Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

8 Miles High

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

8 Miles High

Anthony Bourdain discusses CJ's big mistakes.

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Holy crap! Who was that vicious bastard on the judges' panel last night? That angry, mean-spirited snake in the grass...that chained Rottweiler in an ill-fitting jacket, leaning forward on his elbows ready to lunge?

Oh, right. That was me.

So far this year, I've had the dubious honor of helping to boot off the show an extremely likeable, open-hearted orphan with a lilting Southern accent, and now, last night, I got to be part of the hunting party who smashed the hopes and dreams of a cancer survivor. Short of biting the heads off kittens while dressed up as a storm trooper, I don't think I could look any less sympathetic.

Believe me, I'm...I'm not like that in real life. Right after this, in fact, I'm going in to cuddle my adorable baby daughter under the butterfly mobiles in her pink-painted room. Baby talk -- and possibly even singing -- will be involved. And then, I will take my beautiful wife out for brunch and somewhere between multiple mimosas, remind her sincerely that I love her.
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It was not a happy week for me on Top Chef -- nor, I suspect, was it good for most of the contestants. New Jersey may be my childhood home and the cradle of American culture, but who wants to spend more time than they have to at Newark Airport? While I like the fact that I can climb into a big, winged metal tube and be carried anywhere on earth I choose, eating on planes is, for me, most of the time, only marginally preferable to a colonoscopy.

I take a lot of airplanes. Many tens of thousands of miles a year in the air. Reluctantly, I have become, I'm afraid, something of an expert on the subject of air travel. And I have, to say the least, low expectations of what to expect when the slop gurney comes rolling down the aisle -- even when in business class.

Some carriers try harder than others. Singapore Airlines (from whom I receive no compensation or consideration, by the way) actually serve edible food -- and seem to bend over backwards to make the dining experience as lavish and enjoyable as possible given the constraints (thus proving it is indeed, possible).

Most other carriers -- one American outfit in particular -- blithely carry on operating vomit comets -- contemptuously depositing their indifferently prepared droppings on passengers' trays knowing that the only reason people are eating their crap is to break up the stultifying boredom of the pressurized cabin and the inevitability of yet another Will Ferrell film on the main screen.

So the contestants this week were, on one hand, looking at a "compared to what?" situation. Almost anything would be an improvement on most in-flight meal experiences -- and the fact that they'd have to make only a limited number of them -- as opposed to thousands at a clip -- offered real opportunity to impress. On the other hand, they were at a considerable disadvantage. A huge, unfamiliar, airplane hangar kitchen with pre-portioned proteins of indeterminate origin. Notoriously murderous on-board "ovens" in which to "finish" their dishes. A plating area that made Barbie's Malibu beach house kitchen look roomy.
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What the contestants were looking at was a situation not unlike off-site catering. When not cooking or staging on familiar ground, you don't know what the ovens and refrigeration and food holding facilities or the space is going to be like -- and you have to assume the worst. Faced with the very real possibility that standing at the edge of a wedding reception on a windy lawn, your portable propane stove might not get you the dark, caramelized sear you'd ordinarily like to see on a saute item, you plan around that likelihood. You know there might well be problems with the sterno-heated warming cabinets should the bride turn up late -- or a fistfight breaks out at the altar. If there are ovens, you anticipate completely untrustworthy calibration. So you don't plan on serving Dover sole.

The same kind of Worst Case Scenario thinking HAD to go into this challenge. The contestants should have known one thing for sure about what was going to happen to their food the second it left the production kitchen: It would get no better once it boarded the plane. In fact, it would begin to die. Like properly stocking a buffet, one can only hope, under such circumstances, to control how fast or how slowly the food expires.

I was never among those who signed on to the conspiracy theory of Tre's departure and CJ's survival. I never believed that CJ calculatingl threw Tre "under the bus" during the Restaurant Wars challenge. Judging from what I've seen on the show -- and what little I've seen of the man in person, he seems like a decent guy; humble, funny, personable, quick to stick up for others. I believe that when put in charge of a kitchen, he chose Tre as chef not to put him in harm's way, but for very straightforward and sensible reasons: he looked in his own heart, took a hard look at his own abilities and recognized that he himself was not the best man for the job. This was not a tough call. Anyone marginally associated with the restaurant industry need only have quickly compared their two resumes before deciding which of the two should be running the kitchen. Pick one: The experienced chef of a popular restaurant kitchen? (aka a proven leader) Or the "private chef".
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Rightly or wrongly, in the steamy, sweaty trenches of the restaurant kitchen, the private chef is usually considered...well...how shall I say this? A non-entity. So far out of the line-dog's world that they don't even appear on the radar screen. Relegated to the culinary margins along with country club chefs, yachties, nursing home cooks, corporates, and food stylists. The prevailing attitude is "We like you fine. But don't be callin' yourself a chef. Not where we drink after work, anyway. "

Egregiously harsh? Cruel? Elitist? Snobby? Dismissive? Hey, I'm just bein' honest here. And surely, nobody is more acutely aware of this industry-wide attitude than CJ himself. CJ's a good cook. He went far in this competition. I hope -- should he choose to -- that he'll be happily bumping his head into the range hoods of many fine restaurant kitchens in the future.

