Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Timber!

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

Timber!

Lee Anne Wong remembers her high-flying production adventure.

 

I'm actually on a Continental flight right now headed out to LA to do final casting for Season 4. (I seem to write many of these blogs on a plane lately). BUT I was so excited to watch this episode because the production company put so much work into the next two episodes when we made the move to New York. When I had first heard about the move, the first words that came to mind were "crazy", "good God", and "seriously?". Moving an entire production to a different city in the thick of it is no small feat, but the Elves [Top Chef's amazing production team] and everyone involved do what they do, which is why they are "Magical".

I actually left to come to New York/Newark directly after the yacht challenge. Watching this episode was a particularly joy for me because I wanted to see the great work that Shannon had done in setting up the Quickfire in my absence, and I have to say he did a spectacular job. I was also pleased to see the comedy that happened at the wake-up/Quickfire. I live alone, so the only thing that wakes me up is the not-so-glorious sound of my alarm clock. Had Padma walked into my room, who knows, but I thought all of the chefs handled the situation with grace and a good bit of humor.

Blenders are a staple of a chef's equipment repertoire. Considering the abrupt wake-up call, I thought all six did an amazing job. Ladies who love crepes, Mr. Jacobson would be happy to prepare these for you at all hours of the morning after... And yes, Padma does look entirely phenomenal at 7 a.m. with no makeup and no skimpy wardrobe.

Hung has become a bit of an anomaly for me. Denial is the first, second, and last stage for him apparently, and the camera doesn't lie. I recall a time I busted a bag of ice everywhere in the middle of a Quickfire, and I made a good attempt to clean it up so that no one would hurt themselves (I think it was even caught on camera). Kitchen safety with Hung has been one of the main concerns for his fellow contestants, and while it was a timed competition, any responsible chef would take care of a precarious situation such as oil and broken glass on the floor.

It was great to see the excitement for all of the contestants when they received their plane tickets. Unlike the previous two seasons, there were no New York chefs still in the running. The Continental Airlines challenge was, well, challenging. This was one of their most difficult tests by far, and I had been working with the Continental staff for weeks in evaluating the rules, equipment, and standardized practices in preparing and serving airline food. We all have our horror stories with airline food, but that's why this was such a great challenge, and even through some failure, I thought all six of the contestants did a great job in trying to adapt to these circumstances in little to no time. From fitting the food into separate, height-restricted containers, to a required heating time of at least 10 minutes at 350°F in an unfamiliar heating vessel, it was a risky challenge.

Before I go any further, I would like to thank everyone at Continental Airlines, for doing what you do, with special thanks to Danny Cuellar, Chef Robin, Chef Gerry, and Chef Jimmy. I learned so much about airplane cuisine in a matter of days from working with them, and now have a hope and a dream to work with an airline someday in continuing to feed quality food to the masses at 35,000 feet. To see the Chelsea Food Services/Continental Catering Kitchen in action is a sight to behold. As a chef I now have a true understanding of what it takes to even serve snacks to customers on the thousands of flights that take place daily around the world (a whole lot of organization and coordination,,,). There are food safety regulations, in addition to the marketing/appeal considerations of dishes and menus. Is it healthy? Does it taste good? Is it the quality it should be?

I prepped the plane (which was awesome to stand next to, by the way) and sat on it the entire time the challenge was going on, clearing plates between courses. One rule that you all should know is that the contestants were not allowed to bring knives on the plane. Their entire meal had to be prepped to the point of heat, plate, and serve. They had to consider heating (with a 10 minute minimum), portion control (which Dale fell short on, and Brian may have had too much of), and ease of plating (each was allowed to choose a fellow contestant to help them plate 18 portions). Keep in mind that the galley spaces were extremely small. They were each given a standardized size of entree plate and side dish, which is probably why Brian's 12-ounce steaks seemed extremely generous.

