Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

A Matter Of Consistency

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

A Matter Of Consistency

Tom on the so-called worst dish in Top Chef history.

The day I accumulated enough miles to graduate to business/first class was a cause for celebration - no more yogic contortions in cramped seats, no more neck strain from watching movies on high hung communal screens, no more dismal airplane meals... I learned that in first class the seats were indeed better, but the food was still a disappointment. Oh well, I figured. I'm three-quarters of the way to flat; at least I'll catch upon my sleep.

In recent years, though, I've seen a real effort (at least in first class) to turn airline food around, especially on international flights, where airlines have enlisted well-known chefs to lend a hand. Here and there I've actually experienced greatness, like the time my friend and colleague Neal Perry flew me to Sydney on Qantas to cook for a charity fundraiser at his restaurant Rockpool, and sample the first class airline menu he'd created along the way. All I remember from the meal was a luscious piece of Tasmanian sea bass poached in a light herb broth with olive oil, but the fact that any dish from my flight stands out as terrific (and I don't just mean terrific for airline food,) was actually shocking, and laid to rest for me the myth that food can't be good on a plane.
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From what I can see, there are a couple things that came into play in this challenge. The first, and I said it in tonight's episode, is if you put good food into the box, you'll get good food out. Incidentally, this rule also applies to stocks, stews, kid food, and all other things that people assume will somehow miraculously turn out fine even in the absence of high quality ingredients. So, the need for good ingredients was a given.

Second, was the need to winnow those ingredients down to fit the parameters of cooking on a plane. Everything was going into a tiny convection oven for a minimum of ten minutes. Whatever item the chefs chose was going to have to be something that was actually improved by this rapid blast of dry heat. There would be no room for gentle basting, a slow simmer, or coaxing out flavor with handfuls of fresh herbs. The skill here was going to be in choosing what to cook, and then executing with precision, since all the proteins and vegetables would need to be prepped so that everything cooked at the same rate. Thus, both the consistency of the food itself (i.e. an oily fish, versus a drier, flaky one) and the consistency of the prep work were important factors.
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Without question Casey's veal and Hung's Chilean sea bass were the standouts for both of those reasons. I'm not a big fan of Chilean sea bass, but in this context, it was the perfect choice; a fish with a moist, oily flesh that is virtually impossible to overcook. The accompanying vegetables were light and flavorful, and worked well with the overall dish.

Casey's veal was also a great choice. Veal is moist and dense, and actually benefits from being cooked to medium, as opposed to medium rare, which gave Casey a more forgiving window. She seared the meat off beautifully ahead of time in the Continental kitchen, and used the cook time onboard to bring the veal to temperature. Casey's decision to prepare a cauliflower gratin alongside was also smart - the gooey, melted cheese made the cauliflower flavorful yet comforting, and kept the dish from drying out.

I wish I could say the same about the other entrees. Sara ran into major problems with her fennel and coriander salmon. Salmon is a fairly oily fish, but Sara's portions were of varying thickness, which meant that a few were way overcooked and sadly for her, those portions found their way over to Tony and me. Bourdain called it 'cat food' (the man lives for those snarky sound bytes) which, once I stopped laughing, I found a bit harsh. Compared to Sara's usual sure-handed touch, this dish was definitely a disappointment, and the dry flavorless couscous she served on the side didn't help.
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Brian's NY strip steak was unwieldy; I'm all for large portions, but this felt like the big steaks Grandma serves in Napolean Dynamite - huge hunks of meat that lacked the finesse one expects in first class. But Brian's real problem was his bizarre purple Peruvian lobster hash. The lobster was overcooked into rubbery little nuggets and the dish just plain didn't work. Despite getting shaker-happy with the pepper, Dale's steak and shrimp surf 'n turf was tasty. His big error was that he miscounted his portions, and came up short, leaving one hapless unfed passenger. The guy was cool about it (it probably helped that he was a real-life flight attendant), but I can promise you the actual jilted first-class passenger would've raised hell. Noisy, pissed-off, write-a-letter-to-Corporate hell.
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CJ's pan-seared halibut on toasted faro was overcooked. But his side dish of roasted broccolini with breadcrumbs and a mint vinaigrette carries the distinction of being my single least favorite dish in three seasons of Top Chef. I'm actually baffled as to how CJ achieved this with such innocuous ingredients. My wife was mystified at my reaction: 'So he overcooked it,' she kept saying, 'Big deal.' My only answer is that it had to be experienced to be understood; The oven's dry heat somehow turned the blanched broccolini into musty, desiccated swamp vegetables punctuated by a bracing, medicinal slap of warm mint. I can say for a fact, without even having stepped into that galley, that there is no way CJ tasted that dish before he sent it out, as even the most novice chef is taught to do. In tonight's challenge, this dish put us over the edge and sent CJ home. I can hear the outrage brewing among our loyal viewers and message board habitues even as I type...But wait! You're thinking. CJ's broccolini may have sucked, but Dale left off a dish! He came up short! When Dave did that in Season One you sent him packing! Clearly you guys are a bunch of inconsistent namby pamby producer pawns that can't make up your minds from season to season and challenge to challenge.
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The important thing to realize here is that as judges we absolutely strive for consistency, but the context changes with each and every challenge, thus subtly altering the debate. We don't say to ourselves, "Aha, Selves! The rule is that leaving a dish off means automatic disqualification!" We say, "In this case, leaving the dish off overshadowed the other factors." In an episode of Season One we argued whether it was worse to leave off a major part of a dish or serve something so bad it was practically inedible. In that particular case, inedible was worse.