But let me tell you; CJ's last offering for the Elimination Challenge was...mind-boggling . The camera did not do justice to the spectacular ugliness of his "roasted" broccolini. My fellow passenger Collichio and I gaped, unbelieving at the blackened, twig-like, half-dry, half-sludge Petri-scrapings in our side dishes. I believe I said something like, "This looks like something you'd find in Bob Marley's closet." I meant NOW -- like years and years after the great man's death. Not trusting our eyes, we even saved a portion, putting some in one of the "Glad Family of Bags" -- only reinforcing the impression of dried out ganja. But by judging time, when we had planned on offering the exhibit into evidence, it had degraded so badly as to be so prejudicial that it would outweigh any probative value. No matter. The halibut, too, was overcooked -- and, left unmentioned in the final edit of the show, the minty fresh sauce on top of it tasted like toothpaste. To his credit, CJ, at least, knew. He knew he'd screwed up. He knew why he was up there and he knew, I suspect, long before the judges' final decision was announced, that he'd soon be spending all the time he wanted in New York City.
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Not so, Sara and Brian. Sara felt that while her salmon "might' have been a little overcooked, her dish was otherwise worthy. Wrong. While it is understandable that a first time user of an airplane oven might overcook their fish filet, my salmon had been cooked halfway to oblivion long before it boarded the plane. The accompanying fig cous-cous was flavorless, pointless and unpleasant to eat. And the leek, crabmeat concoction under the fish was so overwhelmed by anise flavor that everything in proximity tasted cloyingly, insipidly sweet -- like melted licorice stick. If you've ever been on an ouzo bender and woken up the next day with your head in a bidet, burping up licorice? That was pretty much my in-flight meal on Air Sara.

Over at Air Malarkey, Brian seemed even more clueless as to why he faced the judges' wrath. " I served a HUGE portion of damn STEAK! There was LOBSTER involved! ... What's not to like?" appeared to be his attitude. Allow me to pose again a question I've asked before: "Do you really think that Tom Collichio of CRAFTSTEAK is going to be impressed by a freakin' SIRLOIN?" Especially a cryo-vac airline sirloin? And serving a Jabba-sized portion, draping over the side of the plate, might impress someone dining on a budget at TGI McFunster's, but treating the judges like size-queens frankly offended rather than helped.

And think: a sirloin is not the most tender of cuts. Did Brian really -- in these troubled times -- expect that cutlery ON AN AIRPLANE would be up to the challenge of sawing through this redwood-sized slab of meat? And the lobster... The frozen lobster tail he scored from the airline larders. What did Brian think was going to happen to his nubbins of already tough lobster tail after ten or so minutes in an airplane oven?

Steak and lobster (and plenty of it, pardner!) may be the expressway to happiness for those to whom a complimentary buffet at the Dollywood Sizzler is a dream come true, but for the chef judges, it felt like Brian was holding up a sign saying "All You Can Eat Jumbo Shrimp" and expecting us all to get insta-boners. I don't know about Tom, but my feelings were hurt.
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Regular readers might have noticed that I am bored by -- and generally unimpressed with -- filet mignon. But if there's one piece of steak perfectly suited for a business class in-flight meal, it's this tender (yet relatively indestructible), flavorless, fat-less cliche. Dale, while hardly reaching for the stars, played it safe, smart and conservative. Fearing the worst, he went with an easy crowd-pleaser, compensating for the blandness of the filet with a wild mushroom/au poivre hybrid. He was very aggressive with the crushed black pepper (which I liked), but the dish still went over well with the flight attendants.

And it worked. The meat emerged from the oven cooked perfectly, the plate looked good, and you could -- if called upon to do so -- easily cut the thing with a plastic knife. Only problem was, he came up short on the count. One of the flight attendants didn't get his beef. Thinking about it; it would have been funny if the flight attendants had been served Sara's salmon -- with CJ's broccolini -- but with Dale's attention to portion count. That would have been a truly perfect re-creation of my usual dining experience on American Airlines.
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What's going on with Hung? Whatever happened to "Chef of the Future"? Last week, he lays back and drills out the ego-free Good Housekeeping mainstay, "salmon mousse on cucumber rounds" and this week he comes up with an homage to a centuries old classic! His "seared Chilean sea bass" was, in fact, a faithful and perfectly executed adaptation of the iconic, ultra old-school Basque war horse, "pil pil". In the original, salt-cod is cooked slowly in olive oil, while swirling, so that the fish's albumen both thickens and flavors the sauce. It was a sneaky "insider" choice, with a built-in appeal to any chef who's been to Spain or who is a fan of Spanish or Basque cuisine. Where Brian treated the judges like rubes, Hung assumed a certain worldliness.

