Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Season's Eatings

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

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 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!