I am glad the contestants understood the basics of the challenge when they chose their proteins, in going for higher fat contents and business/first class quality dishes. I tasted most of their dishes (with the exception of Dale's, which I had to recreate from memory for camera the next day due to his shortage.) Hung's dish was great; the fish was moist and had the added savory tang of the tomato ragout and the classic turned veggies. Casey's dish was delicious; the veal was tender with a lightly sweet compliment added by the apples and the creamy cheesiness of the cauliflower (I LOVE cauliflower and the gratin style was a nice choice, perfectly adapted for the rules and conditions of the challenge).

With the bottom three, not so great. Brian is such a talented chef, with this bigger than life personality/showmanship attached. I think at times he suffers from trying to overdo it. I boil/steam lobsters WHOLE for seven minutes to achieve a just-cooked doneness. I could not imagine precooking it and then sticking it in an oven for at least another 10 minutes (chopped up) -- it'd be rubber. In other words, leave the seafood alone, for once. Sara's couscous WAS an afterthought, admittedly. And yes, overcooked salmon is akin to cat food, and also the reason why I don't eat canned tuna fish.

Poor, poor CJ. It was funny because I had heard from field producers ahead of time how psyched he was to come to NY and then the sheer frustration and disappointment/hope of just wanting to get a NY slice of pizza. I think the first thing I asked him the next time I saw him after he was eliminated was if he ever got that slice (he did). Unfortunately, his mint sauce was yogurt-based and broke (fat separated from water leaving a not-so-appealing result) due to the 10-minute heat time, not to mention that the mint turned army green/brown in color. The broccolini was crispy like shoe leather indeed. Put Tom and Tony Bourdain in a room together with that broccolini...yikes.

So the big tree and his testicle fell down in the Top Chef forest with a hard thump (did anyone hear a sound?). I know many of you have responded somewhat negatively to CJ in the past few episodes, but don't forget $100,000 and much more is on the line. I am quite fond of CJ and his witty/smart-ass nature. Everyone's gotta throw someone under the bus at some point, and when it's down to less than half it becomes a difficult reality. At the end of the day, CJ's still got the skills, talent, and charm -- which is why we had originally cast him. (And he and Tre have that trip to Italy, so don't feel TOO bad for them).

I'm SO excited for next week's episode. Get ready for a stupid long blog.

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Hugh Acheson wonders about the health of the kids at Emerson College and debates the cost of roasting that much foie gras.

In this, the tenth episode of this 12th season, we open in the kitchen of the chefs super secret lair. Katusji has taken his wit, wisdom and wherewithal back to his Kosher Japanese Cal-Mex empire to work on a masa matzoh ball taco. He is described as "the most loveable dick in the entire world," which seems pretty on point. These remaining five seem saddened because Katsuji provided respite from the drudgery of competition. They mourn as well, because all understood, though it was never talked about, like a solemn vow, that they could all beat Katsuji in this cooking game. He was the San Diego Padres of Top Chef, the team that all the other competition knew would be an easy beat when the time came.

So the quintet of Mei, Gregory, Dougeeeee, Melissa and George remain. They are all have the stuff that could allow them to win the dough, but Mei and Gregory have really shown that if we must have hierarchy then they are the top two contenders.

Quickfire begins with Andy and his college roommate. Andy just told the roommate that those "games" they played late at night in their bunkbeds WILL be talked about in his next book, so Dave, you have some explaining to the wife and kids. Andy, we are told, is "known for his antics." That he is.

Andy exorts the contestants to hook up with each other and I immediately think of Dougie spooning with Georgie. I then have to wash my eyes out with steel wool and bleach to remove the image. This hurts and still the image remains.

Padma gets Andy back on task and she introduces the Quickfire. It is a collegiate showdown of ramen proportions but the catch is that they must use the contents of the fridge of some poor frosh. Out come the stoner, the nerd, the sorority girl, the lady who should have graduated in '05 and one other innocuous soul. Their fridge contents make me worry about a scurvy outbreak at Emerson College.

