Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Air Up There

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

The Air Up There

Tom Colicchio on why Hung came out on top over Casey and Dale.

So here we are, ladies and gentlemen. The final moment. And what a moment it was.

We made a few changes off the bat to our usual finale format. For one, we decided each chef's courses would be served side by side for easy comparison, rather than consecutively. I thought this was a good idea -- eating three meals, one after the other, is long and arduous, transforming something that should be exciting into an onerous marathon. It also felt fairer -- this way the judges would be at equal stages of hunger and satiety as we approached each chef's food. Second, we invited Brian to sit in at our tasting. This was less of a policy change, and more because the poor guy was stranded for at least another day in Aspen. Inviting him to join us seemed like the right thing to do.


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Third, we invited three celebrity chefs to serve as our competitors' sous-chefs on their important first day of prep. This lent them an advantage (flawless prep skills from a consummate professional) but also freaked them out. Two months ago, Casey, Hung, and Dale would have been intimidated just to meet Rocco DiSpirito, Todd English, and Michelle Bernstein; now they had to lay bare their menus to these three, try not to hyper-analyze their every expression (Was that a raised eyebrow? A flinch?) and then straddle the awkward line between authoritative leader and fawning disciple. Not as easy as you would think.

The rules were clear; Rocco, Michelle and Todd were not allowed to make suggestions or provide ideas. They were there to do the grunt work involved in prepping for a great meal, and that's what they did. I could tell they enjoyed themselves; when a cook calls in sick, I occasionally jump onto the line and work shoulder to shoulder with my cooks. I get a lot of satisfaction from the physical mechanics of cooking -- the feel of the knife handle, the sound of food hitting the pan -- and it feels good occasionally to get to abdicate the creative role and simply work. Whenever I do it, I leave exhausted at the end of the night, but somehow refreshed.
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Dale, Casey, and Hung were presented with an incredible array of fresh seasonal produce, fish and meat, from which to create their menu. Right off the bat, I was happy to see our finalists reaching in and tasting. It might seem odd to our audience to see chefs tasting the raw ingredients, but these three are experienced enough to know that just because something looks good, doesn't mean it tastes good. Sadly, none of them were fully prepared for the effects of altitude on their cooking; at higher altitudes, the drop in air pressure causes water and other liquids to boil at lower temperatures. Food can take longer to cook because they are actually cooking at a "lower" temperature than it would appear. This also becomes a factor in baked goods (which can rise too quickly due to the lower pressure) or searing. Watching these three make the necessary adjustments confirmed for me that we were dealing with three real chefs.

As if the air up there wasn't challenge enough, on Day Two we informed the chefs they would be responsible for a fourth, spur-of-the moment course. Now the chefs were clearly in need of a second pair of hands, and they got them when Howie, C.J., and Sara returned to serve as sous-chefs. I was gratified to see all three of the runners-up (as I'll call them) dive in with grace and energy. One thing that has distinguished this season's chefs is their overall professionalism and character. Despite the occasional friction between personalities, these chefs have shown themselves to take food and cooking seriously. They weren't willing to blow it -- and demean themselves -- with shenanigans like heavy drinking or late night hazing, and I was grateful for it.


On to the food: Since we tasted each dish side by side, I'll break it down that way for you. Hung began with a sophisticated twist on "fish and chips" -- a thin slice of raw hamachi with fingerling potatoes and tomato olive oil vinaigrette. The flavors were clean and harmonious, and the dish beautifully plated. A minor quibble was that it could have used a touch of acid to balance the rich, buttery fish, but overall its absence didn't seriously compromise the dish. Dale gave us a foie gras mousse with raw beets and peaches, in a grastrique of ras el hanout (a Moroccan spice mixture rumored to contain Spanish fly). The flavors on the dish were good, but the mousse was heavy and there was a lot of it, without a textural component to eat it with -- even simple toast points would have worked. Casey's first course, a scallop and foie gras duet, was plated beautifully, but the strong, fishy flavor of the salmon roe overpowered the delicate sweetness of the cinnamon-scented scallop, and did absolutely nothing for the foie gras. First round: Hung.

