Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Talking Turkey

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

Talking Turkey

Tom's take on what makes a good Thanksgiving.

Here's some of the things the producers of Top Chef don't tell us: Who should win. Who should go home. Who to keep for the sake of drama. Here's the thing they told us this week: Pick the five best Quickfire chefs, so that the other five can cook Thanksgiving dinner for them. I know I'm going to get blamed for this flagrant break with custom. But hell, as long as the producers weren't telling me which five to pick, I was OK with it. Clearly, though, the losing five were not.

Especially Elia.

She was unhappy at being in the lesser category -- equal parts humiliation and true disenchantment with me as a judge. It's funny -- taste is a very subjective thing. While I appreciated that Elia's family mixed fruit and meat flavors at their traditional holiday celebrations in Mexico, to my palate the meat hash, though tasty enough, didn't mesh well at all with the ambrosia salad that Elia lumped beside it on the plate. What I learned, though, was that Elia could handle losing the challenge (buffered somewhat by being one of five) but she couldn't handle losing faith in someone she had respected. She had tasted Cliff's dish and found the flavors wanting, and couldn't fathom that I disagreed (for the record, Cliff's dish didn't blow my mind, but it was better than the five that lost). Elia's disillusionment colored everything from that moment on -- she lost all motivation to compete. Later she asked me to justify my decision, which I was happy to do. Only when Elia came to see that I had truly chosen based on my personal palate -- which differs widely from hers -- was her equilibrium restored so she could focus on the task at hand.

The Elimination Challenge asked the five chefs to reinvent the traditional flavors of Thanksgiving with a cutting-edge twist. The chefs were given an hour in the kitchen to plan, and then a chance to prep and cook in their lofts -- a rough simulation of a home kitchen (if your home kitchen had a camera crew hovering overhead). This was a tough challenge in that it was asking for clashing concepts -- traditional and cutting edge -- to work together. Sadly, the group got off to a mundane start. Rather than spit-balling ideas -- how to get the flavors of turkey, cranberry, stuffing, etc. across in unexpected ways -- the group's meeting became little more than a chance for Betty to divvy out tasks. Surprisingly, iconoclastic Marcel suggested that they work together to find inspiration as a team. He was quickly shot down in favor of individual courses -- mistake number one. Love Marcel or hate him, the man at least has ideas. The group sorely needed another idea person to help break down their conventional mindset right from the start, but Elia was still too preoccupied and angry to contribute in a meaningful way. Now, I love Thanksgiving -- it's one of my favorite meals. Every year my son Dante and I make our way over to Craft early that morning to make the stuffing (the kid's a whiz with sausage). And while I don't necessarily prepare a cutting-edge Thanksgiving meal for my own family, I liked this challenge because I thought it would really give our chefs a chance to break out and get creative. Imagine if the group had worked together to reinvent the meal as we know it, maybe by taking traditional stuffing ingredients -- bread, oysters, sausage, fennel, sage and wrapping them in turkey skin to form an avant-garde sausage? Or how about a turkey confit with oysters, poached in butter and finished with cranberry gelee and a fine dice of sauteed sweet potatoes? Thinking along these lines would have meant breaking down the concept of a Thanksgiving meal into its individual flavor components, and then playing with them in a skillful, imaginative way.


Betty pretty much ruled that out by cleaving to a traditional concept presented in the traditional way -- turkey and all the trimmings -- and the others never questioned it. In his frustration, Marcel took on the main course, figuring that if he couldn't rescue the entire meal from mediocrity, he was at least going to put his stamp on the entree. In order to start working, he had to deal with the pigsty the male chefs have been calling home, which resembled a frat house after hell week. Marcel dumped everything in his path into a pile, thus whipping Frank (who was clearly egged on by the other guys) into an overheated froth. Drama, drama, drama. Clearly, Marcel could have gone about things in a less irritating way. But to threaten him with violence because he messed with your toiletries? (Quick tip, Frank: As a top chef, threatening your staff with physical harm can get you brought up on charges. You might want to work on your anger management skills.) But let's get back to the food. Michael's dish -- a twice-baked potato with shrimp, a parsnip/potato puree, and corn with cheese. Each of these was decent enough (the baked potato was actually delicious), but cutting edge? Why? Because they were three beige items on the plate? Because he had doubled (or tripled) up on starches? If violating the rules of Cooking 101 is cutting edge, than I suppose Michael's course fits the bill. But one needs to know the rules in order to break them, and it has to be done with a certain knowing panache; Michael served his dish up without even a hint of irony and it was clear that he was cooking based on some indistinct notion of "starchy side dish," without giving the actual mandate -- cutting edge cooking -- a second thought.

