Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

It Takes A Smurf Village

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

It Takes A Smurf Village

Harold Dieterle on Malarkey, Howie's exit, and guest judge Dana Cowin.

This week's Quickfire Challenge was pretty tough. I''m surprised they had this one so far into the game. I would've liked to have seen what else was on the kitchen pantry table. It was very vague. I saw some cornstarch and I saw some limes and eggs. But I didn't really get a feel for what they got to work with. This challenge was kind of on the same tune as our convenience store challenge, and when they had to cook out of a little vending machine last season. With this one, some of them I thought had tougher aisles than others.

Specifically speaking, I was just thoroughly amused watching Hung put his dish together. I can't remember who it was, Brian or CJ, who said it looked like a Smurf Village -- it was really funny. His dish and Frank's "Mushroom Fantasy" from last season have by far been the two most entertaining dishes I've seen produced. I was just cracking up. He was just having fun with it and laughing, and I just thought, "This is what it's all about." The guest judge, who I'm not familiar with, clearly wanted to take everything a lot more seriously than was necessary. I would like to see him put under those parameters and put something together.

Brian cracks me up. Anybody that refers to themselves in the third person, I personally think highly of. Everytime he calls himself "Malarkey", I laugh to myself. I thought he did a good dish. It looked good, it made sense, and I'm a fan of the Spam. So I thought he did a nice job.

Casey's parfait? That looked great. It looked sharp. It was layered really well and it looked like she knew what she was doing. It was really well-made. She mentioned that she has some pastry experience. She definitely goes the sweet route a lot more than anybody else, but she looks like she has come prepared to do some desserts when she gets there.

Howie's decision not to present anything -- well, it's a double-edged sword. You want to talk about integrity and the fact that you're not going to serve something because it's not up to par -- that has to be your bread and butter move throughout the competition. We've heard him say in the past that he serves stuff that he wasn't crazy about. I don't really know what to think about that.

I think that Brian's decision to make himself leader was the right move, especially after the way we saw things go down with CJ picking Tre and how that all worked out. I think if you're going to be the go-to guy, you're going to be the No. 1 guy, then put yourself in the position to run with it. As far as Tom's comment about Brian "splitting hairs", it's one of those things where it doesn't really matter how it goes down. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't -- you don't' really know how it's going go down. They get beat up a lot for trying to do too much of an assortment of canapes when they all should have focused on doing one thing. If each person does one canape, that's seven canapes for 60 people, which would have seemed a little light to me. I'm not so sure I completely agree with the judges on that fact. If I went to a canape party and there are 60-70 guests on a boat, I'm looking for a little bit more than just seven canapes. I'm probably going to be a little disappointed. So I think that they had the right idea with that.

But I though Casey did overall a really great job between the two challenges. From an elegance standpoint, her canape really had the most refinement. I can't taste it, but the flavors sounded great. Sara M's tomato bread pudding definitely sounded good. I wasn't impressed with the seafood sausage on a baguette. Seafood sausage? Brian has already done it twice. I was looking for something a little creative.

I was especially looking for Hung to bring it because I know that kid can bring it. He was all "Everybody's doing some really classical stuff, so I'm just going to fall in line." I don't really think it was a cop-out. I think it's one of those things where Hung looked at it and he just wanted continuity among what everyone else was doing. If you're going do something his style and off-the-wall and a little different, and then everybody else is making crustinis and whatever other old-school stuff people are doing, it doesn't really fit in. But, they were on a boat, so you're looking for some trend-setting stuff.

Howie knew he was going down and he wanted to go out on his own terms. I think it was pretty obvious the way the whole day played out -- that it really wasn't working out for him. I think that kid fights tooth and nail. He doesn't come across as a quitter at all. I just think from a strategic standpoint, if he could save face on his own he would. He thought, "I'm pretty sure I'm going home and if I can send myself home on my own accord then I'll take that route." But the judges were making it clear, and Tom made it a no-go on that one. Howie deserved to go home. It was kind of rough to watch how he was rolling. His stuff just didn't look that tight.

And finally, for the special guest judge, Dana Cowin. I'm a big fan of hers. She's been into Perilla. I really respect what she thinks about food. She eats at the best restaurants in the world, so when she comes in, I want to pick her brain apart because I really value her opinion. I guess we'll see what goes on next week.

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!