Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Hot For Teacher

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

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: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Gail can't believe that Keriann wouldn't have shown her teammates how she wanted her dish executed.

Bravotv.com: This week was Restaurant Wars!
GS: Restaurant Wars is always an exciting episode because it’s so hard to do what we are asking of chefs to do. Opening a restaurant is truly so difficult, on a good day if you’re dealing with people you love and work with all the time, let alone with three people you’re competing against and have never worked with in this way before. You don’t really know their strengths and weaknesses, and this is where that it all comes out.

Bravotv.com: So looking first at the Grey Team, Melissa, Doug, Mei, Adam
GS: I knew it was a strong team from the start, but we’ve had plenty of strong teams that have failed in the past. You never know until you sit down at that table to eat their meal. I could tell that they were all serious and they have all performed pretty well up to this point though. Although the other team was stacked too, with Gregory who's won a lot and Katsuji who was coming off his win in the Thanksgiving challenge. Keriann and Katie have made some great dishes too. It was anyone’s game.

I think it was smart of the Grey Team to chose Adam as their front of the house man. He’s gregarious, he’s affable, he is a great storyteller, a great talker, and he has a sense of urgency and confidence. Sometimes he can be over-confident maybe, but I think you want someone working front of house who’s willing to take on that risk. Plus he’s done it before. He understands the importance of that role.

Putting Keriann in the front of the house could have been a good move too. She’s certainly a lovely person. She’s well-spoken and definitely wanted to take on the challenge. I just wasn’t sure if they put her out front because they didn’t want her in the kitchen or because they really thought she’d be good for that role. Either way, that’s the way the cards fell. Katie taking on the chef position I thought was a real risk -- she doesn’t run a kitchen day-to-day. I was proud of her for wanting to do it, maybe because she runs pop-ups, she knows how to do something really quickly like this and that experience could come in handy. The other team chose Doug as their chef, who also doesn’t run a restaurant every single day; he is a sous chef. But you can tell he has that drive and understanding of service, he expedites every day in his restaurant and that’s a really huge piece of how a good restaurant runs. It seemed like everyone knew their roles and everyone was happy at the start. They weren’t forced into anything.

I actually liked both restaurant concepts in theory. "Four Pigs" was family style, rustic, comforting, American, bold flavors, relaxed environment. I think that suited who they were, and I think they did a great job. The concept of "Magellan" was a really great idea too. Magellan being an explorer, the spice route, all of the dishes having complex spice elements. The issue you run into with that concept though is that if it’s too loose, everyone is literally all over the map (pun intended). So even though the idea’s inspiration is exploration, when you as the customer sit down and eat that meal, do you really want to be eating things from all over the map? Do they go together? Sometimes the chefs get carried away by the idea of that exploration, and forget that a meal still has to feel cohesive. I don’t know who would want to be eating seven different cuisines all at one table. There needs to be a common thread between them more than just that they all have spice. All spices don’t taste good when they’re combined. I think that’s the first issue this team had. They were all making their own dishes and not really discussing how those dishes would talk to each other when they were actually put on people’s plates.

Bravotv.com: So, let’s start with the dishes from the Grey Team.
GS: The Grey Team started with Adam’s salt-baked clams with ramps, bacon and sunflower seeds. Very seasonal (we filmed this in the spring), very New England. I love clams from that part of the country. We saw that he got in a little hot water when he lost his first set of clam shells, but he was able to completely bounce back. The dish was tasty, it was a perfect starter, a savory little bite. And you were really able to taste all of those flavors without overshadowing the clam itself, which with ramps and bacon is a hard thing to do.

Mei’s chicken liver toast with plum puree was also delicious. The plums cut through the fat in the chicken liver which I loved. It was a little bit too wet though, so the chicken liver dripped and was a little bit looser than what I wanted. I like it to be just a little thicker so there’s a more texture to it, and also so it doesn’t drip all over your hand. It did remind us of a very sophisticated peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was salty and tart, and had just enough richness from that liver to satisfy you but not fill you up. Beautifully presented.

We all loved Doug’s braised pork shoulder. The baked beans, onion, and mustard went so well together. The mustard lightened up the dish and the pickled onions of course did too. It was a homey, comforting dish. The pork shoulder just melted in your mouth. I wish I had a bowl of it right now actually.