What else did Hung get right? He picked a dense, forgiving protein -- less likely to dry out in the far from optimum conditions. His fish was cooked as fish should be. You might have noticed he set the on board Suzy Homemaker oven to ten minutes -- the absolute minimum required -- having wisely accounted for only that much in his pre-cooking and assuming, correctly, that the more he relied on the equipment on the plane, the less good the finished dish. There was nothing about the dish -- once prepped and loaded for the plane--that a flight attendant couldn't finish. Little was left to chance.
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It wasn't entirely a born again Hung we saw. Earlier in the show, there was some griping that, though he'd finished his work early, he didn't volunteer to help other contestants. Hardly the behavior of an aspiring Mr. Cuddlesworth! But this attitude strikes me as a little disingenuous. At this point in the competition, the contestants should probably stop pretending they're all gonna be co-workers and pals forever. There are now only five left. Ultimately, there will be only one winner. So, really, it's a matter of "Do I cut your throat now? Or do I cut your throat later?" Hung's not running for office. He's there -- like he said from the beginning -- to win. At least he's honest about it.

Casey was again, the big winner. Pleasant surprises are all too rare when you fly as much as I do, and I think any business class traveler, no matter how jaded, would be absolutely delighted to have Casey's veal medallions show up on their tray. It was an unusual choice -- and a daring one, to offer veal. More daring yet to match it with creminis and apple. It was cooked right, looked elegant, and tasted absolutely delicious. Her cauliflower side dish was a smart, durable pick, and unlike the others' veggie selections, it neither stuck out like a sore thumb nor distracted from the main event. Indeed, every element, ingredient, color and texture that Casey put out complemented the others beautifully. She not only gave us the best dish, but also showed the biggest balls of the lot.
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It's down to five. Casey, in spite of the dismaying "onion incident", continues to come on strong. The talented, mercurial, possibly jacked-on-Fresca Hung remains entirely unpredictable. At this point, it's impossible to tell which Hung will show up on any given day: the Crunchberry Kid, Elroy Jetson, or the mature classicist. Whether knocking others down like ten pins in his rush for the tempura flakes, laughing goofily like some character from an old Warner Brothers cartoon, or sneering at the guest judge, he's still a triple threat. Dale's competence and intelligence continue to serve him well. Behind somewhat in the creativity sweepstakes, he'll need some Ilan-style luck to go all the way (meaning someone else will have to screw up.)

Sarah, something of a dark horse candidate, hangs on. Her offering this last challenge was a disaster -- but not an entirely disgraceful one. She was, at least, referencing Provencale and Moroccan flavors -- albeit with an inappropriately oily, cold water fish. If she'd dialed way back on the anise, leaned heavier on the garlic, completely re-thought the cous-cous and swapped a less oily, white fleshed fish for the salmon, her dish could have been quite nice. So she is hardly without hope. Brian, though, is leaking blood in the water. He can no longer run. Nor can he hide. Your seat cushion may no longer be used as a flotation device.

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

But she did have some problems with Katsuji's ode to Stephen King.

Bravotv.com: Interesting challenge this week with the chefs taking on some iconic literary works.
Gail Simmons: Obviously, there is a lot of great literature that comes from New England. What I liked most about the challenge was how different all the authors were. I also loved that it forced the chefs to do something a little cerebral and not as literal. It forced them to get out of their own heads, get out of the kitchen, to take inspiration from something completely outside of the food world, which I think is important.

 

Overall, the food was excellent. We’re at the point of competition when there are six incredible chefs left and not a weak link among them. We started with 16, so this is when everything turns. It gets super challenging, and the chefs really have to push themselves to prove their worth. We start to nitpick because the food gets really good. This is my favorite part in the competition because we eat really well, and our job gets more challenging. It's not easy to sift out the weaker dishes from the stronger dishes any more.

This is my favorite part in the competition because we eat really well, and our job gets more challenging.

Gail Simmons

 

I loved how so many of the chefs took inspiration in such an inspiring and innovative way. They really tried to get in the heads of their authors and show us an interpretation of a literary work on the plate. Some were more successful than others for sure, both in the translations as well as in the flavors of their food. At the end of the day, it could be the most beautiful plate of food interpreted in the most magical way, but if it doesn’t taste good and it doesn’t come together when you eat it, then it's not worth its weight.