Carlos' dish was even worse -- mesclun greens that could have come from a bag, dotted with roast vegetables, burnt onions, chipotle peppers and queso fresco. Now, I have nothing against salad. I have enjoyed delicious salads, and have prepared them on occasion. But given the chance to show off, to express myself, to do something cutting edge -- I wouldn't pick a salad. Carlos' choice to go with it (or rather his failure to stand up and challenge the arbitrary inclusion of a salad course) was less about winning than it was about falling safely somewhere in the middle. His tepid execution of the salad only confirmed this. It showed us that Carlos lacks the killer instinct -- the desire to win, to rock people's worlds -- that sets apart a top chef.

Elia's soup was delicious. Served hot, the perfect texture, and full of rich, earthy mushroom flavor. It was a welcome departure from the limp courses that preceded it. Problem was there was nothing cutting edge about it. It was cream of mushroom soup. I was sorry to see this, because I know that Elia is capable of interesting choices. Her resentment going into the challenge kept her from throwing some real ideas into the mix early enough to affect the meal, or at the very least, her dish. Imagine all that could have been done with a soup course in this challenge -- how about turkey consomme, poured over small dumplings of turkey stuffed into cabbage leaves, and roasted fall vegetables? tomsblog_marcel_320x240.jpg

Marcel's turkey entree was the only dish that met the criteria of traditional thanksgiving flavors reinterpreted in a cutting edge way: He served an unusual roulade of turkey breast, turkey farce (a puree of the dark meat) and stuffing, garnished with a cranberry foam and cranberry gelee. Unfortunately, the poached turkey was bone dry -- a problem Marcel blamed on his lack of a thermal immersion circulator. For the uninitiated, a thermal immersion circulator is a piece of equipment that keeps water at a very low and steady temperature (usually between 100 and 120 degrees). Ingredients are vacuum sealed in a pouch and immersed in the circulator to cook gently over a long period of time. Marcel improvised with saran wrap and a pot of near-boiling water, which is hard to keep at a low and steady temperature and led to him overcooking the dish. Certainly a thermal immersion circulator would have helped, but without one, Marcel needed to adapt his concept. One way would have been to roast the turkey roulade wrapped in some type of fat -- bacon, prosciutto or even turkey skin. If Marcel was wedded to the idea of poaching, then he should have at the very least buttered the saran wrap thoroughly before rolling the whole thing up. In other words -- he should have adapted his idea to fit his equipment.

Lastly, we had Betty's course -- an assortment of flavored Creme Brulees. The dessert failed on two levels -- conceptually, there is nothing cutting edge about Creme Brulee, and, though Betty disagreed, flavoring it with chai or pumpkin doesn't make it so. Secondly, they were poorly executed -- the creme had the runny texture of pie filling, and the Brulee of sugar was burnt. The best thing I can say about this meal was that at least we weren't subjected to a "refresher."

Tony Bourdain was our Guest Judge and he was a blast to have on set. He knows good food when he tastes it, and he's not afraid to speak up about it (to hilarious effect -- he literally had us rolling in the aisles). But all the fun couldn't distract us judges from a very real dilemma: Of the five chefs, Marcel was the only one who truly tried to meet the cutting-edge challenge, but his dish wasn't that good. Elia, on the other hand, didn't aim for cutting-edge at all, but her dish -- while fairly mundane -- was well-executed and delicious. What to do? Tony went with Elia over Marcel -- hers was the dish we all enjoyed eating the most. It was a tough call, and frankly, I'm not sure who I would have rewarded -- the better idea or the better execution? Luckily, the Guest Judge chooses the winner and I was exempt from having to decide. The permanent judges however, decide who goes home, and in the end it was a clear choice. We had no shortage of misses in this meal, but in my book it was Carlos who truly failed.

