Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Hot For Teacher

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

Hot For Teacher

Anthony Bourdain on his favorite episode ever.

 

This week's episode was my favorite episode to date. It was everything this show should be -- an open highway for the contestants to really show their stuff; a challenge dealing with the first principles of cuisine, and an episode with unimpeachable judging. This was a chance for the contestants to really step up. There would be no cruising along under the radar. You either did it or you didn't this time around.

Let's start this off by telling you where I'm coming from: As far as I'm concerned, when Andre Soltner evaluates someone's performance in the kitchen, he's speaking from the mountain top. There was, to my mind, no higher authority, no person closer to God, who one might have looked to for judgment on this particular challenge.

Chef Soltner, for those who might not be fully aware of his history, was the chef/owner of Lutece in New York City, which was for decades one of -- if not THE best -- the most important restaurant in America. He is the very epitome of pioneering, Old School French chefs, part of that groundbreaking first wave who came over in the 50s and 60s and virtually taught us how to eat. His restaurant kitchen, by example, inspired countless cooks and diners alike how to cook, what to aspire to, hope for, expect of ourselves when we approached food in the future. Serving relatively simple yet elegant, nonsense-free, but always perfectly prepared French/Alsatian style specialties, Lutece was a veritable temple of haute cuisine.

Soltner himself, though always besieged for reservations by the world's most powerful clients, remained always humble, fair, egalitarian -- famously refusing to cancel an ordinary customer's reservation even to make room for the French prime minister. He never took a day off. Ever. He ate the same simple lunch every day. And when he sold Lutece, late in life, he shared equity with every employee. When Julia Child and Jacques Pepin were explaining and writing and showing us what French food could be, Soltner showed us every day and every night -- by doing it...

I will never forget eating at Lutece as a young student. Hair halfway down my back, dressed like absolute crap, completely unprepared, uninformed as to how to order, how to tip, feeling desperately intimidated, and uncomfortable as I struggled to impress my date, we were, as soon as we entered, welcomed warmly by Madame Soltner as if we were regulars, helped delicately and generously through the menu and wine list (avoiding mention of the obvious fact that I could only afford the cheapest possible options), and were even visited tableside by a kindly Chef Soltner.

I may have looked like a dressed up Lil' Abner, but we were treated as if we were no less important than the Kissinger or Mitterrand parties nearby. The food at Lutece was extraordinary for its time -- and remained impeccable until Soltner's last day. He's a hero to me. Frankly, had I been one of the contestants tonight -- and seen him among the judges? I would have collapsed in a twitching, gibbering heap.

Add Sirio Maccione for the Quickfire, Jacques Torres, Alain Sailhac , and Cesare Casella to that awe-inspiring panorama of heavyweights, and you've got a veritable Council of Elders of European cuisine -- a living history of how we eat now -- over a century of expertise and experience, known and respected by every modern chef. The contestants surely knew these men. And just as surely, quaked with fear.

Top Chef fans? Just as no one can say boo about the judging this week, no one -- NO ONE -- can complain about the challenges. No quirky, kooky, product-placing roach-coach stunts this time, my friends. No one had to make quesadillas over an open can of sterno in the back of a moving Rav 4. Or prepare a festive snack out of Froot Loops while wearing a Glad Family of Bags over their head. Tonight, the challenges were not only perfectly suited to the task of deciding who might someday be a "Top Chef", but were also perfectly matched to the judging panel.

For instance: Whose attempt at recreating a time tested Le Cirque signature dish taste came closest to approximating the original? Viewers were saved from having to discuss, debate or even think about the answer to that question. Just ask Sirio. Because he, better than any person alive, was qualified to tell you.

"What to do with a chicken, an onion, and a potato?" is about as perfect and straightforward a challenge as could be imagined. Particularly in the venue of the French Culinary Institute -- and particularly in front of these judges, for whom those ingredients are seen as a Holy Trinity of Fundamental Elements. Along with the classic " Make Me An Omelet " test (which would have ended the show a little too quickly), the Trial of The Chicken is traditionally seen as a near religious passage, a station of the cross, an early task on the One True Path to chefdom. Just as it is widely believed that "you can tell everything you need to know about a cook by how he makes an omelet", the cooking of a simple chicken makes an open book of whoever prepared it. There's no wiggle room, no lying, no weaseling, and no misrepresenting when you're facing the Test of The Chicken (or the Omelet, for that matter). No amount of garnish or frippery will help evade the truth. As they say in the courtroom: "Res Ipsa Loquitor" (The thing speaks for itself.) You might have noticed that Hung won both challenges. Sirio Maccione picked him for the Quickfire winner. Chef Andre Soltner picked him for the Elimination winner...and that's enough for me.

