Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Importance Of Humility In The Kitchen

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

The Importance Of Humility In The Kitchen

Gail Simmons explains why learning from your mistakes is so important.

When "Top Chef: Season Three" premieres on the East Coast, I will be deep into the throes of another aspect of my job at Food & Wine Magazine, managing the many moving parts of the 25th anniversary Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, the nation's most venerated food festival. It is here where the country's top chefs -- from Thomas Keller to Bobby Flay (and of course my good friend Chef Tom ) -- winemakers and food experts, along with thousands of enthusiastic eaters, gather each year to celebrate their love of all things culinary in the most spectacular setting you can imagine.

Now don't think I do any of this alone: I am joined by a team of food obsessed co-conspirators whom I can only describe as the coolest, smartest, most committed people I know, not to mention the gracious support of the City of Aspen and over 500 local volunteers who spend countless hours working hard to ensure that, for four miraculous days in June, Aspen, Colorado is the center of the epicurean universe. It is one heck of a party, if I do say so myself. But before I get too caught up in the festivities, I cannot help but tell you how excited I am for Ilan Hall, our Season Two winner, to experience the magic that is this very special event. As part of his prize, Ilan will be the star a number of times this weekend: cooking a prestigious charity lunch to help support Food & Wine's Grow for Good campaign, along side eco-focused chef Ryan Hardy of The Little Nell, and in a race against the clock cooking challenge (something at which we all know Ilan excels) that pits him against mastermind Jacques Pepin, in our annual Classic Cook-off.
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Watching this first episode I cannot help but wonder: who will be joining us next year in Aspen? Who of these 15 strangers has what it takes to make it through the grueling challenges we are about to set before them? That first day may not have been as nerve-wracking for me as it was for them, but it certainly was intimidating. The first glimpse I got of our new crop of hopefuls was when they placed their uncommon surf-and-turf creations before us. Making my way through each one I became hopelessly aware of how difficult it was to keep them all differentiated. In order to do so, I had to play a little mind game with myself linking these outrageous combinations of land and sea critters to the people who cooked them.For better or worse, I will forever connect Brian with slithering snakes and electric eels -- the same goes for Sara M and her black chicken claw, or Sara N and those stunning razor clams. Unfortunately, Clay now lives in my memory as an overcooked wild boar chop with a scorpion fishtail garnish.
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It was far easier to remember the two best dishes we tried. Tre took us all by surprise with his Ostrich Filet, Tomato Risotto and Abalone sauce. Although classic in presentation, the flavors were anything but. Perfectly seasoned and seared, the richness of the meat contrasted beautifully with the tomatoes and the risotto was as creamy and satisfying as it sounded. What I liked most about his dish was that had this been an actual restaurant setting, the visual appeal would make it extremely approachable for any diner who may be hesitant to taste these unusual ingredients in the first place, let alone eat them together. We all loved that he was also able to incorporate the two into one cohesive and logical dish. Nothing was forced or unnatural, in contrast with Dale and Clay's dishes. Tre was our clear winner and, with luck, one day we may even see it on his restaurant's menu.

Hung's precision and mastery of technique was apparent as soon as he laid down that plate. The slow poached (sous-vide) black chicken was balanced and incredibly tender. The raw geoduck and fennel with innards sauce, ginger and scallion was not only subtle but also very imaginative. I stand by the fact that his dish could have used some color, but the delicate presentation of texture and flavor could not be rivaled by any of his competitors on that day. I don't want to spend too much time on our bottom four contestants. I think it was obvious as to why they were chosen and why Clay went home. What I would like to mention is how impressive I found Howie and Dale to be with their humility and articulateness about their mistakes.

While they remained confident in their own skill and stood behind that which they knew they were capable of, they both had great insight into what went wrong. As I am sure the many esteemed chefs who gather at the Food & Wine Classic this weekend would agree, two of the most useful tools in any kitchen are open-mindedness and the ability to learn from your mistakes.

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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

 



Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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. . .

Bravotv.com:  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!