This never comes up when there's a clear winner or clear loser to a challenge. It's when the results are close that other factors come into play - two dishes are neck to neck, so we ask ourselves who stepped up? Who played it safe? Who forgot something, vs. who forged forward with a bad dish? It is simply impossible for us to cleave to some strictly defined criteria when the context shifts - sometimes in subtle ways - from challenge to challenge. Did we discuss that Tre had stepping up and taken leadership? You bet we did. But in the same breath we all had to agree, he f**ked it up. The food he served was terrible. We didn't send him home for sticking his neck out, we sent him home for doing a bad job.

And when we're debating, we rarely stop to think about how it will seem once edited into a scant three minutes (or frankly, what will contribute to the episode's drama - an impossible abstraction at that stage of the game.) We're usually too focused on the food, and we assume the gist of our long debates will make it into the episode. Often it does. But when some of it doesn't (and to be fair, the editors are charged with reducing hours of debate down accurately AND creating enough nail-biting drama to keep you from clicking over to Pimp My Ride) it makes the judging seem inconsistent and hence, unfair. I get it. I really do.

And herein lies the central maddening reality of reality TV. A typical judge's table debate lasts for about two hours, and sometimes much longer. Trust me when I say you don't want to watch it in real time - it's edited for a good reason. But in the editing, some information, some key factors or trains of thoughts, by necessity are left out. When Mia chose to pull herself out of the competition in Season Two, we let her go. We told Howie the same thing in last week's episode - you can leave, dude, but the decision of who goes home isn't yours to make. When he realized that martyring himself wasn't necessarily going to spare one of his colleagues, he opted to stay. Sadly, when the editors make their choices, many of these details lose out to the overriding narrative thrust a one-hour program demands. I'm not going to lie, it bothers me too. But I don't see a way around it other than, say, writing a blog after the hatchet job is done.

Best of luck to you, C.J. You're a great guy, with a towering sense of humor to match your height. You will be missed.

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

But she did have some problems with Katsuji's ode to Stephen King.

Bravotv.com: Interesting challenge this week with the chefs taking on some iconic literary works.
Gail Simmons: Obviously, there is a lot of great literature that comes from New England. What I liked most about the challenge was how different all the authors were. I also loved that it forced the chefs to do something a little cerebral and not as literal. It forced them to get out of their own heads, get out of the kitchen, to take inspiration from something completely outside of the food world, which I think is important.

 

Overall, the food was excellent. We’re at the point of competition when there are six incredible chefs left and not a weak link among them. We started with 16, so this is when everything turns. It gets super challenging, and the chefs really have to push themselves to prove their worth. We start to nitpick because the food gets really good. This is my favorite part in the competition because we eat really well, and our job gets more challenging. It's not easy to sift out the weaker dishes from the stronger dishes any more.

This is my favorite part in the competition because we eat really well, and our job gets more challenging.

Gail Simmons

 

I loved how so many of the chefs took inspiration in such an inspiring and innovative way. They really tried to get in the heads of their authors and show us an interpretation of a literary work on the plate. Some were more successful than others for sure, both in the translations as well as in the flavors of their food. At the end of the day, it could be the most beautiful plate of food interpreted in the most magical way, but if it doesn’t taste good and it doesn’t come together when you eat it, then it's not worth its weight.

 

All the food tasted absolutely delicious that day. There was nothing that didn't work in terms of the dishes in and of themselves. There were no major mistakes. There was slight overcooking on Gregory's meat, slight thickness in Katsuji's sauce. There were certainly a few people we thought needed to work on their interpretation though.

