Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Final Four

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

The Final Four


This week's episode just may be one of my favorites yet. Why? Because it was all about the food. It provided two very straightforward challenges, without gimmicks, that gave both the judges and the viewers a great way to analyze the cooking skills of our five remaining chefs. Casey, Dale, Brian, Sara, and Hung were all excited about finally making it to New York City, and, frankly, I was delighted as well -- after weeks in a hotel in Miami, I was finally able to get home and sleep in my own bed. Ain't nothing else like it. I understood the thrill for our chefs; New York has become, arguably, the epicenter of fine dining in the country, and possibly the world. I regularly play host to chefs from France, London, Hong Kong, Sydney, Spain -- everywhere -- who show up to see what is happening here, to eat, and to take notes. For many young chefs, running a successful kitchen in New York is a sign that they have truly arrived. For me, making the leap from New Jersey to New York in my early 20s was a huge psychological leap, as well as a geographic one; New York felt like the big stage -- if I screwed up there, it would be visible for all the world to see.

And on their first foray into NYC, what better place for our chefs to get their feet wet than Le Circque? The place has been around for over forty years, in three different locations (few restaurants survive even one move, much less two.) The dish the chefs were asked to replicate is a classic created by my friend Daniel Boulud, when he was at the helm of that legendary restaurant; a filet of sea bass wrapped in potato, on a bed of leek fondue and oyster mushrooms. (From what I could see, the sauce, which could have made the challenge truly difficult, was provided to the chefs fully made, since creating that from scratch would have exceeded the time limit.) What's key here is the thickness of the potatoes -- too thin and they would burn before the fish was cooked through, too thick and the fish would overcook before the potatoes were done. I found it interesting that Hung asked about the mandolin setting the chef used to pull this off, since, of everyone, he was the one who ultimately was able to eyeball the dish and get it right. Still, I can't blame him for trying to hedge his bets.

Hung is out to win, no question about it. And with the exception of Hung, the chefs seemed daunted by the 20-minute time limit. In truth, this condition hews closely to the demands of a real restaurant. Chefs must prepare each dish while their guests wait, and few diners are willing to go longer than twenty minutes or so without food. Appetizers, of course, eat up some of the waiting time, but most people polish off an app in minutes; back in the kitchen, the chef knows he is racing against time. I actually think the chefs were more nervous about performing in front of a real New York City line crew; these are the people who are in the trenches every day, fighting their way up the classic kitchen hierarchy through dogged hard work and sheer talent. It probably wasn't hard to figure out what the line cooks at Le Cirque thought of our reality-TV contestants; no doubt they viewed them as a bunch of amateurs looking for a shortcut to the big time (no one said cooks were easygoing).

Of all of the chefs, Sara, who has spent the last few years making cheese, seemed the most thrown by her environment, casting about nervously for saute pans, garbage, dishwashing station, etc. Given her unfamiliarity with this kind of kitchen, she would have done well to take a minute to locate everything first before plunging in. She should have known that the sea bass -- which would have taken about six minutes to cook without the potatoes -- needed at least ten to cook correctly with them. She alluded to her filets being thicker than the others (when would she have seen the others' ingredients? She went last.) And she tried to pawn her failure off on a lack of classic French training, but I think that's a crock (more on this later); nothing about this dish is particularly French. It required solid cooking skills, a clear head, and common sense. Casey did a good job, applying her usual meticulous attention and good instincts to the dish (and using the mandolin helped with her less-than-ideal knife skills). Although the episode showed Sirio appreciating her dish the most, I could see by looking at it, that she, (as well as Brian,) didn't get the potatoes wrapped fully around the fish (they should have trimmed the filets to fit the potato slices). A small detail, but one that separates a good dish from a great one -- I'm sure this was discussed but didn't make it into the final edit; Sirio Maccioni hasn't made his reputation by not sweating the small stuff. And Dale pulled off everything but the most basic step of all -- seasoning. Without salt and pepper, the most beautifully prepared dish is going to taste like garbage.

