Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Game Day

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

Game Day

Gail Simmons on the perfectionist that is Hung Huynh.

Arriving in Aspen for our Season Three finale was for me a little like coming home. Since I have the great fortune of spending time there on a regular basis to work on the annual FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen, which takes place each June, I know the town and many of its generous and colorful residents fairly well. Although I am there at least three times a year, I rarely get the chance to take in the local culture and activities, save for the occasional half day of skiing if my meetings finish early enough, or a quick hike on one of the area's exquisite trails. I have certainly eaten in many of the town's fine restaurants, but have never been invited to one of its legendary ranches to dine with local cowboys and cowgirls. When we were informed that this would be the Elimination Challenge scenario, I knew we were all in for an exciting night.

What I did not know until I watched the episode was just how much the final four contestants had already been through by the time I met up with them at Moon Run Ranch. Their hot-air-balloon ride and the trout Quick Fire challenge they'd survived the day before seemed stressful enough, let alone having to cook elk on the fly for a barn full of ravenous Colorado rodeo folk.
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Were you as disappointed as I was watching the Quickfire? Was it me or did it look as if they all were a little off their marks and slightly more frazzled than usual? I am sure it was the combination of their long day of travel, unfamiliar surroundings, high altitude and the lack of work space they were given to do the job. Whatever the reason for their nervousness, both Brian and Dale seemed off to a messy start and even Hung was acting forgetful. At least Casey's dish was worthy of praise and earned high marks in the hallowed opinion of guest judge Eric Ripert, a chef who knows a thing or two about cooking fish and seafood.

If it had been anyone else competing in the finale I may have been worried, but that night at the ranch I was reminded that this was no ordinary country shindig: The four chefs who were cooking for us are without a doubt four of the strongest, toughest, and most focused people I have encountered in a long time. They have traveled with us across the country via Miami to Newark, New York, and finally the Roaring Fork Valley to show just how determined and talented they are. If they could make it through the 12 previous challenges, the late nights of grueling conditions, unfamiliar kitchens, and our often unforgiving critiques, they could surely make it through this.

Personally, I was proud to show off their skills to our diners and also a little saddened knowing only one of them could emerge victorious at the end of such a long and winding road. As we say time and again, we are beyond the point of mediocre food and mediocre ability. Each of the four dishes prepared were tasty, interesting, and showed great skill, which made it especially tricky to choose who to eliminate. In order to do so we had to carefully deconstruct each element and nitpick every choice they made. Quickfiire winner Casey's Mushroom Crusted Loin of Elk with Cauliflower Duo was elegant and flavorful, and the addition of her smoky tomato butter added a smooth finish and a complex counterpoint, but her meat was slightly undercooked and the cauliflower concoction was confusing to the eye and the palate.
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One conversation I wish our viewers would have seen more of was when Hung was confronted by the fact that although we know he is incredibly skilled as a cook, his food can convey an air of robotic perfection and a lack of what we called "soul." His reaction was not only vehement but full of conviction. He waxed poetic for several minutes about his life growing up in the kitchen and how food has been a guiding force ever since he could reach the stove. His energy was convincing but we all were puzzled by why he had not shared any of this before. From what we learned, I can only assume that in addition to growing up with an infatuation for cooking, he also grew up in a world of extreme discipline and perhaps competitive spirit. How else could we account for his guarded nature and unending drive? Make no mistake: These are all great qualities in any chef. But at times, a chef must also have the insight to know how to show compassion, accept constructive criticism and know there is much that can be learned from the people around you, if only you know how to listen and where to look.

But this is all an aside from our task at hand -- to judge his dish. What struck me most about it was that, if you removed the elk itself from the equation, his garnish seemed far more suited to fish. In fact, tomatoes, fennel, and lemon are ingredients often used with light, summery seafood dishes, not with rich game. I also did not personally care for the contrast between the elk and the strong flavor of lemon zest in his sauce. Although the meat was cooked to perfection, I think the dish suffered from an identity crisis.
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Now on to the winner of the night: Dale's dish showed us just the right balance of skill, subtlety, and sense of humor. He had the sense to change direction when he saw his goat cheese tart did not set properly and had a plan in place that worked just as well. His Spiced Elk Loin with Cauliflower, Fingerling Potatoes and Huckleberry Demiglace captured the true feeling of the challenge, and when all elements were tasted together they truly created a combination that was better than its individual parts. Now, isn't that always the ultimate goal? If Dale's dish was a ballet, gracefully dancing across our tongues, Brian's dish was a rodeo.And although we may have been serving its participants, we did not necessarily want to eat one. I have always been a fan of his infectious charm and enthusiasm, but this time he got a bit carried away. To say his dish was simply Whiskey Braised Elk Shank with Potato Puree, Pancetta, Corn and Asparagus Relish would be a gross understatement. There must have been literally eight or nine other ingredients added to it, including nuts, herbs, and a choice between two blue cheeses to sprinkle on top. It did not taste bad, but compared to the other three dishes it lacked focus and restraint.

PS Click here to view a recent video of me and four-star chef Daniel Boulud, as he shows how the original Paupiette of Sea Bass from last week's Quickfire Challenge is made!

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!