Betty, misguided as she may have been, actually believed she was doing something cutting edge. Michael served up at least one tasty item (the twice baked potato) and while he never once came close to cutting-edge, he pushed himself by also taking on a canape and cheese course (served, oddly, after dessert, but he gets points for trying). Carlos, it seemed, wasn't playing to win, merely to skate by. His goal seemed to be to cleave safely to the middle and frankly, that's not good enough. A top chef has to aim higher than that. I really believe that the extent to which the chefs in this competition throw their backs into it is a reflection of how hard they're going to throw themselves into every plate that leaves their kitchen one day. Their diners deserve nothing less. Happy Thanksgiving to all of our viewers -- I hope your holiday is filled with friends, family and good food for all. Tom

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Gail can't believe that Keriann wouldn't have shown her teammates how she wanted her dish executed. This week was Restaurant Wars!
GS: Restaurant Wars is always an exciting episode because it’s so hard to do what we are asking of chefs to do. Opening a restaurant is truly so difficult, on a good day if you’re dealing with people you love and work with all the time, let alone with three people you’re competing against and have never worked with in this way before. You don’t really know their strengths and weaknesses, and this is where that it all comes out. So looking first at the Grey Team, Melissa, Doug, Mei, Adam
GS: I knew it was a strong team from the start, but we’ve had plenty of strong teams that have failed in the past. You never know until you sit down at that table to eat their meal. I could tell that they were all serious and they have all performed pretty well up to this point though. Although the other team was stacked too, with Gregory who's won a lot and Katsuji who was coming off his win in the Thanksgiving challenge. Keriann and Katie have made some great dishes too. It was anyone’s game.

I think it was smart of the Grey Team to chose Adam as their front of the house man. He’s gregarious, he’s affable, he is a great storyteller, a great talker, and he has a sense of urgency and confidence. Sometimes he can be over-confident maybe, but I think you want someone working front of house who’s willing to take on that risk. Plus he’s done it before. He understands the importance of that role.

Putting Keriann in the front of the house could have been a good move too. She’s certainly a lovely person. She’s well-spoken and definitely wanted to take on the challenge. I just wasn’t sure if they put her out front because they didn’t want her in the kitchen or because they really thought she’d be good for that role. Either way, that’s the way the cards fell. Katie taking on the chef position I thought was a real risk -- she doesn’t run a kitchen day-to-day. I was proud of her for wanting to do it, maybe because she runs pop-ups, she knows how to do something really quickly like this and that experience could come in handy. The other team chose Doug as their chef, who also doesn’t run a restaurant every single day; he is a sous chef. But you can tell he has that drive and understanding of service, he expedites every day in his restaurant and that’s a really huge piece of how a good restaurant runs. It seemed like everyone knew their roles and everyone was happy at the start. They weren’t forced into anything.

I actually liked both restaurant concepts in theory. "Four Pigs" was family style, rustic, comforting, American, bold flavors, relaxed environment. I think that suited who they were, and I think they did a great job. The concept of "Magellan" was a really great idea too. Magellan being an explorer, the spice route, all of the dishes having complex spice elements. The issue you run into with that concept though is that if it’s too loose, everyone is literally all over the map (pun intended). So even though the idea’s inspiration is exploration, when you as the customer sit down and eat that meal, do you really want to be eating things from all over the map? Do they go together? Sometimes the chefs get carried away by the idea of that exploration, and forget that a meal still has to feel cohesive. I don’t know who would want to be eating seven different cuisines all at one table. There needs to be a common thread between them more than just that they all have spice. All spices don’t taste good when they’re combined. I think that’s the first issue this team had. They were all making their own dishes and not really discussing how those dishes would talk to each other when they were actually put on people’s plates. So, let’s start with the dishes from the Grey Team.
GS: The Grey Team started with Adam’s salt-baked clams with ramps, bacon and sunflower seeds. Very seasonal (we filmed this in the spring), very New England. I love clams from that part of the country. We saw that he got in a little hot water when he lost his first set of clam shells, but he was able to completely bounce back. The dish was tasty, it was a perfect starter, a savory little bite. And you were really able to taste all of those flavors without overshadowing the clam itself, which with ramps and bacon is a hard thing to do.

Mei’s chicken liver toast with plum puree was also delicious. The plums cut through the fat in the chicken liver which I loved. It was a little bit too wet though, so the chicken liver dripped and was a little bit looser than what I wanted. I like it to be just a little thicker so there’s a more texture to it, and also so it doesn’t drip all over your hand. It did remind us of a very sophisticated peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was salty and tart, and had just enough richness from that liver to satisfy you but not fill you up. Beautifully presented.

We all loved Doug’s braised pork shoulder. The baked beans, onion, and mustard went so well together. The mustard lightened up the dish and the pickled onions of course did too. It was a homey, comforting dish. The pork shoulder just melted in your mouth. I wish I had a bowl of it right now actually.

