Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Low Spark And High Heels...in The Roach Coach

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

Low Spark And High Heels...in The Roach Coach

Bourdain takes a closer look at the challenge that eliminated Sara

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Two questions screamed for answers after last night's challenge: bourdain_307_01_320x240.jpg

1) If you're a Miami chef, how, how, HOW can you screw up a Cuban sandwich? More to the point: WHY would you?

This week, Howie -- who is perilously close to becoming Mr. Know-It-All -- seems to have been caught transfixed in the headlights of an oncoming snack wagon, and for reasons known only to his phrenologist, decided that the beloved Miami classic, the Cuban sandwich, is not good enough. Worse, after much experience (he says) working in Miami nightclubs, he came to the shocking conclusion that what drunken hordes of clubgoers really want, immediately after spilling off the dance floor, is his creative riff on a classic. Crustier bread! "Better" raw ingredients! An "homage" sandwich, roughly manhandled onto a griddle between unevenly heated sheet pans. No, Howie. No.

What anybody who's even been to a nightclub understands is that drunk people want hot, cheesy, greasy, and familiar food. They want it fast. And they don't want to be challenged to think. They're done thinking (at least until tomorrow, when they turn over in bed and see what they went home with). A cheap-ass deli ham, roast pork, cheese, and gherkin on the same bread everybody else uses -- properly mashed down flat -- and you would have had some happy customers. Post-nightclub customers are the dream of every late night diner and snack bar operator in that they are oblivious. Howie chose to rudely wake them up. If this crowd was going to notice anything in the interlude between the ear shattering, molar-shaking thump of the dance floor and whatever ill-considered coupling or porcelain bowl worshiping lay in their near future, it's that there was something...wrong...and...different...about this thing they were being told was a Cuban sandwich.

2) Speaking of oblivious: If, in spite of your superb technical skills, excellent training and fine, creative mind, you are consistently ending up on the bottom of the dog pile -- and you are presented with an easy lay-up of a Quickfire Challenge, why, why, WHY would you choose to step forward and proudly push your head -- once again -- into the meat grinder? Lab rats and domestic pets, after sticking an appendage into a light socket, usually refrain from doing so again. Yet Hung, week after week, after taking a full dose of house current, jams his nether regions directly into the fuse box.

How hard was it to win this challenge? Dale won with the very sensible -- but hardly genre-bending -- peach cobbler ice cream. Had Hung stuck to sweet stuff and stayed away from CAULIFLOWER(?!!), I have a hard time believing he couldn't have, at very least, avoided being the very worst. Who EVER finds themselves yearning suddenly for cauliflower in their ice cream sundae? Who has ever -- in recorded history -- thought to themselves: "Gee...this ice cream would be so much better if only there were tempura flakes on it"? Or yearned, while spooning vanilla ice cream into their face, for FOAM?

Hung was absolutely right when he said, dismissively, "any monkey can go with fruits and berries." But any monkey also knows better than to make the same mistake over and over and over again. Learn from the wisdom of Krusty's trusted consigliere Mr. Teeny, Hung. He has all the answers. In the above examples, we find two excellent examples of how to fail in the kitchen before you even start to cook. Bad decision-making doomed Hung in the Quickfire and Team Orange in the Elimination. Both Howie and Hung neglected to ask themselves the most fundamental of questions; ones that every restaurateur has to ask him or herself before even opening for business: " Where am I?" and "What will people like here?" A little soul-searching might have indicated that they probably don't like bogus Cuban sandwiches in Miami and that nobody likes cauliflower on their ice cream -- anywhere.