Melissa’s scallop was probably the weakest dish on that team. By no means does that mean it was awful. It was a lovely idea, light and fresh. Scallops and grapefruit and radish are a perfect combination. It felt a little bit more like an appetizer salad though than a main course. Her scallops were on the salty side and a little bit overcooked too. We wanted them a bit softer, a little more rare in the center. It was a really nice dish, but compared to the other dishes on her team, it felt a simple and slightly out of place. Everything else had a soulfulness to it and this seemed to be sort of off in the corner, but I was still happy to eat it.

Mei's brussels sprouts was their side dish and they were also really tasty. Brussels sprouts and anchovies go surprisingly well together! But they was over-dressed and the brussels were a little overcooked. They just needed to be toned down. I can remember when we were finished eating them, there was a pool of vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl. If she had been a little more light-handed on the vinaigrette when she tossed it, it probably would have been a better dish.

Melissa’s dessert was very well-made -- apples, mixed-berries, cardamom cream, a classic fruit cobbler. I just wish she had done something a little more interesting. Berry cobbler is something anyone can make at home. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a good dish. You’re a professional chef though, and this is Top Chef so if you’re going to give me a cobbler, show me cobbler in a way I haven’t seen before. Whether that’s a special biscuit on top or a combination of flavors of fruits, or a presentation I haven’t seen. In every way this cobbler was basic. I enjoyed eating it, it just was a little boring.

Bravotv.com: And then Magellan…
GS: Oh Magellan. We all were really excited when Katie’s roasted beets came to the table. It sounded fantastic. But she made the dish in a composed way, meaning that the beets were on one side, the curry was just underneath. Everything was separate, so it was very difficult to taste all together. Her flaw was that there wasn’t a conversation going on between all of the components in the dish. She left the beets completely dry on the side of the plate, but she had this beautiful curry and this coconut and this pickled cauliflower, she could have dressed them wonderfully, had she mixed them up, had she presented the dish in a different way. It really shows you that ingredients are only one piece of the puzzle. You can have five different beautiful ingredients, but unless you put the dish together in a way that highlights them, it falls flat.

Katsuji’s hamachi sashimi was totally fine. The hamachi was very big and cut in a bit of a ragged way. I wish they had been smaller or more smoothly cut, so that they weren’t as messy to eat and a little more refined. But the dish itself was perfectly well made. I liked his dried pozole too; I thought it was very interesting. A little odd, a little out there, but I applaud Katsuji for pushing boundaries of what we think of as pozole with it.

Gregory also made two dishes. His seared haddock was my favorite dish of the night. The fish was great, the tomato was flavorful. I thought the dish came together nicely, it was cohesive. I liked the garam masala. Although he could have probably simplified a little bit. His pork tenderloin was perfectly cooked too, it sounded so rich and delicious in its description, but was a little disappointing to eat because it was a little less flavorful than I expected with all of those components. Like Katie, he also separated out all of the ingredients. I was hoping to get a dish that was really bold in these Chinese flavors, the hosin and the XO sauce. I wanted it all to be mixed in a way that every bite had all of those tastes and it wasn't.

And then there was our dessert, Keriann’s vanilla crepe. I’m still totally confused as to how she wanted it. She wanted it room temperature, she wanted that mousse to be stiff and hard, not spreadable? I can’t understand how it would’ve been served that way and been successful either. But I do know that the way it was served definitely didn’t work. As much as I’m sure she was devastated by the way her team chose to change her dish, and especially that they didn’t tell her before they did so, I still think it would not have been a successful dish had she served it her way either. I’m just totally baffled by how it was supposed to be, and how she didn’t notice until the second half of service that it was being served in a different way. What I especially don’t understand is how she didn’t plate one for them first. If she had just plated a full dish, showed it to all of them and they all tasted it before she went out to service, they all would’ve known exactly how she wanted it and would’ve done it that way. How do you create a dish and leave people to execute it but not show them how it’s supposed to be? That’s why we decided Keriann had to be the one to be eliminated. There were a lot of problems with service at Magellan. Clearly, customers weren’t getting dishes, or they were getting dishes twice. No one knew where anything was, it was impossible to get water or a server. It was impossible to find Keriann. She put food down and then walked away without explaining it. There were so many times when we were completely thrown off by the service. And, in addition to all this, her dish didn’t make sense -- not only because of how Katie and Katsuji changed it, but in her vision in the first place. Keriann worked hard, she pushed herself, I’m proud of her. I think she’s a strong person, a good cook and will have a successful. I just don’t think this was her day.

Next episode: the judges hit Whole Foods!

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