Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Frugal Sea

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

Gail Talks OvenGate

Dookie Chase Makes Everybody Cry

The Frugal Sea

Tom explains that you can't be a great chef if you can't run a kitchen.

Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship. ~Benjamin Franklin I'd like to start by explaining my absence all these weeks on the Top Chef Web site -- this summer I opened a new Craft in Los Angeles, a big, ambitious place that gives me an excuse to troll the marvelous Santa Monica greenmarket for the kind of produce I dream of (delicate heads of cauliflower, rainbow-hued heirloom tomatoes, tiny little roma beans that would make you weep...) The opening was a success thanks to my hardworking (and very tired) staff, but the effort demanded my full attention day in and day out for the last three months. As the season unfurled, I hoped that the foodies among you would understand my single-mindedness and not hold it against me.

Let me briefly address Tre's ousting two weeks ago, which I know from reading the message boards was an unpopular decision. It was hard to send Tre packing after the Restaurant Wars -- he was a good guy and, despite his share of missteps, an able competitor. But it brought to mind the same sports metaphor we used when hunky favorite Sam was sent packing in Season Two: Having a great season record doesn't mean you get handed the pennant -- you still need to win the World Series. I applaud Tre's decision to take on the role of team leader, but with that came the understanding that his neck was on the chopping block. If all went well, he'd emerge the hero ahead of those who played it safe. But if he failed -- and in my opinion, all three of Tre's dishes failed -- then he knew he'd be on the hot seat. Frankly, without that, the risk of leadership is no risk at all.

As for tonight's Elimination Challenge, if you boil it down, it really was a very basic task: to stretch a buck. The chefs let themselves get thrown by the setting and circumstance (A rocking boat! A galley kitchen! A bunch of fashionistas!) But to be honest, the challenge was really about being creative and savvy within a limited budget. Something that millions of home cooks manage to do every day of the week. When I'm asked to cater an event, I often encounter people operating within a budget. If it's too low for me to deliver, I turn down the job. But if I do agree to it, then it's up to me to make it work; a lower budget doesn't entitle me to scrimp on technique or imagination. I felt Casey's beef carpaccio and Sara's tomato bread pudding were excellent examples of skillful, budget-friendly planning and execution. Neither dish featured pricey ingredients, yet both delivered maximum finesse and flavor for the money and time available. It would have been hard to improve on either appetizer by spending more money.

A number of the chefs made a mistake by attempting to put out two appetizers instead of one; with only $50 in ingredients, why would you needlessly cut your resources in half? Howie clearly felt two items would redeem him after his disastrous (non)showing at the Quickfire, but that only would have worked if both dishes were exceptional, which neither was. His mushroom duxelles was a case in point: the trick there is to carefully cut away the mushroom's gills (to avoid turning the duxelles an unappetizing grayish black) and introduce a small amount of acid. It would have been achievable in the time allotted, but Howie was intent on banging the dish out so he could start in on his disastrous asparagus cigars. If he had used all of his time and money on one beautifully crafted hors d'oeuvre rather than two hasty ones, he -- and our guests -- would have been much better served.

Overall, Hung has shown an excitement for cooking that borders on zealotry, so I was surprised at the flaccid little bites he turned out in this challenge. I didn't buy his protests that these were classic combinations that have been around for 300 -- or was it 800? -- years (not sure where he got this historical tidbit, but we'll let it go.) There is a fine line between classic and dated, and his hors d'oeuvres fell on the unhappy side of that line. They showed Hung's usual technical finesse, but even he ultimately acknowledged that he could have done better.

I'm of two minds about Brian's turn as team leader; at first I felt he should have stepped up during the challenge and done more to shape the overall vision of the food, vetoing the chefs' decisions to make more than one app apiece, for example. But after watching the episode I feel a little differently. Brian saw his role as motivator and manager -- not watchdog -- and in that sense he delivered. He helped to keep his team mindful of time and money, and that's a big part of succeeding as a chef. bourdain_310_02_320x240.jpg

Ultimately I think tonight's episode underscored a basic tenet of the restaurant world; there are plenty of great cooks out there who can make beautiful food but will never be great chefs because they can't run a kitchen. It involves hiring well and delegating appropriately. Keeping people motivated and mindful of time, as Brian did. Thinking on your feet and staying creative, even whimsical, in the face of obstacles, like being stuck in the cereal aisle during a Quickfire. And all the talent in the world won't save you from a lack of understanding about purchasing and quantities. If you can't spend your allotted cash with intelligence and moderation in a cocktail party competition, how do you expect to manage the day-to-day financial operations of a major restaurant? Folding under pressure is simply not an option. In the case of Howie, he wasn't overboard, he was in over his head.

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!