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Compare and contrast with the winners of the Elimination Challenge, Team Black: Brian, when asked how his team chose their menu and divided up responsibility, answered with pure, textbook good sense. They looked at the space and the facilities in which they would have to work -- and worked with that, designing a very clever and appropriate menu to both situation and environment. Crispy fried stuff from Hung on the fry station...Sara M. playing to her strength with jerked soft tacos...Tre working the bacon-wrapped shrimp with grits comfort food angle...and Brian shrewdly staying out of the way of potential gridlock inside and instead, working out front, where he could serve as raw bar guy, expeditor, and carnival barker. A good plan, knowledge of the terrain, and efficient deployment of forces equals good execution.
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Team Orange couldn't get out of each other's way. The only thing that saved Howie from being dropped down the greasy chute this week was Sara N.'s abysmal performance. Being bummed out, depressed, pissed at Howie, or in uncomfortable footwear does not excuse falling behind on sliders! There are drunk people out there! They want sliders! They want them now! They don't even care if they're all well done -- as long as they're hot...and here! This was an opportunity to win the day (as drunk people love sliders) but for God's sake: Cook them ten at a time! Twenty at a time! You're being compared to nothing more elevated in the annals of cuisine than White Castle for God's sake!

I can only imagine that the never-shy Howie was looking to thin the herd by allowing Sara N. to twist in the wind. There's really no other explanation that neither he, CJ, nor Casey stepped in to forcefully tell Sara to unscrew her head out of her fundament and start loading up the griddle. Not that it would have helped. Sara N. seemed to have decided to lose as soon as she realized she'd be working in heels. I gotta tell ya; I've worked with women cooks who could crank out a hundred fifty meals off a very busy grill station in freakin' stilettos and still have the energy to give Howie the beating of his life -- so that don't cut it as an excuse. And putting ice in a vanilla shake, by the way, was a very bad idea.

After finding out she'd have to pack her knives, Sara N. suggested she might have been "too nice" for the competition. Maybe so. Howie, on the other hand, suggests that he might well be an asshole and that he doesn't apologize for that. I'd suggest he reexamine his position here. It might be okay to be a buttwad in the cause of victory, but it's not okay to be a buttwad when what you've got to offer Miami is a bogus Cuban and bad leadership.
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In the end, Sara N. didn't lack for talent. She lacked fire in the belly. All chefs, at various points in their career, must reach an accommodation between what lives in their hearts and the requirements of the marketplace, and of the situation on the ground. They must choose every night between head and heart, compromising in ways large and small according to circumstances.

It's interesting that some of the most compelling struggles to watch on this season's show are not between contestants. It's the struggle between experienced, "principled" Howie and his own darker, more pigheaded side. Howie's got plenty of heart. Last night, he simply fell down when it came to using his magnificent, sweat-slicked, battering ram of a noggin. It's the struggle between Hung's big talent and his even bigger ego. Here's a guy who should cook more with his heart and less with his overloaded brain. He should think about the things that gave him comfort as a child, his very first ice cream cone; what ice cream did to him. Not what he can do to ice cream. That's something I'd like to see.

***A Final Note: Concerning Rocco DiSpirito's typically gracious and good humored response on this site to my torrent of abuse: It is natural, as some have suggested, to assume that I'm jealous of Rocco. In fact, I am. I'm jealous of Rocco's talent in the kitchen. He had an extraordinary proficiency with food -- one most cooks would cheerfully have sawn off a finger or an arm to replicate -- and an ability to "envision" (and then execute) truly delicious and original creations. That he chose to turn his back on this rare and unique gift does indeed stick in my craw.

Watching Rocco's trajectory in the cause of the bitch-goddess fame is like watching a young Eric Clapton put aside his guitar for a career as a mink rancher. You just want to scream, "Play, damn you! PLAY!!" (Or in Rocco's case, "Cook! Cook!!"). Two years cooking in his own 40-seat restaurant, in even a crummy neighborhood of NYC, and Rocco would shut snarkologists like me up forever -- and restore a "gravitas" to his reputation he should never have lost. I'd be the first guy trying to scrounge a reservation, and -- if he offered anything like the food I had at Union Pacific -- the first to loudly sing his praises.

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Gail discusses the impressive Thanksgiving meal the chefs prepared and why she thinks it was the right time for Stacy to go home.

Bravotv.com: Let's talk about Thanksgiving. . .
Gail Simmons: We've done a lot of Thanksgiving episodes over the years. I can remember back in Season 2 when Anthony Bourdain judged and the meal our chefs cooked was the most embarrassing, horrible meal in Top Chef history. We've come a long way. In fact we’ve come all the way to Plimoth Plantation - the site of the very first Thanksgiving, which is pretty cool.

