Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Train In Vain

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

Train In Vain

Anthony Bourdain defends the elimination of Tre.

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A thrilling episode this week, with a surprising and sad ending. In many ways, the last few episodes have (in their own pain-inducing way) better illustrated the skill set you REALLY need to succeed as a Top Chef than straight, head-to-head cookoffs ever could -- how to do things you might not be particularly good at while under pressure. How to get knocked out of your comfort zone -- without warning -- and still soldier through. How to deal with things going wrong all around you -- without losing your cool. How to step up and above your normal responsibilities -- and manage to pull it off.

As most who've spent any time as professional chefs know all too well, the phrases "It's not my job" and "It's unfair" have no real meaning when you're in charge of a kitchen. You may never have anticipated, back in culinary school, that refrigeration and plumbing maintenance skills (for instance) would be a job requirement. Until the grease trap backs up on a busy Saturday night -- or a vital reach-in cooler freezes up and the service people tell you "First thing tomorrow." Or -- as chef garde manger (salad man), that you will finally get your crack at the saute station -- without warning -- on a busy Saturday night, when the regular guy unexpectedly doesn't show. Hopefully, you rise to the occasion. First rule of Chef's Club is: Shit Happens.

That means your ability, in a pinch, to become a therapist, plumber, refrigeration specialist, dishwasher, floor mopper, plunger of drains, negotiator, money lender, bail bondsman or, lest I forget, triage nurse and medic, is much valued -- and even necessary. In fact, realistic challenges for future Top Chef contestants might be to field dress someone's rotary cold cut slicer injury -- at the same time as expediting. Or deciding on the fly if a particular steam burn warrants an E-room visit -- or a "Spit on it and run a lap!" " Does it need stitches?" is a question as likely to arise in a chef's life as "Is this codfish too funky to serve?"

This week's episode was also an example of the real perils of being Number One, of being exposed out there, the focal point of criticism.

So what happened with Tre? Like a lot of you, I imagine, I was enormously disappointed to see him go. An experienced chef, with great skills and a young man of terrific poise, who at all times conducted himself with a maturity and a professionalism not seen in many -- if not most -- of his competitors. On the first episode's Elimination Challenge (which I helped judge), his winning dish was superb -- and extraordinarily promising. Creative, assertive without being over-the-top, it looked to me at the time as if Tre was head and shoulders above most of his comrades on the show. And the episodes that followed mostly reinforced that impression. A good cook and, unlike some of the crybabies around him (who were easily provoked into histrionics), he always kept his head. Without question, he's generally more experienced, "better" professional chef material than some who remain. I'd guess that if a top tier chef of a New York restaurant was looking to recruit a sous-chef off the cast of Top Chef, Tre would be the first guy they'd think of.
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So, why did Tre "lose"? Simply put, because he was the guy who -- on this particular day -- stuck his neck out the furthest. And as happens sometimes when you stick your neck out, his head got cut cleanly off. I expect a great number of commentators will point out that had Tre not taken the "chef" gig, not asserted himself with his own menu choices, been less of a leader, he would still be around. Absolutely right. In this case, by taking on more responsibility, he put himself squarely in the crosshairs. And ended up cut down. A more perfect example of the way the restaurant business really works could scarcely be imagined. A world where, sometimes, no good deed seems to go unpunished.

Did Tre deserve to be the one to pack up and leave?

I'd have to say that if judging that night, that I too would probably have gritted my teeth and chosen Tre.

Why? Because I've never seen Ted Allen react so violently and unfavorably to a dish as he did when trying Tre's "beet-cured salmon". He jerked in his seat as if harpooned. Guest chef Geoffrey Zakarian, who I have a lot of respect for, concurred -- as did Tom.

Tre didn't get away with the bread pudding. An innocuous dessert choice, one would think, but badly done. The judges noticed.

He hadn't fully synthesized what he'd learned from the previous night's experience: Just 'cause everybody stopped dead in their tracks and put on HAZMAT suits after a mouthful of his "smoked" potatoes, didn't mean they particularly liked the "gorgonzola and wild mushroom crusted" filet mignon that came with. I didn't note much enthusiasm for the dish that night -- other than a mention that the meat was properly cooked. Both the filet "crust" and the unlucky "pesto" on the salmon speak of creative limitations -- as if Tre ran out of inspiration and fell back on something he'd done many times before. Plain truth? How can I say this without sounding too mean? Pesto? Mushroom/Cheese-crusted filet? That might well fly in Texas, but not with two hotshot chefs from New York City.