The Elimination Challenge was similarly straightforward. Although it was staged at the French Culinary Institute and the ingredients were selected by French chefs, the challenge was not to make a classic French dish so much as to demonstrate that you can make great food from humble yet important ingredients. When you think about it, this is at the heart of every national cuisine. And in fact, very few people these days receive a true, classic French training (which to my lights includes working under a raving lunatic as an unpaid serf in a village somewhere in, say, Lyons.) As a teenager, I cooked my way through the classic text Repertoire de la Cuisine because there were no famous French restaurants in Elizabeth, New Jersey, let alone one that would have allowed a mouthy Catholic school dropout like me through the door. Eventually I made way to France and studied in some great kitchens, but I would have been equally served working in one of the great Italian kitchens like Gualtiero Marchese in Milan, Italy's first Michelin three-star restaurant, or Da Guido in Costigliole d' Asti. Chefs who came up under Marchese or Lidia Alciati received training every bit as valid as someone who studied in France, and in fact, it was the Italians who brought the idea of gastronomy to France in the first place, with the arrival of Catherine de Medici. I think French cuisine is exalted as a training ground because the great chef Escoffier was the first to codify the essential techniques -- roasting, braising, sauce-making, etc. -- and create the idea of a functioning kitchen hierarchy that could be replicated successfully anywhere. My point is, that to win this challenge, our chefs didn't need to cook French food, or demonstrate perfect French technique. Rather, they had to show that they could make good food. Period.
Our guest panel was probably our most impressive and daunting to date: Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder of the French Culinary Institute, Andre Soltner, who is a living legend -- for decades Lutece set the standard for French cuisine in New York City, and he was famous for never leaving the kitchen (in fact, he lived right upstairs.) Before running Le Cirque, Alain Sailhac earned the first ever four-star rating from The New York Times while at Le Cygne in the '70s. Jacques Torres is a world-famous pastry chef and chocolatier, Nils Noren, who helped introduce Swedish cuisine to New York at Aquavit, embodies the ideal of an international chef. Cesare Casella opened the legendary Tuscan restaurants Beppe and Maremma in New York (cooking what he famously calls "Tuscan cowboy food.") Each is legendary in their own way and I'll say it; I was star-struck, and more than a little bit humbled to be introducing them on our show. And while they hail from a variety of culinary traditions, they all know and appreciate good food when they taste it.

So what about the food? Brian's Shepherd's pie with pheasant sausage and braised chicken looked odd (the ramps turned the mashed potatoes a bright, almost radioactive green) but the dish was deeply flavorful and satisfying once we got past the appearance. To a one, all of us at the table were in agreement; it tasted great. Casey's dish was delicious, but it suffered from mislabeling. Coq a Vin is very specific -- (the dish literally means "rooster with wine") -- and the dish calls for a lengthy marinade and long, slow braise which yields a rich broth from the connective tissue of the old bird. Casey called her dish Coq a Vin out of a sense of nostalgia for her grandmother's dish (also similarly mislabeled), but it smacked of a pretentious trend I hate; gussying up a straightforward dish by giving it a fancy name. I actually like it when I see simple descriptions on restaurant menus. If Casey had introduced her dish as "Braised chicken," it would have set all of us up for a pleasant surprise, rather than invite comparison with a true Coq a Vin. Despite that, her dish was focused, nuanced, and soulful.

Hung's dish was excellent, and he got a chance to show off a bit of his culinary technique; he cooked the chicken Sous Vide, which means vacuum packed and poached slowly in hot water. The advantage to this is that all of the chicken's natural juices stay in the bird, and marry seamlessly with the herbs and seasonings introduced into the pack. Many top restaurants use this method -- it allows for a high degree of control, it imparts a great texture to the meat, and is fairly idiot-proof. Sometimes proteins that are cooked sous vide can be a bit sterile, to my taste (I actually like to "feel" the hand of the chef in my food) but Hung offset this by layering on a crisp, mouth-watering chicken skin which is not easy to pull off; his was cooked perfectly.

