Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Case Of The Purloined Lychees

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

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

The Case Of The Purloined Lychees

Did Otto steal the lychees? Tom looks into the case.

As an avid (ok, obsessed) fly fisherman, I feel a reverence for fish -- the fresher the better. One of my favorite things to do as a young chef was head down to the Fulton Fish Market in the pre-dawn hours to choose fish for my first NYC restaurant, Mondrian. The market was a rough-and-tumble place, but I learned from the experts how to judge the freshness of a fish (look for unclouded eyes) and to distinguish fish that has been well-handled from fish that has been thrown about (bruising the flesh) and fish that was caught only hours ago from fish that has lived for weeks packed in ice while the boat was out at sea. I felt bad waking the chefs up before dawn -- especially because my forays down to the fish market usually happened after a night in the kitchen (and subsequent pub crawl), while I was weary but not yet comatose. Our chefs put on a brave face, but after only a couple hours of sleep, they were clearly hurting. When our chefs were asked to create a sushi dish for their Quickfire challenge, we knew we were asking most of them to step outside their own cultural milieu. That said, I think it was a worthwhile challenge -- especially for this early in the season -- because it would give us a chance to assess the chefs' adaptability, their knife skills, and their knowledge of other cuisines.

I wasn't there during the Quickfire, but watching the footage I was impressed by Ilan's precise work and use of the scallop in its shell. I thought Elia's introduction of olives into her dish was risky, but Chef Hiroshi Shima appreciated the kick of unexpected flavor they provided. Cliff's dish of hamma oysters with ginger, soy, mango and jalapeno showed knife skills and a good grasp of presentation. That he also prepared prawns with hamachi, sisho leaf and daikon shows that he was ambitious, and willing to undertake a lot in only 30 minutes. I was glad to see that he won. Virtually every chef I know spends hours each week supporting charities that are meaningful to him or her. My own causes include hunger relief, through Share Our Strength, and Children of Bellevue, where underserved children receive desperately needed care and social services.

My good friend Kerry Heffernan introduced me to Project by Project, an organization based in NY and L.A. that partners young professionals with community organizations to help them realize their goals. Each year Project by Project chooses a different cause with whom to partner. This year they are raising money for Visual Communications, an organization that promotes media works by and about Asian Americans. One of Project-by-Project's most successful fund-raising events is their annual Food & Wine Tasting Benefit, in which various chefs and vintners prepare tasting plates and tastes of wine for charity-minded individuals. This year, we decided to lend Top Chef's contestants to the cause: Divided into two teams, representing two different Asian cuisines, their task was to work together to dazzle 1,000 guests at the tasting benefit, and raise money for a good cause.
Los Angeles is home to a diversity of Asian cultures, and so our chefs were divided into teams that focused on two that aren't as well known to many Americans -- Vietnamese and Korean. Vietnamese cuisine, like Chinese, relies heavily on seafood and vegetables in stir-fries with rice or rice noodles, but Vietnam's French Colonial past is seen through the use of consomme-like bases in their soups, and subtle herbs such as lemongrass. There is almost always some fresh vegetables and herbs served with a Vietnamese meal, and dipping sauces served alongside the main dish. Korean food, on the other hand, relies heavily on the strong flavors of red chili paste, garlic, and fermented soybeans. Kimchee (spicy, pickled vegetables) and banchan, numerous side dishes, are presented alongside spicy stews of fish, meat and tofu and steamed, short-grain rice. For Americans more accustomed to the delicate flavors of Japanese cuisine, or the careful balance of Thai food, Korean food can be an acquired taste. For those who know it and love it, good Korean food is something of an obsession. I was eager to see how our teams functioned together, and to see how they incorporated what they knew (or learned) about these different cuisines into their event food. I was also eager to see their "game face" -- how they presented themselves among civilians, since this is a big part of being a chef.

Team Vietnam had an advantage in that Josie had worked in a Vietnamese restaurant. She naturally fell into a leadership role, and her knowledge of the cuisine served as an important anchor as the team formed their plan. And while Michael eventually had an issue with Josie's authority on the project (she had a problem with his sloppy knife skills, and rightfully so), the group came together and immediately got to work. The resulting food wasn't perfect, but it was solid and good. Ultimately it was Team Vietnam's overall organization and professionalism that carried them through. They also understood the value of presentation and hospitality. They put affable Betty up front, serving a delicious cucumber and aloe refresher, and she turned out to be a huge asset to the team by connecting with guests and making them feel welcome. Team Korea, on the other hand, started out with a more lackadaisical approach. They opted not to follow anyone's lead, which meant that decisions and planning took a long time. Elia in particular was frustrated at the team's raucous tone and the absence of any direction in the planning. Now let me just say that I've done my share of partying over the years. Chefs are known for their healthy appetites for fun, but the best ones pull it together when the time comes to get serious. Unfortunately, Team Korea seemed hung-over and disorganized right from the start -- a pretty big breach of professionalism.

And then there was the lychee debacle. A case of lychees were loaded onto the bottom rung of Team Korea's cart in the store. When their items were rung up, the team was over their spending limit and some things were returned to the shelves. The cashier never spotted the lychees, and so they made it out of the store with the other ingredients. Without question the lychees would have pushed the team over their budget and would have had to be returned if spotted. It appeared that Otto knew this, because he mentioned it to his teammates as they were loading the car. When the others learned of this breach, they resolved not to use the lychees in the challenge. When I learned of it, I pressed Otto to explain. He acknowledged that allowing the team to make off with a free ingredient showed poor judgment "in the heat of battle." He agreed to return the lychees to the store. Unfortunately, this put Team Korea down a chef as they scrambled to complete their dishes, and their early disorganization came back to haunt them. They opted for a few traditional items -- spicy braised pork, kimchee, sticky rice and lotus chips. I was skeptical about their ability to brine the kimchee in the limited time available, and yet they pulled it off -- it was refreshingly acidic and tasty. Judge Ming Tsai agreed that their kimchee worked, as well as their braised pork. Unfortunately, their rice wasn't great. But the team's real problem was dessert.

Marisa, a professional dessert chef, opted to make a panna cotta -- an odd choice, given that it is a classic Italian cream-based dessert you'd be hard-pressed to find in Korea (they compensated for this by flavoring it with Jasmine tea.). But the real issue was that her proportions were off and she used way too much gelatin in the recipe. Panna Cotta should be smooth, creamy and delicate. Hers was rubbery and hard. On both concept and execution the dessert was a failure. Our decision was clear -- the winner was Team Vietnam. When we brought Team Korea to the judge's table, Marisa quickly blamed Otto's ethical lapse for throwing the team off, because she knew her neck was on the block. Elia, who had also worked on dessert, felt the same. The men, on the other hand, were reluctant to slam Otto because they all knew that his indiscretion with the lychees wasn't the full story behind their loss. When the chefs left the judge's table, Ming Tsai, Gail, Padma and I sat and debated. Which was the bigger issue -- Otto's willingness to score free ingredients, or Marisa's poor execution of dessert?

While we thought that what Otto did fell short of actual stealing, it was clear that there was a moment where he knew the lychees weren't paid for and was willing to use them to his team's advantage. At the judge's table I had one question for Otto: Would he have used the lychees if he could have gotten away with it? Rather than answer, Otto made the decision to leave the competition. I think all good people lapse on occasion, and a competitive headspace can unfortunately get in the way of ethical thinking. Overall, Otto was a good guy, but he made a poor choice. He redeemed himself by bowing out, and saved Marisa in the process.

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!