By the time the smoke cleared and the blood and hair had been hosed off the walls, Tre's stats for the evening were:

1 horrible dish (the beet-cured salmon with pesto)

1 screwed up dessert (the unpeeled, undercooked bread pudding)

1 not terribly inspired or interesting dish (the gorgo-mushroom filet)

1 good dish (the scallop)

If you're the chef of an expensive new restaurant in New York City with aspirations for three stars -- and that's your batting average at the end of even one important food critic's meal? You may as well shut your doors. For the many who, like me, found themselves depressed by Tre's exit, console yourself with the certain knowledge that of almost all the Top Chef contestants, past and present, few are as well suited for the real business of being a "top chef". He has the character. He has the skills. He lacks only, perhaps, the inspiration. And he is well on his way in that department. Last I heard, Tre was trailing at some excellent NYC restaurants. He keeps that up, he shall surely, someday, rule the world.

T'was not all tragedy and pathos in Miami this week, though. We saw a full menu of human behaviors from the heartwarming to the horrifying:

What the hell is with Casey's knife skills!? During the Quickfire, I was absolutely gobsmacked watching her methodically sawing away at those onions like Ina Garten on Thorazine. No. Let me correct myself. Ina Garten on Thorazine would be faster. MUCH faster.

Casey's a very strong contender in my opinion--a very talented cook with a great palate. She's an experienced line chef. How did she get so far -- and get so good -- with the knife skills of Barney Rubble? Betting line just changed. Drastically. ( I'm still in shock over this...)

Hung had another good night. The Quickfire Challenge was just made for the show's resident knife-happy speed demon. He ripped through those chickens as if he'd been waiting his whole life for the chance. And he seems to have learned to play well with others. He tried -- in his own way -- to be helpful to his team. The New Improved Hung kept his yap shut and actually made what worked well the previous night -- instead of trying to bludgeon his audience anew with something entirely different and "genius" as the Old Hung might have done. He's been coming on the last couple of episodes. Hell, at the end of the challenge, his team's kitchen was a veritable Woodstock of peace, love, and understanding. I thought there was going to be a group hug for a second. Had they broken out with an impromptu rendition of "We Are The World", I would not have been shocked. Take note, Hung-haters!

In further news from the Department of Who Woulda Thought, Sara stepped up. Damned RIGHT Howie's lamb chops were undercooked! And nicely done sticking by her guns and telling Howie that "resting them" would not be enough, and to do them again. When called upon to be decisive, she was. Some impressive decision making tonight from Sara. First, recognizing the full extent of the previous night's disaster -- and the extent to which they'd have to change and adjust. Second, presiding over a smarter and vastly improved menu. Third, shutting down Howie's irresistible urge to drag his team into the crapper.

Howie! Dude! That lamb was stone raw! Howie may talk an enlightened sounding game, but push comes to shove, it appears he'd rather serve uncooked lamb than admit he's wrong. Again and again, his performance fails to live up to his advertising. What he says he is -- and what he says he's capable of -- diverge wildly with what we plainly see. He was remarkably slow on the oysters. And slamming the oven door in a mini-hissy fit/editorial comment doesn't make your lamb cook any faster. For all his yapping about "resting", the lamb chops I saw on my TV screen -- whatever the judges might have said about theirs -- had not properly rested. Sara might well have saved his ass from elimination.

Another good performance from Dale, who continues to impress with his professionalism. When confronted with Madonna's asshat brother, he managed to avoid telling him where he could go with his interior design suggestions and what, exactly, to do with that candelabra. A remarkable display of self-control. I am atwitter with anticipation, wondering what other food world luminaries might share their wisdom with us next week! Joe Piscopo's brother, the landscaper? Mickey Rourke's dog-groomer? This could get really, really good!

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

So she's going to take more time shopping at Whole Foods -- and ask for the best of Melissa's basket and Adam's shrimp.

Bravotv.com: Let's dive right in. How did it feel to go shopping?
Gail Simmons: Shopping at Whole Foods was fantastic and hilarious. It made us realize that you need to be strategic, which was the point of the exercise for us. They gave us 30 minutes, but we took a little longer. We didn't let the producers push us around! We’re not contestants and we weren't going to stand for it! So, you realize how little time you have, and how big Whole Foods can be. You spend a lot of time running around.

