Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Sympathy For The Devil

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

Sympathy For The Devil

Anthony Bourdain reacts to Howie's departure.

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There was rejoicing in TV-land last night, as designated bad guy Howie whiffed on three pitches and was sent home for good. For many who have posted on this site, offended by his petulance, his obstinacy, the veritable Niagara of sweat that flowed freely from his brow, it was none too soon. But...but... what do we do now? With no bad guy?

And was Howie all that bad?

Did we judge Howie too harshly because of his less-than-matinee idol looks? If he sweated less profusely, and looked like a young Brad Pitt, would his words and attitude alone have made him such a compelling target? When I look at Howie, short, bald, pants looking two sizes too big on him, built like a small tank and with an expression on his face like a closed fist, I sense the end product of a long line of tormentors.

Knowing nothing about him, I'm guessing that this guy has experienced, in his time, more than his share of insult. The Howie we've come to love -- to hate -- cannot, I think, have made it through the school system -- much less the early part of a cooking career without soaking up a lot of punishment. What has evolved is a tough, hard-shelled little bastard who just refuses to give an inch. I may not want to work with him. I certainly don't want to be marooned on Gilligan's Island with him. But I admire his toughness.
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Which is not to say he didn't richly deserve to get the chop. Absolutely unwilling to "lose", Howie, reaching the bottom of his limited bag of tricks, positioned himself as "choosing" to fall on his sword. Knowing that his Quickfire offering was an embarrassment, he trotted out the high-minded principle argument again (as he did in Episode One). He "chose" not to submit a less-than-the best offering -- cause he's just so exacting and his standards so high, you see.

His upturned martini glass was a defiant "Screw You" to the judges, but to me it smacked of Roberto Duran's famous "No mas" end to his bout with Sugar Ray Leonard. The tough, proud, and previously unbeatable Duran, after a few short rounds with the much faster, more polished Leonard, looked into the future and saw nothing but many more rounds of swinging at empty air and a humiliating loss on points. So he quit. Better, he figured, to walk out upright than allow anyone the satisfaction of watching him be a punching bag in the last round.

It's the old "You can't fire me! I QUIT!" exit strategy, and Howie was workin' it from early in the show. "Who gives a **** what the judges say? " he was saying -- even before he lost. In the bit from his exit interview, Howie was already at work on his revisionist version of events -- that he'd "made the right choice."

In truth, there was no choice about it. He gave the Elimination Challenge his best shot -- and it wasn't nearly good enough. In fact, it was light years away from adequate. Asparagus "cigars" wrapped in phyllo? Mushroom "Duxelle" sitting on puff pastry? Are you kidding? You go to any Midwestern Association of Insurance Adjusters conference at some airport convention center, and before suffering the "choice of chicken or salmon" sit-down dinner in the banquet room, there will be the grim gauntlet of hors' doevres (along with the jug Chablis and the sparkling wine). Alongside the curling carrot sticks and unripe brie will no doubt be passed greasy, phyllo wrapped objects and mysterious sludgelike substances festering atop pre-cooked hollows of puff pastry much like Howie's. Monochromatic. Oxidizing into even more extreme ugliness with every passing second. And ubiquitous in the Annals of Mediocrity. About as "stylish" as baby quiche, devilled eggs -- or remaki.
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I was never a creative genius as a chef. Far from it. I was a journeyman. God knows, back in the day, I ran to the freezer many times during the Christmas party season, looking to bail myself out with frozen spanokopita, the case of Durkee bits, the frozen baby quiche -- or made a quick retreat to curried chicken salad on Belgian endive leaves -- when extreme measures were called for. But I never deluded myself while doing it that I was Escoffier. I wasn't "Top Chef". I was "Desperate For Something Else to Feed the Hungry Mob Chef".

Howie, I think, is also, a journeyman chef. Which is why I retain no small measure of respect and even affection for him. To be honest with myself, for a lot of my career -- if not most of my career -- I cooked more like him than like some of the brighter lights among the contestants. If cooking professionally were simply an endurance sport, Howie would have the world by the balls. When talking top tier cooking, though, toughness and endurance just ain't enough. Howie, eventually and inevitably, I'm afraid, simply ran out of gas in the creative and finesse departments. Believe me, I know the feeling.
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And what of former bad-guy, Hung? The other contestants seem to be softening towards him, more amused than appalled these days by his frenetic wierdness. The spontaneous applause at his "Homage Aux Smurfs Sauvages" Quickfire entry was a great "Aww shucks" moment. He's much more the puppy that eats your sneakers these days than the viper in the woodpile.