Melissa’s scallop was probably the weakest dish on that team. By no means does that mean it was awful. It was a lovely idea, light and fresh. Scallops and grapefruit and radish are a perfect combination. It felt a little bit more like an appetizer salad though than a main course. Her scallops were on the salty side and a little bit overcooked too. We wanted them a bit softer, a little more rare in the center. It was a really nice dish, but compared to the other dishes on her team, it felt a simple and slightly out of place. Everything else had a soulfulness to it and this seemed to be sort of off in the corner, but I was still happy to eat it.

Mei's brussels sprouts was their side dish and they were also really tasty. Brussels sprouts and anchovies go surprisingly well together! But they was over-dressed and the brussels were a little overcooked. They just needed to be toned down. I can remember when we were finished eating them, there was a pool of vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl. If she had been a little more light-handed on the vinaigrette when she tossed it, it probably would have been a better dish.

Melissa’s dessert was very well-made -- apples, mixed-berries, cardamom cream, a classic fruit cobbler. I just wish she had done something a little more interesting. Berry cobbler is something anyone can make at home. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a good dish. You’re a professional chef though, and this is Top Chef so if you’re going to give me a cobbler, show me cobbler in a way I haven’t seen before. Whether that’s a special biscuit on top or a combination of flavors of fruits, or a presentation I haven’t seen. In every way this cobbler was basic. I enjoyed eating it, it just was a little boring. And then Magellan…
GS: Oh Magellan. We all were really excited when Katie’s roasted beets came to the table. It sounded fantastic. But she made the dish in a composed way, meaning that the beets were on one side, the curry was just underneath. Everything was separate, so it was very difficult to taste all together. Her flaw was that there wasn’t a conversation going on between all of the components in the dish. She left the beets completely dry on the side of the plate, but she had this beautiful curry and this coconut and this pickled cauliflower, she could have dressed them wonderfully, had she mixed them up, had she presented the dish in a different way. It really shows you that ingredients are only one piece of the puzzle. You can have five different beautiful ingredients, but unless you put the dish together in a way that highlights them, it falls flat.

Katsuji’s hamachi sashimi was totally fine. The hamachi was very big and cut in a bit of a ragged way. I wish they had been smaller or more smoothly cut, so that they weren’t as messy to eat and a little more refined. But the dish itself was perfectly well made. I liked his dried pozole too; I thought it was very interesting. A little odd, a little out there, but I applaud Katsuji for pushing boundaries of what we think of as pozole with it.

Gregory also made two dishes. His seared haddock was my favorite dish of the night. The fish was great, the tomato was flavorful. I thought the dish came together nicely, it was cohesive. I liked the garam masala. Although he could have probably simplified a little bit. His pork tenderloin was perfectly cooked too, it sounded so rich and delicious in its description, but was a little disappointing to eat because it was a little less flavorful than I expected with all of those components. Like Katie, he also separated out all of the ingredients. I was hoping to get a dish that was really bold in these Chinese flavors, the hosin and the XO sauce. I wanted it all to be mixed in a way that every bite had all of those tastes and it wasn't.

And then there was our dessert, Keriann’s vanilla crepe. I’m still totally confused as to how she wanted it. She wanted it room temperature, she wanted that mousse to be stiff and hard, not spreadable? I can’t understand how it would’ve been served that way and been successful either. But I do know that the way it was served definitely didn’t work. As much as I’m sure she was devastated by the way her team chose to change her dish, and especially that they didn’t tell her before they did so, I still think it would not have been a successful dish had she served it her way either. I’m just totally baffled by how it was supposed to be, and how she didn’t notice until the second half of service that it was being served in a different way. What I especially don’t understand is how she didn’t plate one for them first. If she had just plated a full dish, showed it to all of them and they all tasted it before she went out to service, they all would’ve known exactly how she wanted it and would’ve done it that way. How do you create a dish and leave people to execute it but not show them how it’s supposed to be? That’s why we decided Keriann had to be the one to be eliminated. There were a lot of problems with service at Magellan. Clearly, customers weren’t getting dishes, or they were getting dishes twice. No one knew where anything was, it was impossible to get water or a server. It was impossible to find Keriann. She put food down and then walked away without explaining it. There were so many times when we were completely thrown off by the service. And, in addition to all this, her dish didn’t make sense -- not only because of how Katie and Katsuji changed it, but in her vision in the first place. Keriann worked hard, she pushed herself, I’m proud of her. I think she’s a strong person, a good cook and will have a successful. I just don’t think this was her day.

Next episode: the judges hit Whole Foods!

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