Chef Soltner took issue with Hung's Pommes Dauphine for not being light and airy. I agreed, but it is a testament to how good the rest of the dish was that as a whole, the judges were willing to let this go and give him the win. Dale pretty much blew it. He decided to wow us by putting a "duet" of roasted and braised chicken on his plate, which in of itself was not a bad idea -- I often prepare dishes with one protein cooked two ways -- but he was in over his head. By aiming for a "high concept" that required elaborate plating, he lost focus and forgot a key element of the dish -- the truffle honey sauce that would have knit both components together and made it a complete dish.

And finally, there was Sara. Perhaps she was thrown by her poor showing in the Quickfire, or maybe it was the collective wattage of the judges that intimidated her. Either way, her dish fell way short; She presented us a Jamaican fricassee of chicken, which was not a bad idea; a fricassee is essentially a quick braise -- a protein browned lightly and then cooked in wine or sauce, and the ingredients in the challenge were ideal for that kind of dish.


Sara's problem boiled down to technique; the dish was bland and disappointing; none of the Jamaican spices that make up her vernacular were discernible on the plate, and the flavor just wasn't there. If we had decided to send only three contestants on to the finale, our choice would have been clear; Hung, Casey and Brian were the obvious winners, Sara and Dale, the losers. But we had decided upon four, so we had to choose; poor concept or poor execution? In the end, we let Sara go and Dale squeaked by. Sara was a good competitor, and a good teammate. Her reaction to being sent off had more to do with having to say goodbye to her new friends, and I found myself moved by the obvious camaraderie she and most of the others shared.

All you Hung-haters out there are no doubt foaming at his cold and unabashed desire to win above everything else. In my opinion, he's merely being honest -- as he said at the beginning of the season, he was there to win. Period. And I don't fault him for that. But Sara's tearful goodbye reminded me that for a good many of us the process itself is meaningful. Sara hopes to make a name as a master cheese maker, and frankly, she can achieve that without having won Top Chef. I wish her luck, and hope I'll be serving her cheese in my restaurant one day soon.

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

Gail schools us on the science of innovative cooking and explains why George Pagonis' octopus didn't have any legs to stand on. Let's talk about the Elimination Challenge, which was to create an innovative dish that pushed culinary boundaries.

Gail Simmons: I was really happy that Wylie was there for this challenge, of course. But I think the set up was a little anti-climactic in honesty. As a viewer, you didn't get a full explanation of how and why they were given this challenge. It was specifically because there are so many people pushing these boundaries, many of whom are in Boston, and particularly Michael Brenner. He is innovative for a lot of reasons -- he’s a physicist, but what he’s become known for in the culinary space is teaching an in-depth course at Harvard about the science of food and cooking, incorporating people like Wylie and as well as a long list of exceptionally talented and renown chefs from around the world, like Ferran Adrià among others. It is exciting and extraordinary, and having him there allowed us to present our chefs with this challenge. We always think about how the dishes taste and look, whether the meat is cooked well enough or the appearance of knife cuts are appropriate. All of that stuff is in affect science -- cooking is all chemistry and biology, reaction of cells to knives and fire essentially. Everyone has their own definition of innovation, and I think there was a lot of pressure to "innovate" in this challenge. Our chefs did well, but I wish they had been given more time to really push their own personal boundaries more. Let’s start with the winner, Melissa, who had the seared duck breast with farro, walnut miso, and pickled cherries.

