Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Up In Their Grills

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

Up In Their Grills

Tom Colicchio talks BBQ, judging, and dealing with all the drama.

First off, I would like to address the groundswell of opinions on the boards from my last blog. A large number of people, citing Dave's downfall in Season One, wrote in that Howie should have been eliminated from the first episode because he ran out of time and left off part of his dish, rather than Clay, whose dish - while awful -- was complete. Apparently, there's a group of scorekeepers out there who carefully tally the results from episode to episode, and frame them as inviolable precedent. The only way for me to address this is to explain that there are no hard and fast rules; As a judge, I need to reserve the right to stay in the moment and use my judgment based on the overall criteria and the ever changing scenarios before us.

I'm not suggesting that we throw consistency out the window -- that would be ludicrous, and would undermine the credibility of the judging process; rather that our audiences understand that with each new challenge, the context changes perceptibly. What may make perfect sense in one challenge with one set of competitors is less relevant in a challenge with different parameters. As judges we need to stay on our feet and evaluate the totality of the experience, without an anxious recap of all episodes past; we need to go by our gut of what is fair and truthful given the challenge at hand.

So for last week's challenge -- though it may seem to many that we used different "rules" in determining that Howie could stay with an incomplete dish, vs. Dave in Season One, who was sent home from the finale after completing only two of three dishes; it wasn't so much that we changed the rules but that we allowed ourselves to evaluate on a whole number of criteria, each of which differed in importance, depending on the judge, and only some of which can actually make it into the edited episode.

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As I saw it, first and foremost, the dish needed to taste great. Howie's incomplete dish still tasted good, despite its unfinished state; Clay's did not. Other factors we looked at were how well each chef adhered to the challenge and how well they used the products. At the end of protracted debate, we felt that Clay's full dish was worse than Howie's half dish. End of story. Why is this different than what went down in Season One with Dave? For one thing, it was a simple numbers game -- Dave got credit for winning one out of three challenges, losing another and failing to complete the third. Tiffani came in second for all three. That made her the stronger contender overall, so she came in second. It was never simply that Dave was let go because he failed to complete a challenge - that went into our overall calculations over three challenges, and it contributed (key word -- contributed) to his demise.
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This brings us to tonight's episode. The challenge was to create an upscale BBQ dish. Our debate at the judges table hinged on the question, 'Was it better to have served an upscale dish that wasn't BBQ, or a BBQ dish that really wasn't upscale?' We went back and forth among ourselves about which element of the challenge mattered most. Ultimately, we decided it was the BBQ. By her own admission, Sandee didn't truly barbecue her dish. In her effort to go in a different direction than the others, she poached her lobster. Poaching means to cook a product very gently in liquid -- not a bad technique at all, but this was a grilling challenge. Sandee's dish was certainly upscale, but the grill became, in essence, a way to reheat a non-BBQ dish, and as such, just didn't meet the criteria of the challenge.
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Sara, Micah and Brian all impressed us but in the end the judges felt it was Brian who really delivered. His dish fit the criteria -- sausage makes sense at a BBQ. By substituting seafood in the casing for ground meat, Brian elevated the dish to something more upscale, which is what the challenge demanded, and his execution was spot on. (That said, Brian gave himself a lot of credit for innovation, but seafood sausage is hardly breaking news; my friend David Waltuck, at NYC's Chanterelle, has been making seafood sausage for 30 years.) Still, the challenge wasn't to come up with something totally new. It was to meet the criteria skillfully and with imagination, which is what Brian did.
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An interesting thing about being a judge on this show is that none of us are really privy to the back-stories and infighting that are developing behind the scenes until much later. And quite frankly we're better off not knowing. I don't care what anyone's hair looks like or if someone calls someone else a bitch, bitch -- it's not part of our job. Our first exposure to this kind of thing is when we finally see the completed episodes - in my case, a day or two before they air (so that I can write this blog.) A lot of the bickering between chefs happens while we're at the judge's table deliberating. (And for the curious out there, a typical judge's deliberation lasts two or more hours, all of which gets thrown in with the other 16-18 hours of footage apiece from six different cameras, and edited down into one 48-minute episode.) I get a kick out of the idea that we base our decisions on who makes a great character, or to perpetuate the 'drama' brewing between two chefs. Padma, Gail, Ted and I already have more than we can handle just debating the merits of each dish.


I guess where I'm going with this, is that I agreed to judge this show because I received an explicit promise from the producers that I would not be dictated to or used as a tool by a team of "creatives" looking to manufacture drama at the expense of honesty. Without exception, the producers of this show have upheld this since day one, and thereby allowed me to really deliver what I consider my job to be -- an honest, unflinching assessment of a group of aspiring young chefs being put through their paces. Our eagle-eyed viewers have noted the producer's disclaimer (which I understand is typical on shows of this type) and suggested it means that the final call can be made by our producers. While we do consult with them from time to time for clarification of the challenge, they leave the judging entirely to us.

Throughout the upcoming season, I can pretty much guarantee that my decisions won't please everyone, but they will always be arrived at honestly. I don't have a dog in this fight, but I do have my integrity, and it will remain intact. P.S. Carol: 6'8." Evan: Good for you for deciding to follow your passion and go to Cornell (my wife's alma mater, by the way). I have a feeling you're going to do great things. Don't look back, and when the time comes, I'll be honored to have your graduation dinner at Craft.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to a glitch on our server today, the original version of this blog was erased, unfortunately with all of the comments left on Wednesday 6/20 and Thursday 6/21. The best news was that Tom (as something of a perfectionist) took the time to re-work his blog, and sent us a new and improved version. We invite you to re-post your comments, and we apologize for any confusion. Thanks, readers!

