Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Anthony Bourdain: Chef Is A Four-letter Word

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

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

Anthony Bourdain: Chef Is A Four-letter Word

Bourdain on Rocco DiSpirito, bad rice, and why you gotta love Howie.

This week, Chef Anthony Bourdain continues his guest-blogging stint, filling in for Chef Colicchio:

What is a "chef"? A chef is a cook who leads. A chef is someone who knows how to cook and who can also run a kitchen. Leadership skills are required. Management skills. The ability to execute a vision with consistency. Doing these things means that you are constantly making decisions large and small. The ability to make a brilliant, creatively-dazzling and delicious plate of food is near worthless if you can't do it again and again--exactly the same way--at high speed, under the gun, hung over, after a night of fierce Negroni drinking...while listening to Mexican thrash metal. And you can't do it alone.
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So this week's challenges were illustrative of not just the real strengths--and serious weaknesses--of the contestants, but of the general principles of good decision making--the ability to make mistakes, learn from them, and make corrections.

Lia, last week's winner and a very strong cook from a great restaurant, showed us the terrible potential cost of a bad decision. The challenge was to cook for the cast of the Latino soap, "Dame Chocolate". Latinos, many of whom, presumably, have been working far from home for some time. The implied challenge was to cook food that would bring them right BACK home. Authentic flavors and ingredients, or at least flavors and ingredients that would evoke home, connect them in a powerful way with their culture and their culinary history. This was not a challenge. This was an OPPORTUNITY. There are few weapons more powerful in the chef's armory than the ability to make people homesick in wonderful ways. NOTHING brings people back to their childhood, to their family, to earlier, happier, simpler times than the senses of smell and taste (other than music).

One need only see the "Anton Ego-Ratatouille Epiphany" in Ratatouille to understand (as all good chefs do) how happy you can make people with a few simple, familiar flavors. An animated rat got this. Lia, temporarily, forgot. This was no time to start getting too creative, adding one's own spin, or dicking around with trout and polenta.
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When looking for examples of GOOD decision making, one need look no further than at the resurgent tag team of Howie and Joey. In a shocking reversal of fortune, the much-maligned (by me) Joey stepped up and got it just right. Like a boxer, waking from too many punch-drunk early rounds, he finally saw his opportunity, identified his target, and executed flawlessly. I suspect I have underestimated the man. And may I say that he was much more likable in this episode. There is -- I think--plenty of good reason for Joey and Howie to get along--this act has legs. They're freakin' adorable together--an even more dysfunctional Martin and Lewis. They play their cards right, there's a long television career in keeping this double act together.
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Who, of all people, AGAIN demonstrated the finest in chiefly qualities? What unlikely journeyman once again stepped up and out of his weight class to show the more gifted (but less mature) how it's done? What's REALLY important? Tenacious Bulldog Howie!

You GOT to love this guy. He repeatedly has time issues. He's clearly no bundle of fun. He's as serious as a bad chest X-ray. He looks like a fireplug. But I gotta tell you, when he cracked a big, much-deserved grin in the winner's circle, I smiled along with him and might have even pumped a fist in the air and shouted "YES!" Alone among the contestants, Howie shows extraordinary analytical prowess. He has the ability see things as they are and to accept the reality of the situation. He owns his mistakes. He learns from them. In this Elimination Challenge, he analyzed the situation and his audience, and made some basic decisions. When his prep time was cut drastically, he made a VERY hard choice (to stick with his original decision), stayed the course – while making minor adjustments – and executed. More impressive, he recognized what was great about Joey's dish. He may not like his frequent adversary. He may be in competition with him. But these factors did not prevent him from seeing things as they were--that Joey's was the better dish – and saying so.
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A realistic assessment of the situation is exactly what Howie's good at--and what talented but increasingly delusional Hung seems utterly incapable of. When a pastry chef of MANY more years experience practicing their trade than you've got out of diapers tells you your chocolate mousse is crap? It's crap. When you've got to resort to the transparently desperate measure of lining your saggy-ass wedge of chocolate tart with strawberry slices (to keep it from leaking all over the table like baby puke)? It doesn't MATTER if you think "the flavors are there". "Flavor" counts for very little in a competition for "Top Chef" if your dish looks like something you'd find circling the bowl after a whiskey binge. Hung's look of utter incredulity and contempt when being advised of his deficiencies, his seeming total inability to receive or accept or understand criticism is dismaying. It seems almost...pathological.

His racing around the kitchen like a methedrine-jacked lab rat (for Arroz Con Pollo, no less!), knife out, is the sort of thing a first-year culinary student does. His dishes are often inspired, his skills unquestionably there in abundance, but he seems incapable of the economy of movement that all professionals learn EARLY, and which even Martha Stewart has in spades. And when the majority of your Latino guests, all the judges, and Tom Colicchio in particular agree that your RICE blows? That's not anybody's "personal opinion". It's a fact.


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As a final tip, I'd advise Hung in particular to be cautious next week. Do NOT underestimate guest judge Rocco DiSpirito. It's easy to be dismissive of Rocco's limelight-loving ways, or to have been appalled (as I was) by the horrifying circus of bathos that was his reality series. And he DOES have that curious Nicole Kidman "shock and awe" expression on his face these days; but Rocco--when he wanted to-- could COOK. Brilliantly. Even his detractors (like me) know that. He's a truly gifted cook with a great palate. In a head-to-head competition with Hung? (Similar cooking styles.) He could cook him under the table with one hand tied--on roller skates. If HE tells you your Arroz Con Pollo sucks? It's time to take a long look into that cold, cruel merciless mirror.

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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