GS: Melissa really has stepped up her game and soared in the last two challenges; she won the last challenge (and a spot in the finale in Mexico), and now she’s won this challenge, too. Her duck was beautiful, though not necessarily the most groundbreaking dish I’ve ever seen in my life. But she was innovative enough that we felt her flavors were new, but the dish was at the same time beautiful, delicious. Here’s the tricky thing about being innovative, which I think George touched on when he was talking about the challenge too: is it takes time and practice to truly innovate. I can only assume that someone like Wylie tries a dish fifty times before it goes on his menu as a full formed creative work, that changes how we all perceive food. Innovation takes patience and some serious brain power. To come up with something in a few hours is a tall order when it needs to be totally delicious AND have a level of innovation that surprises and impresses us. Melissa knew her strengths and perhaps was more relaxed then she would’ve been otherwise, so she made that walnut miso pesto and incorporated it in a really creative, unusual way. It made her dish stand out, and by far it was the most delicious. And then we had our runner, Mei, with her duck curry with vadouvan and yuzu yogurt.

GS: There was something about Mei’s dish that made me think it was the most innovative of the day in a number of ways. However it wasn’t the most successful, and that’s why Melissa took the win. Mei’s dish was not only breathtakingly stark and beautiful, looking so modern on the plate, but she also combined several unusual ingredients, which made for a very untraditional, very modern curry. It was innovative and it stayed with us. You could even see in Tom's reaction that it was a dish to think about. When you tasted it, you weren't sure it worked, but there was something enjoyable about it; the dish didn't simply come together in your mind. It wasn't straight forward. You needed to take a pause, then a second bite, and by the third and fourth bite you started to understand all the different parts, which were very exciting. I think with a few more tries, Mei would’ve really nailed that dish. I was proud of her for pushing us all that way. Then in our bottom two we had Gregory and George. Gregory did the salmon in tom kha broth with roasted tomatoes, crispy chicken skin, and crispy salmon skin.

GS: There were a lot of fun, tasty components to Gregory’s dish. If this challenge had been to show us an interesting representation of salmon or Thai flavors, he would’ve gotten it right. The thing with Gregory is that as skilled as he is, we were really hoping that he would come out of his comfort zone. The flavors he used were what we have seen from him previously. We didn’t really see a lot of innovation from him. That doesn’t mean we don’t think he worked hard or didn't do a good job. He gave us something that he felt was different in presentation, but the flavors were definitely in his usual wheelhouse. As he said himself when cooking beans in the Quickfire, he felt uncomfortable because he's more accustomed to using Asian flavors and ingredients. So here he was in the Elimination Challenge using Asian flavors. On the other hand the dish tasted great! We loved it, we just didn’t think he fulfilled the challenge of being innovative like we know he could have. And then there was George. . .  Yes, he had the charred octopus, yellow split pea puree, and green apple harissa.

GS: George also stayed in his comfort zone in some ways -- he's cooked us octopus before, so charring octopus did not feel innovative at all for him, I actually felt disappointed when he told us that's what he had made. However, there were probably twenty other components of that dish that did make it feel somewhat innovative. The green apple harissa was one of them for sure. The fact that he called it harissa may be taking some license, but that's OK. I loved it, it went so well with the octopus, and it was something new that all of us had never seen. That said, the rest of the dish didn’t make sense all together. At least three or four of the garnishes he added didn’t serve a purpose on the plate, rather, they detracted from the dish. He spent his time making too many components. They may have shown technique, and you could tell that he was really pushing himself, but it all still has to be one cohesive plate of food, first and foremost. I think it didn’t work because he let himself get preoccupied with all the other pieces instead of focusing on doing one thing really well in an innovative way.

Charring octopus did not feel innovative at all for him, I actually felt disappointed when he told us that's what he had made.

So George's was the dish we least enjoyed eating and thought was the least successful, that’s why he went home. I think George did a tremendous job. He came back once already, and he could come back from Last Chance Kitchen again. He’s a great cook, has a great attitude, and I think he absolutely gave his best throughout the competition, which made everyone better. I don’t always say that, but I think when he came back, he really changed the game and the whole season was better for it.

Now, onward to Mexico!