And look at this significant difference between Howie and Hung: Both were screwed by "difficult" supermarket aisles. But Hung, who was arguably faced with mission impossible, went ahead and enthusiastically had FUN with the situation, embracing the silliness and futility of his predicament by creating a totally loonie tunes collage of crushed up breakfast cereal, a pediatrician's wall mural of powdered crunchberries, booberries, and Lucky Charms. It was haute cuisine for six-year-olds -- and while it had no chance of winning, neither did it lose. Instead of smashing his toys and sulking in the corner, Hung actually revelled in reverting to his childhood.

And I'm thinking he might have been among the smartest of the bunch with his shrewdly pedestrian salmon mousse with caviar on cucumber round. It ain't dumb, faced with the challenge of feeding 60 "stylish fashionistas" on the SS Minnow, to keep your head down and aim solidly for the middle ground. The dish -- as was accurately pointed out by the wise and wonderful Dana Cowin -- is indeed as 80s as A Flock of Seagulls and a Mannitol drip . Thing is, people LOVE that shit. It's colorful. It looks "light" and "healthy" and if you're a recently tightened "fashionista", you don't have to open your mouth too wide, distend your cheeks unattractively or wipe crumbs or sauce off your lipstick when you're done. It may be "over" to people who cook food and write about food or even eat food professionally. But as Hung, in acknowledging its retro legacy said, "People will still be eating it in 50 years".

Truer words have never been spoken. Those little pink and green discs of goodness are the Caterer's Best Friend; a perfect fallback position when looking to stay in the game without getting injured. I suspect Hung heard the words "stylish" and "fashionistas" and assumed, not unreasonably: "models" and "dumb as a board" -- and chose his dish accordingly. Even the bitchiest of customers could hardly muster much scorn beyond an extravagantly jaded sigh.
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Why am I humping Hung's leg with such enthusiasm? Cause something really interesting and important happened this week. Hung PUT ASIDE HIS EGO in the shared interests of the mission -- and his personal strategy. He knew with certainty that salmon mousse on cucumber was yesterday's news. And he HAD to know he'd be facing an unimpressed -- even incredulous panel of judges. Yet, instead of trying to look like Wonder Boy, he let pride take a back seat for an unchallenging, utilitarian crowd-pleaser, gambling confidently that someone else would go into the dumper. Howie quickly vindicated that faith.

Winner Casey reminded us why she's still around and still dangerous after last week's slow motion Demolition Derby of a Quickfire Challenge. She may wield her knife like a medieval pole-axe, but she's clearly got an extraordinary palate and a good eye for presentation.
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CJ wheeled out ye olde seafood sausage and can't be faulted for it. Perfectly suited for the venue, tasted good. And it worked before,for others, so why not again?

Brian, on the other hand, did not -- as in previous weeks -- manage to sneak through the crowded outhouse unsplattered. This time, he emerged fully covered in ordure. Had Howie not so proudly extended the middle finger in the Quickfire -- and rushed so enthusiastically to embrace the Pillsbury Doughboy in the Elimination, it would surely have been Brian hitting the high-jump. No contest. I'm beginning to agree with some of the commentators/observers on this site who have pointed out that Brian seems to have managed to avoid cooking altogether for the last few weeks. And this week, as "executive chef" with dibs on the "money dish", he again dodged anything resembling a heat source. Colicchio looks like he's ready to lunge across the Judges' Table and take a jagged bite out of the next uninspired, knucklehead who DARES serve him tuna tartare. I feel his pain. Let us, by all that is holy, be done with it.
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In spite of his mealy-mouthed buck-passing and blame-diffusing at the end, Brian didn't fool anybody on the judges' panel. The "I wasn't really in charge and therefore am not to blame because they're all chefs too" defense was pathetic. As a chef, to complain that your crew "just won't listen" doesn't get you any sympathy. It gets you unemployed.

Bottom line: Brian blew every aspect of the challenge. He presided over a boring menu (where bread seemed to feature obtrusively in nearly every course), he spent his budget unwisely, and deployed his crew poorly (choosing variety over quality), shrank from responsibility at every turn (not killing off Howie's craptacular vol-au-vent idea in its crib -- or stopping it before it left the kitchen), and once again, seemed to busy himself doing everything BUT actually cooking. Do you really need an expediter for a cocktail party of finger food for 60? I think not. Lately, Brian seems AWOL without even being gone.

I should point out, by the way, that I'm guest judging again next week. Which means I know what happens. And while I am precluded from discussing future broadcasts by a confidentiality agreement rivalling the NSA's in the severity of its penalties for unauthorized disclosure, I can reveal this: There will be a SlaughterFest of Horror, an Orgy of Bloodletting, Partial Nudity, Flammable Liquids, Unspeakable Misuse of Power Tools and Small Woodland Creatures, and the Plaintive Wailing of the Doomed. It will make Altamont look like Lilith Fair.

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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