 

I do remember that if George hadn't had had immunity, he might have very well gone home that night. He did a beautiful fish dish for Dr. Seuss' One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, but it was so fussy and formal. The only thing that it really had to do with Dr. Seuss was that there were red peppers, blue potatoes, and fish. If you’re going to show me one of Dr. Seuss' greatest works, show us an absurd, witty, upside-down, topsy-turvy world on a plate. It was a chance for him to really reach, to branch out into something crazy and whimsical and silly and fun. His fish was none of those things. It was lovely, but I felt like I had to eat it in a quiet room all alone, which is not what Dr. Seuss would have wanted. But he had immunity so that’s that.

 

Gregory's explanation of The Raven was an interesting one. I liked that he used the Cornish hens. The food all tasted absolutely excellent. The crispy nori that he put with it tied things together well -- a little sea, a little earthy flavor with the beets. It was a well thought out dish on its own, but he didn't dig deep enough into his interpretation. Just having a small piece of chicken doesn't really do it for me to signify the depth of the story and the importance of the raven as a symbol in Edgar Allan Poe's work. And Chef Tony Maws piece of beef was clearly overcooked. So, as much as it was a pretty plate and a delicious plate to eat, we all wanted it to say more. It seemed like a superficial interpretation. Do something with the raven! Show us something stark, something dark -- not just a little square of grilled hen beside a piece of steak.

 

Melissa, Doug, and Mei all did a great job. Melissa’s Nathaniel Hawthorne -inspired halibut was cooked absolutely perfectly. This lovely mushroom broth showed that she spent a lot of effort and time on her vegetables, which she always does. The last couple of challenges she served us light, beautiful plates, but we wanted something with more depth. We wanted something that does more than just shows us that she knows how to cut and roast vegetables. Here, that skill was perfectly situated in balance with the seared halibut. Her vegetables were placed in such a beautiful little garden. The charred corn and mushroom broth took us from a light springy dish into something a little deeper and richer, just enough that we understood what she was trying to say. This was the best effort I've seen from Melissa in several challenges. I was really impressed by the beauty and the simplicity of her food. I think it really spoke to her author and her literary work, and the agrarian life in the story she was presenting.

 

You could tell that Dougie worked really hard to coax flavor out of his carrots, and cumin, orange, and radish, all complimented each other so peacefully in his "Sunshine in a Cup." It came to the table and really was a ray of sunshine. It was a long day on set for us, and at the end of it getting this gorgeous bowl of simple but gracefully made carrot soup showed how thoughtful he was. There was so much flavor to it. He literally poured his heart into this soup and that's exactly what Emily Dickinson would have done.

 

But Mei was our winner! I think this was an example of a challenge executed perfectly. They all made great dishes, but hers was just one step above the rest. Her dish was so well-conceived: All these immaculately roasted vegetables, with a pile of snow on top to signify winter on Walden Pond, for Henry David Thoreau's iconic work. The snow technique itself can feel like a gimmick, but in this case it wasn't at all. It had so much flavor. It was Tom Kha snow! It tasted of lemongrass and fish sauce and so it gave an otherwise simple dish this incredible intensity. It woke you right up and it made you take notice of the gorgeous vegetables she cooked, which I think is so much the point of Walden, understanding the rhythm of nature, the seasons and the time that Henry David Thoreau spent observing them in solitude. This dish was one of the best I'd eaten all season long.

 

Sadly Katsuji's Stephen King dish, while full of great ideas, didn't come together in the way that we hoped. We liked that it was messy. We had no problem with his display of "blood." I liked the idea that he did a short rib as the mother and a piece of veal as the child for Carrie. The white beans and chorizo, the ham -- all these flavors go together well enough. But his beet puree was very thick and clumpy, it didn't quite have the texture we wanted to compliment the other components, and to symbolize the pig's blood in the story. Not that he had to be so literal with this, because I wanted them to be abstract and get in the mind of the authors that they were representing, but the fact that he didn't use pig in some way here seemed to miss the mark. He used ham and chorizo but, pig's blood -- there's so much you can do there! It's such an iconic moment in storytelling, when Carrie had pig's blood poured over her. I liked that he used hot sauce as her rage, but again, it all just needed to be a little more cohesive. It felt a bit scattered -- and not in the way that Carrie would have felt scattered. In the way that his idea didn’t coalesce. Bottom line: we wanted the sum to be more than its parts. It didn't add up to a cohesive dish.

 

 

Katsuji is such a bright charismatic guy. He has so many great ideas. He has great personality and he's a talented chef. He's irresistible! And he's got Last Chance Kitchen to try and fight his way back.

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