Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Anthony Bourdain: Guest Blogger

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

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

Anthony Bourdain: Guest Blogger

Anthony Bourdain on Hung's talent, Camille's exit, and why foam is dead.

As an occasional guest judge, I should remind readers up front that when judging, we don't get to see the backstage drama. We don't know the back-stories and personal histories and are unaware of any personality conflicts -- until we see them on the finished, edited show. The day of competition, the contestants could be giving each other long, lingering back rubs, huddling together devoutly in joint prayer -- or they could be back there menacing each other with jailhouse shanks -- and I wouldn't know it until I saw it on TV, like everybody else.

So I thought it wisest and best, given the privilege of filling in for my honorable colleague Tom Colicchio, that I give you my take on the latest episode of "Top Chef," not as a judge...but as a regular viewer, as a fan, and as someone who was a chef and employer of cooks for nearly three decades; from the point of view of someone who has had to run a working kitchen, maintain standards and consistency, keep customers happy -- as well as keep a crew of usually marginal personalities from becoming a danger to themselves or others -- and as someone who sat down on their couch Wednesday night, cracked open a beer and watched the show like everybody else; this is what this week's episode looked like to me:
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First off: Kudos to the Shrimp Team, Brian, Lia and Hung. Shrimp: Great choice of ingredient. It's local. It's indigenous to the South Florida area -- most importantly? It's not freaking FILET MIGNON for Chrissakes! Few pieces of meat are easier to cook, have less flavor or textural features or are less interesting to chefs than filet mignon. It's a lazy, safe and not very creative choice. If you're hoping only to dodge the bullet (or fly beneath the radar) it's a smart move but you ain't dazzling Colicchio (of a little operation called Craft STEAK) by managing to properly sear filet. Tom could train a chimp to do that -- and likely has. Many times.

And TUNA. Is there a menu anywhere in America that DOESN'T feature "tuna tartare"? The words "Seared" and "Tuna" -- if googled -- likely pop up as frequently as "Paris" and Hilton." Another lazy and pedestrian choice. In retrospect, the team should have stuck with Howie's suggestion of duck -- a relatively inexpensive, amazingly versatile ingredient made for a three-way challenge. Tuna, on the other hand, almost invariably inspires "M.E.G.O. Syndrome" (My Eyes Glaze Over). Now, I would have understood if Casey (having immunity from the Quickfire) deliberately went in the tank with a truly appalling looking tartare as a strategic move; expecting (not unreasonably) that at least one of her teammates, the Brothers Blockhead, would crash, burn or shove the other into a Frialator, but apparently not. I do admire that she stood up in front of the judges and offered to take the hit.
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Speaking of the Brothers Blockhead: I have a grudging respect for Howie. I truly enjoyed how -- when I was a judge -- he threw my own words back at me, taking responsibility for his own actions, but standing on principle. He's a tough, obstinate little bastard. He takes his beatings like a man, without passing the buck or making excuses, but seems not to play well with others. Not that ANYONE could play with Joey. Joey comes off like a walking laundry list of "Things Chefs Don't Want In An Employee." Whiner. Crybaby. Blames Others. Persecution Complex. Confrontational. What Bill Buford, in his excellent book, "Heat" came to recognize as a "dickhead". It's a good thing the judges don't see the backstage melodrama. Most chefs I know get wood from kicking guys like that to the curb.
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Poor Dale. The SAS motto is "He Who Dares Wins." Well...not in this case. It was a bold move, picking dessert. He took a chance...and got burned. Or rather Camille did. Her "pineapple upside down cake" being the worst of a bad lot, she got the chop. Still, you've got to admire Dale (or I do anyway) for a) taking a chance, thereby erring on the side of creativity and b) taking responsibility: assuming guilt when a teammate took it in the neck as a result. These are good qualities in a chef. You take responsibility for a bad decision. You learn from it. Then you move on. Best of all -- you manage to survive.
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Hung, Hung, Hung. Clearly one of the most talented, fearless and creative of the lot. Shrimp was a wise, ballsy choice of ingredient -- and his team worked the way a kitchen should. I just don't understand why he feels compelled to play the bad guy. He need only look at his buddy Astro Boy from Season Two to see that talent is often not enough. Survival requires a measure of WISDOM. For a guy with technique as good as his -- as fast on his feet, as versatile and creative as he is -- he's not winning these challenges as often as he should. A little humility; a willingness to accommodate what people are likely to enjoy and appreciate, instead of pursuing that which honors only his own perceived genius, would be a good adjustment. It may have been good foam. But it was still foam. Get over it. Chances are, any experienced judge on "Top Chef" has been awash in foam, drowned in it and become bored by it for years. It's OVER. It's become a bad joke. A trope. A cliche. And it's very appearance on a dish, at this point, is likely to count as a point against when facing such jaded palates.
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Hung is a better cook I think, and much more versatile, and much less slavishly attached to the Church of Adria (1999 edition) than his wolverine-haired predecessor. But he need only look at the simple yet refined charms of the winning dish, his teammate Lia's olive oil poached shrimp (exactly the sort of dish that Ferran Adria likes to eat when off duty, by the way) to see a potentially fruitful avenue towards victory. Just the same -- from this episode, Hung still looks like the guy to beat. Of this talented and diverse group, the most likely candidate to beat Hung...is Hung. -- Anthony Bourdain

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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