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Hugh Acheson wonders about the health of the kids at Emerson College and debates the cost of roasting that much foie gras.

In this, the tenth episode of this 12th season, we open in the kitchen of the chefs super secret lair. Katusji has taken his wit, wisdom and wherewithal back to his Kosher Japanese Cal-Mex empire to work on a masa matzoh ball taco. He is described as "the most loveable dick in the entire world," which seems pretty on point. These remaining five seem saddened because Katsuji provided respite from the drudgery of competition. They mourn as well, because all understood, though it was never talked about, like a solemn vow, that they could all beat Katsuji in this cooking game. He was the San Diego Padres of Top Chef, the team that all the other competition knew would be an easy beat when the time came.

So the quintet of Mei, Gregory, Dougeeeee, Melissa and George remain. They are all have the stuff that could allow them to win the dough, but Mei and Gregory have really shown that if we must have hierarchy then they are the top two contenders.

Quickfire begins with Andy and his college roommate. Andy just told the roommate that those "games" they played late at night in their bunkbeds WILL be talked about in his next book, so Dave, you have some explaining to the wife and kids. Andy, we are told, is "known for his antics." That he is.

Andy exorts the contestants to hook up with each other and I immediately think of Dougie spooning with Georgie. I then have to wash my eyes out with steel wool and bleach to remove the image. This hurts and still the image remains.

Padma gets Andy back on task and she introduces the Quickfire. It is a collegiate showdown of ramen proportions but the catch is that they must use the contents of the fridge of some poor frosh. Out come the stoner, the nerd, the sorority girl, the lady who should have graduated in '05 and one other innocuous soul. Their fridge contents make me worry about a scurvy outbreak at Emerson College.

We are regaled with stories of the craziest things they all did in college. Melissa built a 24-story beer bong. I went to school in Montreal so my craziest times were hanging out at Biftek on St. Laurent and getting drunk playing pool. Oh wait, I DID THAT EVERY NIGHT until I dropped out of college. Luckily I had some cooking skillz.

Gregory concocts a bacon, Doritos, leftover pizza broth, and I am immediately worried about the future of our country. Dougie has made a Cobb salad ramen with a "coconut-pineapple" broth, and I start looking for my Canadian passport. George, who has no idea what ramen is, 'cause Mike Isabella has never let him out before, is cobbling together a version of SpaghettiOs 2.0s. It has a hint of hot dog, but so does Andy, so this may be well liked. Melissa is making a "Crunchy Carbonara Ramen" which is probably already dispensed out of a coin machine in Tokyo and actually sounds pretty tasty. There is hope. Mei makes a smoked tomato miso with upcycled sushi. Sounds okay, so I stow the passport back and the "go bag."

There is no immunity but the winner gets 5K. Not bad for fifteen minutes of work/fame. Bottoms are Mei and Dougie. Tops are Gregory and George with Melissa winning this murky challenge.

They go to the little room of stewage and watch Julia Child. Then Jacques Pepin stops by and everyone gasps in amazement. I do too because if you don’t love Pepin you are not a nice person. He da bomb.

The Elimination Challenge is to come up with a dish inspired from Julia's cooking. Three hours to cook and one hour to finish on site tomorrow. They chat with Jacques for a while to learn the secrets of Julia, other than the fact that she was totally a CIA spy.

Doug is silent because of where he comes from. Texas shrugs as he says, "I grew up in East Texas and here I am meeting Jacques Pepin." Then he follows this ode to the state of Texas with, "I am from Texas so I can't pronounce things very well." C'mon Doug, your state gave us that Rick Perry character! He's fun to watch!

Doug is insistent on making a whole roasted foie gras. George is braising some veal and presenting it with some vegetables and pommes puree. There is some French going on around here. Melissa is challenging herself with shortribs. Mei is making duck a l'orange but you know it will show off some of herself. You can't spell Mei without ME. Gregory is making Coq au Vin. Tom wanders in during cooking to advise them to channel Julia and then they all try to sound like Julia. None of them will ever be known for their impersonation abilities.

We eat. It's outside. It's beautiful. The diners, or the we, are Dana Cowin, Jacques, Alex Prudhomme (related to Julia), Tom, Padma, Boston chefs Barbara Lynch, Joanne Chang, Mary Dumont, and little old me. I am hungry so don't talk much.

The food is really good overall. There were some issues like drier ribs, monotonous veal, raw foie, and maybe some flabby duck skin, but pound-for-pound they did the dishes well. Tops are Gregory and Mei, and the verdict is an interesting one. Gregory nailed a classic, but it was like he channeled Julia too much and did a textbook version, while Mei nailed a riff on a dish with her duck a l'orange. It is arbitrary who should win but Mei pulls it off and wins a just decision.

Not so arbitrary but still close is the bottom trio of Melissa, George, and Doug. Melissa erred in rib cookery. George cooked stunning veg but it was the veal that was a yawn. Alas, Doug bows out with his dish, a dish that he had never done but dreamed about. You don't just do roasted whole lobes of foie at the restaurant you work at, cause the owner chef would probably stab you if you ruined the 300 bucks in product. But this is TV money so he took a chance. The problem is that cooking whole foie is tricky. You can''t sear it too much or you will render away the beauty, and then you need to temper-roast it in a medium heat oven. Then it comes out and you rest it on a wire rack. It is pretty much served just warm. He did all of those steps, but over-seared it and then cooked it a hair hot, and not long enough, resultingin a greasy, yet raw internal. Funny thing is that the rest of the stuff on the plate was awesome. Well Doug, you were a favorite of ours and I wish you much success in Last Chance Kitchen.

And now we are four. Until next time.

For a good time, follow me on Twitter @hughacheson

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