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.


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: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Gail discusses the impressive Thanksgiving meal the chefs prepared and why she thinks it was the right time for Stacy to go home. Let's talk about Thanksgiving. . .
Gail Simmons: We've done a lot of Thanksgiving episodes over the years. I can remember back in Season 2 when Anthony Bourdain judged and the meal our chefs cooked was the most embarrassing, horrible meal in Top Chef history. We've come a long way. In fact we’ve come all the way to Plimoth Plantation - the site of the very first Thanksgiving, which is pretty cool. Before that, we saw the chefs tackling a Quickfire Challenge at the cranberry bog.
GS: Cranberries are very beautiful. I always knew cranberries were harvested in a cranberry "bog," but I was never really sure what a cranberry bog was. Now we all know. It's impressive! The chefs and Tiffani said it was a really fun challenge -- very seasonal and very unique to that little corner of the world. Plus we gave them a little workout.

Then we went to the plantation, and had them make us Thanksgiving dinner using only original tools and ingredients from the very first Thanksgiving. It was amazing to be at a plantation situated in the middle of this pilgrim village that was recreated almost exactly as it would have been in the 17th century. It was authentic to the point where we weren’t even given forks . Forks hadn’t been invented yet! We just had a very primitive knife and a big honking wooden spoon (which I will say is very efficient for shoveling delicious food into your face). Will you be using all of these techniques at your own Thanksgiving?
GS: I might. I mean the pantry that they had to use, though not necessarily what we all would think of a traditional was quite abundant. The food was quite amazing -- all the colored corn and squash, the lobster, the duck. There was a lot to choose from. I think the chefs did a great job of giving us nine very distinct dishes -- all of which were relatively good. There wasn't a major clunker among them. But that sometimes makes it a lot harder to judge because you still have to send someone home. They served this meal to a table with Chef Ken Oringer, a good friend and one of the most acclaimed restaurateurs in Boston, as well as descendants from the Mayflower and descendants from the Wampanoag, the native people living in the area when the Mayflower arrived. It was really wonderful as it gave us a lot of insight into what they ate, how they ate, how they prepared things. Our diners were so knowledgeable and excited for us to be there. Onto the food, because isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about. Let’s talk about the good ones first.
GS: All of them were good, but my top four were: Mei, Doug, Katie, and Katsuji.

Mei made a roasted cabbage with trout vinaigrette, which was a very unusual dish. It was so unexpected and savory. She roasted the cabbage on the charcoal fire which gave it such delicious flavor, then made the vinaigrette with trout which was poured over the cabbage. It was a perfect starter for our meal, so light. It had all this crunch, and felt like a salad but, because of the trout vinaigrette and the duck fat, was a little more rich and substantial.

Doug also made a phenomenal dish of spit-roasted rabbit. The roasted radishes, ramps, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and lots of garlic, came together with the rabbit to make a really excellent dish. I loved that all of these dishes served were really rustic because of the way our chefs were forced to cook. They couldn't pull out tweezers and individually cook a million different components. They didn't have access to fancy equipment. Everything took on the flavor of the fire. Doug's dish was so well-conceived. The hazelnuts and the ramps went so well together. Everything had this earthiness to it. It was a dish I could see working well in any restaurant.

Another dish we didn't bring out on the top at Judges Table, but could have easily been a fourth best dish was Katie's stuffing with blueberries, cornbread, and sautéed lobster. Here was another unusual use of ingredients -- the fact that she added blueberry in her stuffing made it so unique. I was skeptical when it came to the table, thinking it would be too sweet. In other cases that would be true, but because the blueberries were so fresh, tart and bursting with juice it didn't come across that way at all. It's fascinating that blueberries were an original ingredient served at the first Thanksgiving. I thought it was really innovative of Katie to use them in this way. The stuffing was moist, it was savory, it was not sweet at all, it made sense with the blue cornmeal. The sautéed lobster on top seemed a little bit superfluous, because there was so much flavor in the stuffing itself, but it certainly didn't detract from the dish. Putting lobster on anything makes it more delicious right? I said it on the show, but I kept going back for more of this dish. I couldn't figure it out, but I couldn't stop. I was definitely impressed with Katie that day.

