stark and beautiful, looking so modern on the plate, but she also combined several unusual ingredients, which made for a very untraditional, very modern curry. It was innovative and it stayed with us. You could even see in Tom's reaction that it was a dish to think about. When you tasted it, you weren't sure it worked, but there was something enjoyable about it; the dish didn't simply come together in your mind. It wasn't straight forward. You needed to take a pause, then a second bite, and by the third and fourth bite you started to understand all the different parts, which were very exciting. I think with a few more tries, Mei would’ve really nailed that dish. I was proud of her for pushing us all that way. Then in our bottom two we had Gregory and George. Gregory did the salmon in tom kha broth with roasted tomatoes, crispy chicken skin, and crispy salmon skin.

GS: There were a lot of fun, tasty components to Gregory’s dish. If this challenge had been to show us an interesting representation of salmon or Thai flavors, he would’ve gotten it right. The thing with Gregory is that as skilled as he is, we were really hoping that he would come out of his comfort zone. The flavors he used were what we have seen from him previously. We didn’t really see a lot of innovation from him. That doesn’t mean we don’t think he worked hard or didn't do a good job. He gave us something that he felt was different in presentation, but the flavors were definitely in his usual wheelhouse. As he said himself when cooking beans in the Quickfire, he felt uncomfortable because he's more accustomed to using Asian flavors and ingredients. So here he was in the Elimination Challenge using Asian flavors. On the other hand the dish tasted great! We loved it, we just didn’t think he fulfilled the challenge of being innovative like we know he could have. And then there was George. . .  Yes, he had the charred octopus, yellow split pea puree, and green apple harissa.

GS: George also stayed in his comfort zone in some ways -- he's cooked us octopus before, so charring octopus did not feel innovative at all for him, I actually felt disappointed when he told us that's what he had made. However, there were probably twenty other components of that dish that did make it feel somewhat innovative. The green apple harissa was one of them for sure. The fact that he called it harissa may be taking some license, but that's OK. I loved it, it went so well with the octopus, and it was something new that all of us had never seen. That said, the rest of the dish didn’t make sense all together. At least three or four of the garnishes he added didn’t serve a purpose on the plate, rather, they detracted from the dish. He spent his time making too many components. They may have shown technique, and you could tell that he was really pushing himself, but it all still has to be one cohesive plate of food, first and foremost. I think it didn’t work because he let himself get preoccupied with all the other pieces instead of focusing on doing one thing really well in an innovative way.

Charring octopus did not feel innovative at all for him, I actually felt disappointed when he told us that's what he had made.

So George's was the dish we least enjoyed eating and thought was the least successful, that’s why he went home. I think George did a tremendous job. He came back once already, and he could come back from Last Chance Kitchen again. He’s a great cook, has a great attitude, and I think he absolutely gave his best throughout the competition, which made everyone better. I don’t always say that, but I think when he came back, he really changed the game and the whole season was better for it.

Now, onward to Mexico!