Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Coming Full Circle

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

Coming Full Circle

Gail Simmons imparts some wisdom about the basics of cooking

Just back from a whirlwind weekend in Los Angeles for the 59th Annual Emmy Awards. Top Chef was nominated for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, an incredible feat in itself, and we were all so honored to be there and celebrate. Tom, Padma, Ilan, and I were overwhelmed by the incredible outpouring of enthusiasm and support for the show, not only from the fans we met along the way, but also from some of the very actors, directors, and producers whom we revere for their own television accomplishments.

Never in a million years could I have imagined the likes of Patricia Heaton, Rex Lee, Judith Light, and the producers of Ugly Betty or The Sopranos telling me how much they love watching each week! It was the thrill of a lifetime and an experience I will not soon forget. Even though we did not win in our category (Amazing Race has taken the title five years in a row!), we partied the night away with our producers and friends, knowing Top Chef will only get better and we will be back to kick butt next year!
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Now, on to this week's episode. I do not normally discuss Quickfire Challenges, but can't help but touch on a few details this time around. I know I railed against Hung a few weeks back when he did not pick up the crawfish he dropped on the floor in the Seafood Quickfire, and I must tell you I seethed again when he spilled a bottle of oil on the floor last week during their challenge to make breakfast for Padma at their apartment. Well, this time I will happily defend his choice to not answer his fellow contestants' questions on how to replicate the Paupiette of Sea Bass at Le Cirque.

I too must remind myself on occasion that most challenges are not meant to be team efforts, are not meant to prove your ability to play nice. They are meant to be competitive, to test each chef's skill and speed. It drove us crazy at times how lovey-dovey the cast could be and how easily they forgot that, at the end of the day, there is only room for one winner. But not Hung. In this instance especially, I applaud his choice to keep his secrets to himself, even if it meant frustrating the others. He worked hard to execute that dish well and it paid off with a win.
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Another notable issue in this Quickfire was that of gender. Casey touched upon it when she entered the Le Cirque kitchen and I have to add my point of view. Many years ago, upon graduating from culinary school, I was sent out into the world of New York restaurants and decided my first stop would be Le Cirque, in its previous location at the New York Palace Hotel. I was just an apprentice and was initially assigned to the hot appetizer, pasta, and risotto station. Although I learned an enormous amount, I was the only female in a kitchen consisting of well over 40 people, from dishwashers to sauciers. It was a very difficult place to work. Along with the obvious physical stresses that any kitchen imposes, there was an undercurrent that made me feel as if I had to prove myself just a little more than everyone else because I was a girl. Could I have imagined it?

I used to think so. But now I know Casey noticed it too. It appears as though not much has changed since I was there, judging from her experience. And do not think I believe this is by any means an anomaly. It pains me to think that even in 2007, most top kitchens in the country are still heavily male dominated. I did not keep in touch with any of the people I worked with at Le Cirque, but I do remember the young cook who led my station. He had recently graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He was very talented, and confident enough to let you know he was willing to do whatever it took to succeed (sound like anyone we know?). His name was Jason Kallert, and watching the Quickfire Challenge I discovered, after all these years, that he is still in fact at Le Cirque, although now in the role of Executive Sous-chef. How far we all have come!
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And how fitting that this week's episode took us from that temple of classic haute cuisine back again to culinary school to taste a humbler side of the classics, in an Elimination Challenge requiring the chefs to showcase three kitchen staples: potatoes, chicken, and onions. Surprisingly, our esteemed guests, the deans of the French Culinary Institute, were just as modest and approachable as the ingredients our chefs had to prepare. But what they lacked in self-importance, they made up for in attention to detail and knowledge of their craft. Even Tom felt awe-inspired by their collective presence.

It is always at this point in the competition, when we know the remaining chefs well and understand that they are all strong contenders, when we can really begin to appreciate their individual cooking styles, and this challenge was no exception. Hung's finely focused Sous Vide Butter-Poached Chicken,Crisp Chicken Skin, and Pommes Dauphin echoed the astuteness and precision he has brought to our table from the start. Although his potatoes could have been lighter in texture, his dish was beautifully prepared and presented. No one could argue with that.
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Dale's Honey Truffle Duet of Chicken with Potato Puree may have failed in concept, but it still showed the creative and fun-loving nature that has made his food so appealing all along. Brian's Peasant Spring Harvest Pie tasted of the strong, risk-taking flavors we had come to expect from him. His charisma and passion came through with each bite. Casey's Coq au Vin, while not a traditional version from the books of the French masters, was her own tasty spin on a piece of her past. It had a rich, complex flavor that told me it had been made with attention and care.

Even Sara's Fricassee of Chicken with Couscous was in its own way a classic. It had all the signature elements of her very own style -- couscous being integral to almost everything she made. I am sorry she felt I was mistaken when I said the chicken was undercooked. I promise I would never have mentioned it unless I was sure. Chefs Jacques Torres and Andre Soltner were witnesses, and even if you cannot trust me, you can surely trust them.

That was one, but not the only reason, we felt her dish was the weakest and sent her home. I believe she is on the brink of a very successful career and can't wait to taste her cheese, wherever she makes it. What disappointed me more than anything about her departure was that it left us, once again, with only one woman in the kitchen. Next stop, Aspen, Colorado for our finale. See you there!

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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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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