Let's step back and look at who did what -- and what we might have learned about the remaining contestants. We received very good supporting evidence for the proposition that Hung and Casey remain the candidates to beat. It was a close call between the two on the Quickfire -- and an equally close call in Elimination. In the Quickfire, both were able to "deconstruct" or analyze the dish in question and recreate it efficiently.

In Elimination, unlike the other three contestants, they read the judges and the situation brilliantly: These judges were old school, traditionalists, teachers, with a shared love and respect for basic techniques and the classics.

Hung, faced with chicken as a main ingredient, wisely made it all about the chicken, doing a fairly austere "en souvide" preparation designed to maximize the bird's natural flavor and to retain its moisture. Casey, almost as shrewdly, did a very nice "homage" to coq au vin. What might have seemed like hair-splitting between the judges as to whether the dish (classically intended for older, tougher roosters) was appropriate for a young chicken was in fact a useful perspective on the fact. (It could be argued by purists) that Casey had not made the most of her main ingredient -- she had, in fact, "wasted" its relative tenderness and versatility by treating it as one would (traditionally) have a less-good bird. Coq au vin is a preparation designed from its inception, as a means to disguise, or at least, make the most of, a relatively cheap and less desirable protein. Yet it's also a beloved comfort food of the French -- and she clearly executed well, even garnishing with the peak-season chef favorite, ramps. I thought it was an outstanding effort.

Casey, I think, deserves a lot more respect from some of the grassy knoll conspiracy theorists who've commented here. She's clearly a very fine cook -- fully capable of excellence under fire. Let the distinguished judges' comments on this episode be the final nail in the wrongheaded and now utterly discredited argument that Casey has somehow been getting a free pass 'cause of her looks. Other than the brief, freakish, onion anomaly, she has shown nothing but chefly qualities. I, for one, didn't care if she looked like Broderick Crawford when I judged the airline meal challenge: her dish was far and away the best.

Dale and Brian floundered in too-deep waters.

Dale surprised me. In a bad way. One of the smarter contestants, he seems to suffer from frequent brain farts. (Ex: the notorious Scented Candle Incident. The Missing Filet Incident.) It was yet another mighty wind let loose this evening. After a weak, half-assed attempt to crib from Hung in the Quickfire, he made the truly wrongheaded decision to prepare a "Duet of Chicken" for the panel of Wise Men (and Wise Woman -- respect to Dorothy Hamilton!). Did he REALLY think this bunch of veterans would be impressed by an utterly pointless exercise in circa 1993 pomposity? The very opposite of the "less is more" credo by which most of this sage council had no doubt made their bones?

This failure of the imagination was followed by yet another in a series of failures of execution when he added The Missing Sauce Incident to his yellow sheet. He totally misread the crowd. I can almost promise you that a simple, yet properly roasted chicken -- with onions and potatoes pan-fried in goose fat would have gone over gangbusters with these guys. I don't care how fine Brian's "Sausage Shepherd's Pie (with Chicken)" tasted. Let's assume it was indeed, delicious. Spectacularly so. I would argue that it was an effort more redolent of chickenshit than actual chicken. Faced with an opportunity to shine -- in front of perhaps the greatest assemblage of chefs Brian will ever cook for in his career, he prepared something that was neither "about the chicken", nor well-targeted for the venue. As if frightened to fail, he made something shapeless, demonstrative of technical skills (knifework, presentation and so on) any talented home cook could be expected to have. I may love Grandma's cooking. But I'm not going to hire her for my restaurant. What did we learn from Brian's effort? That he's frightened by the classics -- and that they sell some mighty good sausage at the Union Square greenmarket.

Note how Soltner, during final deliberations, based his decision on: " If I were to choose a cook for my kitchen..." and then, with that criteria in mind, chose Hung. THAT'S what this Elimination challenge was all about! Getting Andre Soltner to say exactly that about YOU. That ain't happening if all you're offering is meatloaf -- I don't care how good. Brian shrunk from the challenge. Hung and Casey correctly identified the nature of the challenge and grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns. Brian successfully skated. Dale, at least, tried to dazzle -- however badly it turned out. Sara sank like a stone -- having long since paddled far out of her depth. Raw fish in the Quickfire ... a last, desperate grab for the familiar flavors of Jamaica ... undercooked chicken in the Elimination, and it was see ya, wouldn't wanna be ya. I think she's to be commended. She went a long way on modest skills. She outlasted more experienced chefs. She was, when called upon to do so, often able to pull a rabbit out of her hat, rise to the occasion, find a way through. She handled a lot of pressure with aplomb. And she was a good cook. This time, however, just not good enough. I see my tequila-swilling crony Eric Ripert on the promo for next week's episode. And what looks like something to do with fish. This...is gonna be good.

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!