Our favorite dish was Katsuji's. Surprisingly here was a dish where Katsuji really shined because he kept it simple, as we know he can do but he seldom does. If you remember back to that first episode, he made a dish that had 17,000 components. I think his Thanksgiving dish was an example of what Tom tried to explain in the episode -- sometimes when the chefs are given really strict limitations it makes them cook better. Katsuji was very limited in his use of ingredients and equipment. He had to stay focused and because he had to share this very primitive kitchen space, he couldn't go wild doing 50 things. In this case it served him well. It was a fantastic dish. The butternut squash and lobster were such a perfect combination, the chestnuts and the chili butter made it feel like fall, made it feel rustic just like Thanksgiving should. It was a so well done and we all enjoyed it. Katsuji was our winner. So now the other side. . .
GS: I must say that none of these dishes were really horrible, but you have to rank them, that's the whole point of the game. And there were certainly some that were less delicious than others.

None of us had a problem with the fact that Melissa just did vegetables, per se. I'm all for a vegetarian dish at a Thanksgiving meal, in fact in at my Thanksgiving meal there will always be vegetarian dishes. But our issue with the dish was that, if you're going to do vegetables which will ultimately be compared to everyone else's dish, you need to really focus on amping up the flavor. Compared to the intense flavor that came from roasting meat and fish on an open fire, compared to all of the rich food we were eating, her dish faded into the background. She did show impeccable knife work, and I know she put a lot of time and effort into it. But when you're eating nine dishes it's all about which one stands out the most, which one calls you back for more. Melissa's just hid in the background. It wasn't as bold as it needed to be to stand up to the others.

In terms of Keriann's dish, I understand her thought process. When her dough wasn't working because of the heat and humidity, she switched from doing a blueberry pie to using that blueberry filling over venison. I know she said she didn't add sugar to it, but when you cook down fruit, there's natural pectin that starts to thicken the fruit, so it takes on that slightly gelatinous texture and a very sweet flavor. We didn't even know about the switch when it happened. Tom and Ken knew from their walk through, but they never told us she had meant to do pie. Regardless, the second her dish came to the table, we knew that sauce wasn't just for venison. We tasted it and it tasted unmistakably like pie filling. That’s when we were made aware that she originally intended for it to be for a pie. The venison was cooked well, the hazelnuts that went with it were a great idea; all these flavors go together, but I guarantee you, if she were to make that sauce again for that same venison dish, she would make that sauce differently. She would not have cooked down the blueberries half as much. She would’ve added more savory ingredients and seasoned it differently. It was well-intentioned, but not executed in the way it needed to be.

And finally Stacy. Stacy's dish was a tricky one. The idea of her clams with ramps and butternut squash was lovely. It was a great starter for a Thanksgiving meal like this, but there was something in those clams that didn't go down well for any of us. We all couldn't really pinpoint what the flavor was. For me and for Ken, there was a strange earthy flavor we couldn't understand, and it was a little unsettling. It didn't take on the texture of eating dirt. We talked about that, it wasn't that we felt there was sand or grit in it. It was just an odd flavor that tasted like the flavor of earth and dirt, and not in the way that mushrooms are nutty and "earthy." It was a off-putting, almost as if there was an herb that hadn't been cleaned, or some component that wasn't balancing with the rest of her ingredients. In general of all of the dishes, not only was that flavor not right, Stacy's dish was a little more unfinished than the rest. So after a lot of thought, we had to make this decision. And it wasn't easy. Stacy's a great chef, and we thought that all of the dishes were generally very well done for this challenge. It was a memorable Thanksgiving meal in every way. But that's the way the game is played, one person has to go, and we all agreed that Stacy's dish was the weakest dish that day.

I know it's been a hard road for her with her boyfriend away. She was tired I think. It happens. You get rundown for sure, it's a long haul. We’re grateful for having her there. We're very proud of her, she did a great job, and she held her head up high through it all. She represented Boston in the best possible way. And in two weeks, it’s Restaurant Wars.
December we are back with Restaurant Wars -- craziness, madness, insanity ensues. It's a harrowing, heart-pounding episode. I can't wait to talk about it!

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