Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Soap Opera Taste

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

Soap Opera Taste

Gail Simmons on the very spicy telenovela challenge.

The most exciting aspect of being a judge on "Top Chef" is the chance to taste the unusual, creative and, at times, outrageous dishes our contestants think up in the kitchen. As difficult as some of the challenges may be (our producers thrive on coming up with crazy ideas), many of the best dishes are created under the most stressful and unexpected circumstances. This was certainly the case with our Latin Lunch challenge, in which the chefs were asked to cater a Latin-influenced meal for the cast and crew of Telemundo's "Dame Chocolate," a Spanish-language soap opera shot at a dramatic mansion on exclusive Star Island in Miami.

First, let me tell you how gorgeous the location was. The home where the exterior scenes are shot is a massive, Spanish-style estate with extensive gardens and a glimmering pool, right on the water. Upon arrival, one of the producers informed us that legendary basketball star and Miami resident Shaquille O'Neal lives next door. When a few of us walked to the water's edge and peaked over the fence to the neighbor's yard, we could see the large basketball court on the other side, as well as a small, bobble-head statue of Shaq presiding over the dock! Wouldn't it have been fun if he had judged this challenge with us? Although, I am not sure our chefs made enough food to satisfy what I can only assume is one very healthy appetite.

Catering for a big crew on a tight schedule (and often tighter budget) is difficult in itself. We at "Top Chef" know this all too well, as we are our own traveling production that often falls prey to the unpredictability of being on location. We can all get pretty grumpy when not fed on time. Ironically, in this challenge the tables were turned. Our cast became the caterers and had to learn to adjust to cooking on a TV set. Thankfully, many of them had catering experience, so they were not totally in the dark about potential problems. Keeping food warm but not over cooked; Transporting it so it arrives intact and remembering to bring all necessary equipment, garnishes and serving pieces -- common catering catastrophes -- became the least of the chefs' worries. Mid-way through the cooking process, they discovered that they would only have half the time anticipated to finish their work. As often happens, the day's shooting schedule had changed and lunch had been moved up ninety minutes!

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Interestingly, none of the chefs in the bottom four for this challenge were there because they did not have time to finish cooking. In fact, we were all impressed with how little the time constraints ended up affecting the final results. Of course, they all had to make adjustments to their plans, but for all the stress and running around they did in the kitchen, the chefs sure pulled it together for our guests.

In the case of both Hung and Casey, their chicken and rice were actually over cooked and quite dry -- two serious transgressions when catering for a group of eaters who count arroz con pollo among their cultural staples. For Sara N., the problem had more to do with communication. Regardless of whether she made her own tortillas or not, the dish was labeled a ceviche but showed none of a ceviche's signature characteristics. We could not detect the citrus that should have marinated and lightly "cooked" the scallop and shrimp. Because she used too much avocado, the dish seemed much more like a seafood guacamole than anything else.

Furthermore, although it wasn't terrible tasting, it certainly was not substantial enough to be a main course. Then there was lovely Lia, who I was absolutely heartbroken to send home this early in the competition. Sadly, her Smoked Rainbow Trout with Poblano Charred Corn Polenta Cake gave us no choice. It was mushy and void of much texture, under seasoned and most importantly, did not embody the essence of Latin American food.

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On a high note, while the scheduling twist caused intense stress, it helped motivate some of the chefs to produce really excellent Latin-inspired food. Howie, who is always the first to admit that his weakness lies in not being able to budget his time properly, managed to rise to the occasion and steal the show! The result of his hard work was a Braised Pork Shoulder with Yuca and Sour Orange Mojo that everyone adored. It had just the right balance of spicy, zesty and tender meat, which was blended with a refreshing citrus and sweet onion crunch, and starchy, soothing yucca root. This dish was the clear winner for us all. To me, it represented how great Latin food can be, with its simplicity of presentation and vibrant depth of flavor.

Joey's Bean Stew with Lobster, Shrimp, Chicken and Chorizo was another surprising contender. At first glance it appeared a bit of a mess, but the smoky taste and hearty preparation could not be discounted. The addition of large pieces of lobster, shrimp and chicken to the beans not only elevated the style of the dish, but also the flavor, giving it a sophisticated twist. I also want to mention that many of us enjoyed Sara M.'s Chile Rellenos, a vegetarian creation that was overflowing with color and spice. The rice and vegetables were well cooked and seasoned, the queso fresco, which Sara made herself, was tangy and light. Another honorable mention goes to Tre for his tasty Jumbo Prawns with Yellow Coconut Sauce, Jalapno Cilantro Dumplings and Lobster Ceviche.

Someone on my blog last week asked if I ever get confused between the different dishes when there are so many of them to try. The answer is yes! It is especially difficult to keep track of the dishes in the first few episodes when we do not yet know the contestants. Thankfully, the show's producers help us by taking notes on who made what dish. The rest is up to us to sort out in our memories, as limited as they may be. This was definitely one of those days when keeping track required a bit of concentration. But for food and conversation this good, it's worth jogging your memory. I guess you could say we got everything we could have asked for on the set of a Telenovela...drama, passion and, of course, a lot of spice.

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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