Hung's second course was shrimp with palm sugar and cucumber salad, finished with coconut foam. I found it imaginative and well-prepared, and the coconut lent the dish a jolt of quirky personality. Dale's second dish was a perfectly seared scallop with purslane, grapes, and a playful sprinkling of freeze-dried sweet corn. It was lick-the-plate delicious -- the best dish in the meal to that point, and all the more impressive for being Dale's unplanned, pull-it-from-thin-air surprise course. Casey's second course was a sake-poached jumbo prawn on a crispy rice cake with a yuzu and lobster mushroom broth. The dish felt busy -- it was hard to know where to focus our attention -- and once again Casey topped the dish with a daub of caviar. This surprised me -- sure, she used a different type of roe than in the previous course, but by "finishing" both dishes with a dollop of fish eggs, she was repeating herself, and not to good effect. Round two: Dale.
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For his third course Hung gave us a duck sous vide with a mushroom ragout and truffle sauce. The duck was a subtle but unmistakable nod to his Asian roots, and the flavors were terrific. Balanced. Nuanced. Harmonious. When Todd described the dish as 3-star Michelin quality, I had to agree. To my mind, this dish was up there on my personal Best-of-Top Chef list along with Tiffany's incredible artichoke risotto from Season One.

After his scallop dish, Dale's lobster with basil gnocchi, mushrooms, corn and curry jus was a big disappointment. The lobster was overcooked and the gnocchi were leaden and clunky. Worst of all, the curry overpowered all the other flavors on the plate, making the dish disappointingly one-note. Casey gave us a crispy pork belly with pea shoots, roasted peach, and cardamom creme fraiche. The pork was woefully overcooked; Casey would have been much better off slowly braising the pork belly whole the day before (rather than in individual portions) and then allowing it to cool overnight in its liquid, so the juices could reabsorb. The next day she could have cut the cold pork into portions and then slowly brought it up to temperature before serving. During my kitchen walk-through earlier that day, I noticed that Casey had the pork belly in the oven way ahead of time. Now, as you all know, I'm not allowed to offer advice, and frankly, this is the hardest part of the job -- it goes against all my training and instinct. Instead, I ask the chefs leading questions -- how long is the pork belly going to be in the oven? -- and hope the they pick up on what I'm saying. Casey was too busy and flustered to pick up on my meta-meaning, and sadly decimated the pork belly. Third round: Hung.

Dale's fourth course was as good as it gets. When the altitude kept his lamb from searing, he made a quick and brilliant adjustment, and poached it in duck fat instead. He served the lamb with a deconstructed "ratatouille" of white anchovies, eggplant, garlic, and cherry tomatoes. Somehow, the flavors were unexpected yet beautifully inevitable, as though they were meant to go together. The judges were delighted to know that Dale had never made the dish before -- it was a first for him, and demonstrated imagination and sure-handed technique. A slam dunk. Casey's fourth "surprise" course was a seared sirloin with potatoes, chanterelle mushrooms, ruby chard, and parsley puree. Altogether a good dish, and the best one Casey served us that day, but the flavors paled next to Dale's more adventurous lamb. Hung gave us a chocolate cake with raspberries, which was also his "surprise" course, and while there was absolutely nothing wrong with the cake, after the excitement and inventiveness of his three earlier course, it seemed humdrum. Fourth course went to Dale.
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So here we were -- Dale and Hung were neck and neck with two courses apiece. And where did that leave Casey? Sadly Casey's cooking in this final, arduous round wasn't up to the level of the food that had made her such a serious contender in recent weeks. Casey is a methodical chef, a serious planner who works out every detail of her menu -- flavor, textures and colors -- ahead of time with pencil and paper. If we had given the chefs four hours to plan, Casey just may have come out on top. The circumstances, however, called for more spontaneity, which just isn't Casey's strong suit. The judges now were faced with deciding between Dale and Hung. And with two wins apiece, we took a closer look at their worst dishes. Frankly, Hung's "worst" dish (if you could call it that) wasn't bad at all, it was merely safe. Dale's worst dish was fairly disastrous (one bite was my limit) revealing Dale's potential for inconsistency. And so, we gave the win to Hung. And there you have it.