Bravotv.com: Before that, we saw the chefs tackling a Quickfire Challenge at the cranberry bog.
GS: Cranberries are very beautiful. I always knew cranberries were harvested in a cranberry "bog," but I was never really sure what a cranberry bog was. Now we all know. It's impressive! The chefs and Tiffani said it was a really fun challenge -- very seasonal and very unique to that little corner of the world. Plus we gave them a little workout.

Then we went to the plantation, and had them make us Thanksgiving dinner using only original tools and ingredients from the very first Thanksgiving. It was amazing to be at a plantation situated in the middle of this pilgrim village that was recreated almost exactly as it would have been in the 17th century. It was authentic to the point where we weren’t even given forks . Forks hadn’t been invented yet! We just had a very primitive knife and a big honking wooden spoon (which I will say is very efficient for shoveling delicious food into your face).

Bravotv.com: Will you be using all of these techniques at your own Thanksgiving?
GS: I might. I mean the pantry that they had to use, though not necessarily what we all would think of a traditional was quite abundant. The food was quite amazing -- all the colored corn and squash, the lobster, the duck. There was a lot to choose from. I think the chefs did a great job of giving us nine very distinct dishes -- all of which were relatively good. There wasn't a major clunker among them. But that sometimes makes it a lot harder to judge because you still have to send someone home. They served this meal to a table with Chef Ken Oringer, a good friend and one of the most acclaimed restaurateurs in Boston, as well as descendants from the Mayflower and descendants from the Wampanoag, the native people living in the area when the Mayflower arrived. It was really wonderful as it gave us a lot of insight into what they ate, how they ate, how they prepared things. Our diners were so knowledgeable and excited for us to be there.

Braovtv.com: Onto the food, because isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about. Let’s talk about the good ones first.
GS: All of them were good, but my top four were: Mei, Doug, Katie, and Katsuji.

Mei made a roasted cabbage with trout vinaigrette, which was a very unusual dish. It was so unexpected and savory. She roasted the cabbage on the charcoal fire which gave it such delicious flavor, then made the vinaigrette with trout which was poured over the cabbage. It was a perfect starter for our meal, so light. It had all this crunch, and felt like a salad but, because of the trout vinaigrette and the duck fat, was a little more rich and substantial.

Doug also made a phenomenal dish of spit-roasted rabbit. The roasted radishes, ramps, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and lots of garlic, came together with the rabbit to make a really excellent dish. I loved that all of these dishes served were really rustic because of the way our chefs were forced to cook. They couldn't pull out tweezers and individually cook a million different components. They didn't have access to fancy equipment. Everything took on the flavor of the fire. Doug's dish was so well-conceived. The hazelnuts and the ramps went so well together. Everything had this earthiness to it. It was a dish I could see working well in any restaurant.

Another dish we didn't bring out on the top at Judges Table, but could have easily been a fourth best dish was Katie's stuffing with blueberries, cornbread, and sautéed lobster. Here was another unusual use of ingredients -- the fact that she added blueberry in her stuffing made it so unique. I was skeptical when it came to the table, thinking it would be too sweet. In other cases that would be true, but because the blueberries were so fresh, tart and bursting with juice it didn't come across that way at all. It's fascinating that blueberries were an original ingredient served at the first Thanksgiving. I thought it was really innovative of Katie to use them in this way. The stuffing was moist, it was savory, it was not sweet at all, it made sense with the blue cornmeal. The sautéed lobster on top seemed a little bit superfluous, because there was so much flavor in the stuffing itself, but it certainly didn't detract from the dish. Putting lobster on anything makes it more delicious right? I said it on the show, but I kept going back for more of this dish. I couldn't figure it out, but I couldn't stop. I was definitely impressed with Katie that day.