 

All the food tasted absolutely delicious that day. There was nothing that didn't work in terms of the dishes in and of themselves. There were no major mistakes. There was slight overcooking on Gregory's meat, slight thickness in Katsuji's sauce. There were certainly a few people we thought needed to work on their interpretation though.

 

I do remember that if George hadn't had had immunity, he might have very well gone home that night. He did a beautiful fish dish for Dr. Seuss' One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, but it was so fussy and formal. The only thing that it really had to do with Dr. Seuss was that there were red peppers, blue potatoes, and fish. If you’re going to show me one of Dr. Seuss' greatest works, show us an absurd, witty, upside-down, topsy-turvy world on a plate. It was a chance for him to really reach, to branch out into something crazy and whimsical and silly and fun. His fish was none of those things. It was lovely, but I felt like I had to eat it in a quiet room all alone, which is not what Dr. Seuss would have wanted. But he had immunity so that’s that.

 

Gregory's explanation of The Raven was an interesting one. I liked that he used the Cornish hens. The food all tasted absolutely excellent. The crispy nori that he put with it tied things together well -- a little sea, a little earthy flavor with the beets. It was a well thought out dish on its own, but he didn't dig deep enough into his interpretation. Just having a small piece of chicken doesn't really do it for me to signify the depth of the story and the importance of the raven as a symbol in Edgar Allan Poe's work. And Chef Tony Maws piece of beef was clearly overcooked. So, as much as it was a pretty plate and a delicious plate to eat, we all wanted it to say more. It seemed like a superficial interpretation. Do something with the raven! Show us something stark, something dark -- not just a little square of grilled hen beside a piece of steak.

 

Melissa, Doug, and Mei all did a great job. Melissa’s Nathaniel Hawthorne -inspired halibut was cooked absolutely perfectly. This lovely mushroom broth showed that she spent a lot of effort and time on her vegetables, which she always does. The last couple of challenges she served us light, beautiful plates, but we wanted something with more depth. We wanted something that does more than just shows us that she knows how to cut and roast vegetables. Here, that skill was perfectly situated in balance with the seared halibut. Her vegetables were placed in such a beautiful little garden. The charred corn and mushroom broth took us from a light springy dish into something a little deeper and richer, just enough that we understood what she was trying to say. This was the best effort I've seen from Melissa in several challenges. I was really impressed by the beauty and the simplicity of her food. I think it really spoke to her author and her literary work, and the agrarian life in the story she was presenting.

 

You could tell that Dougie worked really hard to coax flavor out of his carrots, and cumin, orange, and radish, all complimented each other so peacefully in his "Sunshine in a Cup." It came to the table and really was a ray of sunshine. It was a long day on set for us, and at the end of it getting this gorgeous bowl of simple but gracefully made carrot soup showed how thoughtful he was. There was so much flavor to it. He literally poured his heart into this soup and that's exactly what Emily Dickinson would have done.

 

But Mei was our winner! I think this was an example of a challenge executed perfectly. They all made great dishes, but hers was just one step above the rest. Her dish was so well-conceived: All these immaculately roasted vegetables, with a pile of snow on top to signify winter on Walden Pond, for Henry David Thoreau's iconic work. The snow technique itself can feel like a gimmick, but in this case it wasn't at all. It had so much flavor. It was Tom Kha snow! It tasted of lemongrass and fish sauce and so it gave an otherwise simple dish this incredible intensity. It woke you right up and it made you take notice of the gorgeous vegetables she cooked, which I think is so much the point of Walden, understanding the rhythm of nature, the seasons and the time that Henry David Thoreau spent observing them in solitude. This dish was one of the best I'd eaten all season long.

 

Sadly Katsuji's Stephen King dish, while full of great ideas, didn't come together in the way that we hoped. We liked that it was messy. We had no problem with his display of "blood." I liked the idea that he did a short rib as the mother and a piece of veal as the child for Carrie. The white beans and chorizo, the ham -- all these flavors go together well enough. But his beet puree was very thick and clumpy, it didn't quite have the texture we wanted to compliment the other components, and to symbolize the pig's blood in the story. Not that he had to be so literal with this, because I wanted them to be abstract and get in the mind of the authors that they were representing, but the fact that he didn't use pig in some way here seemed to miss the mark. He used ham and chorizo but, pig's blood -- there's so much you can do there! It's such an iconic moment in storytelling, when Carrie had pig's blood poured over her. I liked that he used hot sauce as her rage, but again, it all just needed to be a little more cohesive. It felt a bit scattered -- and not in the way that Carrie would have felt scattered. In the way that his idea didn’t coalesce. Bottom line: we wanted the sum to be more than its parts. It didn't add up to a cohesive dish.

 

 

Katsuji is such a bright charismatic guy. He has so many great ideas. He has great personality and he's a talented chef. He's irresistible! And he's got Last Chance Kitchen to try and fight his way back.

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