We are regaled with stories of the craziest things they all did in college. Melissa built a 24-story beer bong. I went to school in Montreal so my craziest times were hanging out at Biftek on St. Laurent and getting drunk playing pool. Oh wait, I DID THAT EVERY NIGHT until I dropped out of college. Luckily I had some cooking skillz.

Gregory concocts a bacon, Doritos, leftover pizza broth, and I am immediately worried about the future of our country. Dougie has made a Cobb salad ramen with a "coconut-pineapple" broth, and I start looking for my Canadian passport. George, who has no idea what ramen is, 'cause Mike Isabella has never let him out before, is cobbling together a version of SpaghettiOs 2.0s. It has a hint of hot dog, but so does Andy, so this may be well liked. Melissa is making a "Crunchy Carbonara Ramen" which is probably already dispensed out of a coin machine in Tokyo and actually sounds pretty tasty. There is hope. Mei makes a smoked tomato miso with upcycled sushi. Sounds okay, so I stow the passport back and the "go bag."

There is no immunity but the winner gets 5K. Not bad for fifteen minutes of work/fame. Bottoms are Mei and Dougie. Tops are Gregory and George with Melissa winning this murky challenge.

They go to the little room of stewage and watch Julia Child. Then Jacques Pepin stops by and everyone gasps in amazement. I do too because if you don’t love Pepin you are not a nice person. He da bomb.

The Elimination Challenge is to come up with a dish inspired from Julia's cooking. Three hours to cook and one hour to finish on site tomorrow. They chat with Jacques for a while to learn the secrets of Julia, other than the fact that she was totally a CIA spy.

Doug is silent because of where he comes from. Texas shrugs as he says, "I grew up in East Texas and here I am meeting Jacques Pepin." Then he follows this ode to the state of Texas with, "I am from Texas so I can't pronounce things very well." C'mon Doug, your state gave us that Rick Perry character! He's fun to watch!

Doug is insistent on making a whole roasted foie gras. George is braising some veal and presenting it with some vegetables and pommes puree. There is some French going on around here. Melissa is challenging herself with shortribs. Mei is making duck a l'orange but you know it will show off some of herself. You can't spell Mei without ME. Gregory is making Coq au Vin. Tom wanders in during cooking to advise them to channel Julia and then they all try to sound like Julia. None of them will ever be known for their impersonation abilities.

We eat. It's outside. It's beautiful. The diners, or the we, are Dana Cowin, Jacques, Alex Prudhomme (related to Julia), Tom, Padma, Boston chefs Barbara Lynch, Joanne Chang, Mary Dumont, and little old me. I am hungry so don't talk much.

The food is really good overall. There were some issues like drier ribs, monotonous veal, raw foie, and maybe some flabby duck skin, but pound-for-pound they did the dishes well. Tops are Gregory and Mei, and the verdict is an interesting one. Gregory nailed a classic, but it was like he channeled Julia too much and did a textbook version, while Mei nailed a riff on a dish with her duck a l'orange. It is arbitrary who should win but Mei pulls it off and wins a just decision.

Not so arbitrary but still close is the bottom trio of Melissa, George, and Doug. Melissa erred in rib cookery. George cooked stunning veg but it was the veal that was a yawn. Alas, Doug bows out with his dish, a dish that he had never done but dreamed about. You don't just do roasted whole lobes of foie at the restaurant you work at, cause the owner chef would probably stab you if you ruined the 300 bucks in product. But this is TV money so he took a chance. The problem is that cooking whole foie is tricky. You can''t sear it too much or you will render away the beauty, and then you need to temper-roast it in a medium heat oven. Then it comes out and you rest it on a wire rack. It is pretty much served just warm. He did all of those steps, but over-seared it and then cooked it a hair hot, and not long enough, resultingin a greasy, yet raw internal. Funny thing is that the rest of the stuff on the plate was awesome. Well Doug, you were a favorite of ours and I wish you much success in Last Chance Kitchen.

And now we are four. Until next time.

For a good time, follow me on Twitter @hughacheson

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