Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Last Supper

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 Last Supper

Gail Simmons let's you in on the judges' decision to make Hung Huynh Top Chef.

Here's the funny thing about television reality competitions: You can plot and plan, you can think you know exactly who deserves to win and who should be sent home, you can place your bet on your favorite player, but when the moment finally arrives it's anyone's game. Heading into the final challenge of our third season, I was prouder than ever of the three chefs who made it. Casey, Hung, and Dale have all fought incredibly hard, tackled their own demons, and cooked their brains out to be there. They have each shown us, at different points in the course of the show, that they are all strong, committed chefs with well-trained palates, sharp skills and the ability to think on their feet.

Dale overcame the heartbreak of losing his restaurant and had not cooked for over a year before dusting off his knife kit and diving back into the fire. How lucky we were to be the recipients of that fateful choice. Casey, the last woman standing, demonstrated time and again that she cooks not just from a deeply heartfelt enthusiasm for the craft, but with a true sense of her customer, proving you can be innovative and interesting, while still serving the food we all crave.

And then there's Hung. Headstrong, resolute, defiant, provocative. Call him what you will but you cannot deny his talent in the kitchen. More than anyone on the show, Hung has been consistent and the most sophisticated in his cooking from the first day on set. Our finale meal at the top of Aspen Mountain proved this more than ever. We ate so well that night and were thrilled with the performances from all our finalists, but while Dale and Casey served us a roller coaster of flavors and ideas (some delicious, some questionable), Hung took us for a smooth, yet exhilarating ride.

Please understand there is no secret equation to choosing our winner. Like always, our final elimination was taken very seriously. We debated and discussed every detail late into the night. In fact, we talked straight through until early the next morning! There were points to be made for each of our finalists and at no time did we take for granted that our decision would ultimately affect the course of people's lives. We judged only on the food that was placed in front of us that night. The process went something like this:

First, we all begrudgingly agreed that Casey had not shown us her best possible side. From how she spoke at Judges' Table I think she knew it, too. It was clear her food suffered from shaken nerves and lack of focus -- we could taste it in her menu. Her Scallop and Foie Gras would have been extraordinary if she hadn't added that dollop of salmon roe. It changed the flavor of the whole dish, completely overpowering the delicate nature of the other ingredients. Her Sake Poached Prawns Over Bamboo Rice was equally confusing. It, too, had a scoop of caviar, which added a muddy taste to the already strong yuzu broth, instead of infusing it with more flavor. I could tell her idea was interesting in concept, if only she had more time to refine it. Her Crispy Pork Belly was so dried out that it was almost impossible to cut, but that roasted peach with ginger pea shoots and cardamom crème fraiche was just as perfect as she claimed. It was her "surprise" course which shone the brightest -- Seared Sirloin with Chanterelles and Ruby Chard, Crispy Fingerlings with Red Wine and Parsley Puree. Although she was the chef, we found out later that Howie was actually responsible for most of the work. I was just as upset as I know so many of you are that Casey was out of the running. She embodies so much of what a true chef should be both in and out of the kitchen. I have nothing but respect and admiration for her confident attitude and, of course, her hard work.

Dale, on the other hand, dug deep for this meal and it showed. Every dish he produced made a bold statement. True, he served us enough foie gras mousse in his first course to give us all instant heart attacks, but I loved the other components on that plate -- the radishes, pistachios, peaches and a pinch of Ras el Hanout (an aromatic blend of spices often used in Middle Eastern and North African cooking) were fresh and thoughtfully combined. Dale's "surprise" course was served second and it sure was a stunner: Seared Sea Scallop with Purslane, Marinated Grapes and Dehydrated Corn. I would have licked my plate, had I not been on camera! After two harmonious offerings, his third course caught us completely off guard. Dale's Gnocchi with Lobster, Bacon, Corn and Chanterelles in Curry Broth stopped us dead in our tracks. Attempting gnocchi at such high altitude was enough of a gamble, but adding such a large fistful of curry to the mix did not help his cause. The balance of flavors was totally off; the texture rubbery and tough. I could have sworn it was a case of the chef not having time to taste his dish before he sent it out, but when we asked him later, he claimed it tasted exactly as he had intended.

Thankfully, plate number four was right on the money. It was one of those rare dishes that worked so well you cannot believe you haven't eaten it before. Each bite of Colorado Rack of Lamb, as well as the deconstructed ratatouille with anchovies and sauce vert, burst with bright, clean flavors. Our esteemed tables of guest diners/celeb sous-chefs all agreed that it was absolutely delicious. But was it enough to win him the title of Top Chef? gail_314_05_320x240.jpg

Unfortunately, as much as I think Dale is an intelligent and fabulous chef, we must base our final decision on the meal as a whole. That gnocchi dish could not be overlooked. It showed inconsistency in technique and judgment. It also lacked the strength of his other courses, by a mile. If I know anything about Dale, it is that he will bounce back from this as easily as he jumped into it. His spirit, charm, and dexterity will not go unrewarded. If those brief moments of our live finale are any indication, it appears Chicago has found in him an unlikely, yet amazingly likable hero.

It may not have appeared that Hung took as many risks as his competitors, but let me assure you, he made up for it all in attention to detail and pure artistry. He was cool, organized, and steady from start to finish that night. He served us four immaculately prepared dishes and found a way to truly make them his own. Everything he served was masterfully cooked and elegantly presented. Every bite also exemplified what we now understood to be Hung at his best -- a dash of Vietnamese, a sprinkle of modern French, a ton of discipline, and mountains of great technique. From Hamachi Fish & Chips to Prawns in Palm Sugar and that staggeringly good Sous Vide Duck with Truffle Scented Broth and Mushroom Ragout, we honestly could not find a flaw worth dwelling on for more than a brief moment. Sure, a squeeze of citrus would have helped here and there, and adding salt to his Ocean Scented Rice may not have hurt either, but in the big picture these are the most minor of offenses. Even Hung's "surprise" chocolate cake, although not very original, was made well and tasted as good as any I have eaten.

Unlike our viewers, as judges we vote with our taste buds, not with our emotions. I hope one day you too get the chance to actually taste his food. I have no doubt you will think it is as special and exciting as we do. I know whatever Hung chooses to do with his new title of Top Chef, he will never settle for anything but perfection. He can't help it. It's in his soul.

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. . .  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!