Many young cooks see their training as a chance to step away from their background, and proceed, tabula rasa, towards the culinary ideals they've worshiped from afar. In doing so, they may earn marks for proficiency, but can often leave important elements of themselves out of the picture. I know this, because I did it myself. I grew up in a working-class Italian family where it seemed as though every adult -- my folks, their parents, all the aunts and uncles -- could cook. I witnessed their approach to food, the knowledge they had inherited by watching their own parents and grandparents, dating back to the old country. Once I started out to be a chef, I worked hard to teach myself classic French technique and completed two stages (work-as-you-learn stints) in celebrated French kitchens.

Voila! I now cooked French food. But gradually, as I set out to establish my identity as a chef, my background crept in, almost despite itself. Eventually I came to see this as a good thing. It made my food more storied and nuanced. It made it more me. Once I allowed my family's influences in, it opened the door to allowing all of my experiences -- especially travel -- to impact the creative process: Two culinary trips to Japan opened my eyes to an extraordinary palate of raw fish and (who knew?) hand-crafted tofu. A trip to the north of Spain, where I inhaled plates of Catalonian squid and rice with cuttlefish ink, inspired a dish of cuttlefish-ink ravioli. I got married on a sheep farm on Martha's Vineyard and fell in love all over again with lamb. A dish of roasted cod was bolstered by a whip of salt-cod, inspired by my Grandmother's incredible baccalà. In other words, my background, my life experience -- even my day-to-day -- seems to find its way into my food, and I think my cooking is better for it.

Hung is a striver with an enormous, palpable passion for food. He has absorbed the lessons of classic technique and gleefully brought them to the plate throughout the weeks of competition. And while his cooking experience was clearly evident, until now the rest of his experiences were not. Hung comes from an ancient and impressive culinary tradition. He grew up surrounded by hardworking cooks, and it is impossible for me to believe it was all wiped clean by classical training. When I spoke to Hung at the Judges' Table last week, I wasn't asking him to start serving up pho or bahn canh in a clay pot. But I did want the depth of his family's heritage and his own unique, quirky personality to emerge on the plate. For lack of a better word, I called it soul. And the good news is, Hung was listening. He himself knows the difference between an excellent technical cook, and a great chef. He reveres masters like Tabla's Floyd Cardoz -- whose classic Les Roches training in Switzerland marries seamlessly with his Bombay roots, or the great Daniel Boulud, whose rustic Lyonnaise childhood shows itself throughout his elegant menu -- considered the epitome of New York haute cuisine. No one would ever accuse Daniel of cooking without soul. Hung got it, and I hope this final challenge was a turning point for him as a chef -- the time and place where Hung finally gave himself permission to bring himself into his food.

And what of Casey and Dale? I'm not exaggerating when I say that Dale was glowing after the show. He may not have won the title, but he gained something infinitely more important -- a renewed sense of himself as a chef. After retreating into a bleak place for a year and a half, Dale showed us, and himself, that he has what it takes to transcend the pitfalls of this mercurial business. Dale is back, and watch out, world. And Casey ... I can honestly say that the supportive vibe among this season's chefs was largely a function of Casey's own warmth and humanity. It elevated the entire competition. She is a person of true talent, kindness, and integrity. That we judged her harshly tonight was evidence that we respected her enough to assess her on her cooking, and her cooking alone. Hung didn't win as many friends this season because, contrary to the tired stereotype, he refused to play it meek and soft-pedal his own gifts. He was unabashedly vocal about his desire to win. And frankly, it's only when a young, talented cook like Hung looks around and sees that the air "up there" on the A-list is no more sanctified than anywhere else -- that with hard work and passion, they have every bit as much right to success as any celebrity chef -- that they have a real shot at it.

Hung believes this about himself, and therefore so do I. Thanks for watching and, as always, for writing in. Tom.

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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