 

My strategy with my pantry was to get a lot of fresh, delicious food that you can cook in lots of different ways. A good balance of proteins, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, fresh herbs, grains. But I didn't want to get too much. Everyone has different strategies; Padma got a ton of different ingredients. Tom's pantry was very pared down. Richard and I were somewhere in the middle.

 

Bravotv.com: Let's start by talking about the two dishes that came from your pantry?
GS: Katsuji and Melissa. They used the same protein, but their dishes were very different. They both used shrimp which one of the proteins that I bought. I bought something else too, something that I know has given people trouble in the past (which is why I specifically chose it) -- chicken wings. And I really wanted people to use them. Instead, they chose the easy way out because shrimps cook quickly.

Melissa's used a lot of fresh vegetables, which I was hoping she would: dill, mint, artichoke. I was so excited about all of it. I think it was beautifully done, a lovely salad with that little shrimp on top with spiced yogurt. But it was just a salad with a quick-cooking seafood. It was so similar to what she had done in Restaurant Wars when she made a scallop with grapefruit salad. I believe she could have done so much more. Melissa keeps saying she wanted to focus on her knife skills, and, of course, your knife skills have to be precise. But I need to see more than just knife skills. I want to see cooking skills, I want to see roasting skills, braising skills. I want to see her hands get a little dirtier and her dishes not be as superficial. It was a light, lovely dish. I was happy to eat it for lunch. But when you're competing against six other really talented chefs, we all want to see a little more depth. Katsuji on the other hand went big. He used his ingredients in a really powerful way. The potato salad, the poached shrimp had bold seasoning and I loved how they went together. It was a great dish. It may not have been the best of the day, but I was actually really happy with what he chose to make.

 

Bravotv.com: So for the rest, let's talk about who was on top and who was on bottom.

GS: At the top there was Gregory who really was going for Padma's heart there. He did great with his coconut milk curry. A really balanced, powerful dish. But it's something we’ve seen from Gregory many times in the past. In fact, in the first challenge he made a similar spicy curry dish with chicken. As much as we thought it was a delicious bowl of food, it was so typical of what we expect from Gregory. George's food was really exciting for us. This was my first time tasting his food and meeting him on Top Chef. He did a great job. The kebab was moist, seasoned really well, and the lentils were beautiful too. My only small issue with the dish is I couldn't understand why he separated the lentils from the kebab in two separate dishes. Why not put lentils on the plate and the kebab right on top, with a dollop of the yogurt? It seemed a little bit disconnected to me. But all-in-all, a really strong dish. Doug had the winning dish of the night. He used Richard's crazy pantry in a way that I thought was smart, clear-cut, and creative. The chorizo and mussels and peppers, just how Tom said, go together well, as do the cauliflower and the garlic. There was sweetness, there was spice, it was light and fresh but had a soulful, rustic flavor we all loved. You could see use of technique. On the bottom were dishes that tried to stretch and didn’t come through. Mei did a great job overall, except her lamb was undercooked. You want lamb medium, medium rare, but the center of that meat was raw to the point where the texture was chewy and almost cold. It would have been better if she had been able to cook it five minutes longer. We talked about Melissa's mistakes already, which also landed her on the bottom. I totally applaud Adam for trying to make a quick-flash marinade. He's been in the middle for so long and he thought "I gotta go big or I gotta go home." He tried to go big and unfortunately, he went home because of that technique. I get the idea of what he was doing, I don't doubt that it could've been successful if it were perhaps done in a different setting, with a little more control. But the flash marinade of his shrimp did not cook it as needed. It was still grey, it was still raw, and the texture of raw shrimp is not appealing. It's squeaky, it's squishy, and it becomes sort of mushy. We wanted it firm and cooked through. It's not like fish that you can eat sashimi-style Unfortunately Adam's hard work, his big risk sent him home.

I will miss him. I think he's an incredibly articulate, clever chef. I think he has an extraordinary career ahead of him. I'm excited to see him back in New York City. I can't wait to eat his food again. Also I want to say of this entire episode that was it was thrilling to see our superfans in the kitchen. We've never let people come into the kitchen in that way before, even though people ask us all the time. It brought so much good energy to have basically a live audience with us for the day. Everyone was so psyched. It was amazing to be around people who really love the show, to let them eat food from our talented chefs. SO much fun!