Our favorite dish was Katsuji's. Surprisingly here was a dish where Katsuji really shined because he kept it simple, as we know he can do but he seldom does. If you remember back to that first episode, he made a dish that had 17,000 components. I think his Thanksgiving dish was an example of what Tom tried to explain in the episode -- sometimes when the chefs are given really strict limitations it makes them cook better. Katsuji was very limited in his use of ingredients and equipment. He had to stay focused and because he had to share this very primitive kitchen space, he couldn't go wild doing 50 things. In this case it served him well. It was a fantastic dish. The butternut squash and lobster were such a perfect combination, the chestnuts and the chili butter made it feel like fall, made it feel rustic just like Thanksgiving should. It was a so well done and we all enjoyed it. Katsuji was our winner.

Bravotv.com: So now the other side. . .
GS: I must say that none of these dishes were really horrible, but you have to rank them, that's the whole point of the game. And there were certainly some that were less delicious than others.

None of us had a problem with the fact that Melissa just did vegetables, per se. I'm all for a vegetarian dish at a Thanksgiving meal, in fact in at my Thanksgiving meal there will always be vegetarian dishes. But our issue with the dish was that, if you're going to do vegetables which will ultimately be compared to everyone else's dish, you need to really focus on amping up the flavor. Compared to the intense flavor that came from roasting meat and fish on an open fire, compared to all of the rich food we were eating, her dish faded into the background. She did show impeccable knife work, and I know she put a lot of time and effort into it. But when you're eating nine dishes it's all about which one stands out the most, which one calls you back for more. Melissa's just hid in the background. It wasn't as bold as it needed to be to stand up to the others.

In terms of Keriann's dish, I understand her thought process. When her dough wasn't working because of the heat and humidity, she switched from doing a blueberry pie to using that blueberry filling over venison. I know she said she didn't add sugar to it, but when you cook down fruit, there's natural pectin that starts to thicken the fruit, so it takes on that slightly gelatinous texture and a very sweet flavor. We didn't even know about the switch when it happened. Tom and Ken knew from their walk through, but they never told us she had meant to do pie. Regardless, the second her dish came to the table, we knew that sauce wasn't just for venison. We tasted it and it tasted unmistakably like pie filling. That’s when we were made aware that she originally intended for it to be for a pie. The venison was cooked well, the hazelnuts that went with it were a great idea; all these flavors go together, but I guarantee you, if she were to make that sauce again for that same venison dish, she would make that sauce differently. She would not have cooked down the blueberries half as much. She would’ve added more savory ingredients and seasoned it differently. It was well-intentioned, but not executed in the way it needed to be.

And finally Stacy. Stacy's dish was a tricky one. The idea of her clams with ramps and butternut squash was lovely. It was a great starter for a Thanksgiving meal like this, but there was something in those clams that didn't go down well for any of us. We all couldn't really pinpoint what the flavor was. For me and for Ken, there was a strange earthy flavor we couldn't understand, and it was a little unsettling. It didn't take on the texture of eating dirt. We talked about that, it wasn't that we felt there was sand or grit in it. It was just an odd flavor that tasted like the flavor of earth and dirt, and not in the way that mushrooms are nutty and "earthy." It was a off-putting, almost as if there was an herb that hadn't been cleaned, or some component that wasn't balancing with the rest of her ingredients. In general of all of the dishes, not only was that flavor not right, Stacy's dish was a little more unfinished than the rest. So after a lot of thought, we had to make this decision. And it wasn't easy. Stacy's a great chef, and we thought that all of the dishes were generally very well done for this challenge. It was a memorable Thanksgiving meal in every way. But that's the way the game is played, one person has to go, and we all agreed that Stacy's dish was the weakest dish that day.

I know it's been a hard road for her with her boyfriend away. She was tired I think. It happens. You get rundown for sure, it's a long haul. We’re grateful for having her there. We're very proud of her, she did a great job, and she held her head up high through it all. She represented Boston in the best possible way.

Bravotv.com: And in two weeks, it’s Restaurant Wars.
GS:
December we are back with Restaurant Wars -- craziness, madness, insanity ensues. It's a harrowing, heart-pounding episode. I can't wait to talk about it!

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