Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Air Up There

Gail: Mei's Menu Was Almost Flawless

Make Top Chef Mei Lin's Winning Dessert!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Make Mei's Sushi Style Guac!

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

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

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.


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.

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.

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.

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: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Gail dishes on Doug Adams' flawless return to the competition and why Melissa King's dish failed to hit the right artistic note. This week we had the Last Chance Kitchen finale between George and Doug, and Doug ended up returning to the competition.

Gail Simmons: It looked like a really close battle -- Tom was really happy with both of their dishes. I will say if I had to put money on it, I would have guessed it would be between George and Doug at the end. They really are two of our stronger competitors. Obviously George was just coming off of his elimination, and it didn't surprise me that Doug stayed at the top of Last Chance Kitchen since being eliminated. I was thrilled to see him in Mexico with us. Great! So he comes back, he wins and then onto the Quickfire Challenge. Any thoughts on this part of the competition?

GS: I'll just say that I’m a big, big fan of Chef Olvera, and I’m so glad we were able to get him on the show. His main restaurant, Pujol, is in Mexico City, but he has Moxi at the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel, where we were  lucky enough to eat the night that I landed, and a new restaurant here in New York that I am really excited about called Cosme. His food is very much rooted in Mexican ingredients and Mexican cooking, but his food is so modern. He really is one of the most talented chefs in the world at this moment, and I’m glad he judged the prickly pear Quickfire. They filmed it right in the center square of San Miguel; it is an amazingly gorgeous place. It was a really great setting for our first challenge in Mexico. Then we have the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a dish inspired by an artist's piece of work, and Doug won with his brisket.

GS:  This challenge is interesting, because San Miguel is such a mecca for artists; it’s an artist colony that has produced incredible work for years. The city itself is so visually inspiring, as are the artists that work there. Their work is so varied, so vast. What was unique in this challenge was that it forced the chefs to take inspiration from an unusual source and think about their dish in a different way. All of the artists are very different, from a graffiti artist to someone who does more abstract landscapes. It was truly exciting to see what the artists did with the canvases they were given and what they shared with the chefs.

I tasted Doug’s dish first and understood it in an instant; it needed no explanation. But when he did talk about it, I realized it had so much depth not only in flavor, but in its purpose. He had an immediate connection with the artist he was paired with -- they were both from Texas and she reminded him a lot of his mother. There was a deep sense of home and comfort between them, which I think allowed him to cook so purely, so simply. The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not "chef it up" too much, he kept it pure. He modeled the presentation of the dish exactly off of the painting itself with those colors from the Mexican landscape -- the deep reds of the earth, those dark greens and browns -- which made perfect sense. His brisket obviously tasted like Texas, but it definitely had an air of Mexico. It had the tomatillo, the masa, and even the red brisket itself was reminiscent of Mexican flavors, since Mexican cuisine has had such an influence on Texas to begin with. The dish was about his roots on a lot of levels. I devoured all of it, it was so hardy and comforting, but it had an elegance and finesse to it in the plating -- the ingredients he chose to put side by side as opposed to stewing them together -- made it special.

The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not 'chef it up' too much, he kept it pure.

Gail Simmons And then we had Gregory's grilled strip loin with ancho chile, beets, cilantro puree, and valencia orange sauce.

GS: Gregory’s dish was excellent too. He did a perfectly grilled strip loin. He was worried about it before we tasted it, but it came out perfectly. He made three incredible sauces to go with it, which drew a lot of inspiration from his artist's painting. The first was this ancho chile sauce and then this beautiful green cilantro puree. The ancho chiles were reminiscent of the peasant farming, the green cilantro tying into the earth. Then there was the orange sauce, which completely changed the dish. When you first tasted it, the dish was earthy, it was deep and complex, it had the Mexican chiles that really shone through with the beef. Then you got a splash of that orange sauce, and it balanced everything out in a way that surprised us. It was so inspired, you could tell that it echoed the sunshine in the painting. It conveyed the artist’s vision of this peasant toiling in the soil through this glorious sunshine, and that’s exactly how the dish tasted.

It was a really close battle between Gregory and Doug in this challenge; both of them did such a great job. Ultimately we chose Doug, because we thought there was an unmistakable depth to his food and it was completely flawless. Let's move on to Mei, who had the snapper and bass crudo with chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles.

GS: In true Mei fashion, her dish was completed beautifully and precise. It was very tightly conceptualized -- every drizzle, every piece of fish, every garnish was perfectly placed, and it was a gorgeous plate of food. I loved her relationship with the artist she worked with, Bea. They had a lovely conversation, which was great to see, and the dish clearly reflected Bea’s work. The chicken skin, the fish, the splashes of color were all inspirations from the painting. Every bite of Mei's dish had a little surprise; there was a little spice, a tiny bit of salt, and a beautiful splash of sweetness, which made it so fun and so playful.

My only criticism of Mei’s food comes from a presentation standpoint. Because Bea’s art was so outrageous and so loud and loose and free in a way, we had hoped that Mei’s food would’ve reflected that. We thought it would have allowed her to loosen up her presentation a little bit. Of course, I respect that she stayed true to who she is and how she presents her food. It was a dish that took a lot of technical skill and was really enjoyable when we ate it, we had just hoped to see more playfulness. And then we had Melissa's smoked eggplant ravioli with shrimp, chorizo, and cotija.

GS: Melissa’s dish was absolutely decadent, delicious, delightful. We all agreed that her smoked eggplant ravioli was perfectly made -- it was smoky, very rich, and the pasta was well cooked. That alone was as good as anything else we had eaten that day. Where we thought she fell short, relative to the other dishes, was that there definitely was less cohesion between the artist's work and her dish. Shrimp, chorizo, cotija cheese, and eggplant can go together, but in the way she plated them, they weren’t really talking -- the shrimp was over here, the sauce was somewhere else, then there was the eggplant ravioli. There didn’t seem to be a line that connected them all. And when she described it in relation to the artwork, we really weren’t sure it conveyed that dramatic splash from the graffiti art. We needed more from her. There was such a direct conversation between Doug and his artist, and it really felt like they were working on the same piece of artwork together. Melissa’s dish, although tasty and very pretty, did not have that same depth. I’m not just talking about flavor; it’s really about the inspiration and the connection, not only between the ingredients on the plate, but between the chef and the artist. His work was really beautiful (and watching the show I regret not buying a piece from him at the time). But it can be hard to translate art, because it’s something so personal. In the end between the four of us we decided that on that day it was Melissa’s dish that did not measure up in terms of the inspiration and connection like the other dishes did. So she was eliminated. It seemed like one of the tougher eliminations this season.

GS: Yes, it was. It always is at this stage of the season. But it was a really great challenge too. I think regardless of winning or losing, Melissa really loved the process and that was so great to see. It was an intellectual challenge that was hard to interpret, and I think they all did an incredible job. I’m really going to miss Melissa. I honestly think she is a huge talent, and I know she is going to do well wherever she goes next.

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