Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Turning Up The Heat

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

Turning Up The Heat

Lee Anne Wong reports on South Florida cuisine, and what makes good BBQ

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Now that the first episode is over, the contestants have had a few days to live together, check out each other's food and form opinions about each other. For those of you who are not used to living with roommates, try taking on 14. This episode, we begin to see the cracks in the sidewalk.

I love this episode because both challenges are so straightforward. Norman Van Aken is a legend unto himself, part of what is known as "The Mango Gang," a group of chefs who include Douglas Rodriguez, Alan Susser, and Mark Militello. These guys put South Florida on the map with their "New World" style, combining the flavors of the Caribbean, South and Central Americas, and Asian cuisine while incorporating Florida's local ingredients. Norman's is a restaurant that has been around for over 10 years, and in restaurant years, that is no small feat.
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I sourced over a dozen varieties of local Florida Citrus for the Quickfire, working with the wonderful people over at the Fresh Market. The display was meant to get the contestants' blood pumping and I think most of them did a great job with the Quickfire. I personally love working with citrus fruit and having so many different varieties can either inspire or overwhelm (like in Sara N's case).

As Chef Van Aken begins to tastes everyone's dish, it's easy to see that he has a very refined, if not critical palate and the fact that this is all about Florida citrus means that no one's going to fool him with fancy descriptions of what he or she has made. Hung's ego should now be apparent to all but he's got the skills to back it up as he wins immunity from the Elimination challenge. We had scouted several different locations for the BBQ and settled on the Aqua properties sitting on the intra coastal waterway. This is a shout out to all of the production assistants who spent days assembling all of the grills on set. Good job, guys.

So how do you make high end, gourmet BBQ? Well, I'll tell you what you don't do...you don't throw drumsticks on the grill. We had to call The Fresh Market the day before they went shopping to ensure that they would have enough proteins on hand for the contestants. Thankfully they did, and the only one who ended purchasing lamb was Micah. Our field producers are constantly with the contestants and are always taking notes about their conversations and what is going on so that it can be used for story once editing time comes. For the record, Micah did miss her daughter, though I am also sure that part of the crying was due to the frustration of being in the bottom three for the Quickfire.

Two hours is not a whole lot of time to prep and pack everything and now that they are 14 in the kitchen, there's a lot less room. I remember watching Joey and the drumsticks and shaking my head. It's not that I'm a hater of the drumstick -- I happen to love chicken legs -- but maybe not at an Ian Schrager party. Of course there was Sara N. and her Habanero peppers (the gloves are in the pantry!!!).

Brian caught my eye as I watched him poach and chill a homemade seafood sausage. I happen to love making seafood sausage and was impressed with the fact he made his own forcemeat rather than buy pre-made sausage at the store, like Camille and Sara M. Their excuse was that they couldn't find casings. Just so you all know, any market that sells fresh sausage usually has casings somewhere in the back. It's just not an item that is normally on display. Brian however missed the casings too but opted to use plastic wrap to form and shape his sausage while it cooked and chilled.

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We gave them 2 hours to get their grills going and finish their dishes before the guests arrived. I had done a test run on a grill in the parking lot days before to find out how long it would take to light the charcoal, get the grill hot and cause the charcoal to burn. I'm from upstate NY where barbecuing and summer are synonymous (though rare due to real estate). I jump at the chance to get on a grill here in the city whenever I can.

It was interesting that some of them had never gotten a grill going unless it was turning a knob on the gas grill in their respective kitchens. The challenge for most of the chefs was grasping cooking time on the grill and how their service was going to run once they began serving. This was also an opportunity for them to flex their salesman skills when dealing with the guests. In Brian's case: a used car salesman, and I say that in the most affectionate way.
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I think Micah surprised herself with the end result, but obviously knows how to talk a quick game at the Judges Table. She bought the lamb because it was on sale? Right. By the time Sara's fingers stopped burning, she had put out a simple but flavorful dish that captured the smoky flavor of the grill and was easy to eat. If you haven't tried Vietnamese barbecue I suggest you run (don't walk) to the nearest Vietnamese restaurant. In the end, Mr. Malarkey took home gold for his Chino-Latino seafood sausage. You can learn how to make his winning dish this week on my online show The Wong Way to Cook. It is deceptively simple with a lot of bright flavors. Just remember to make sure you are using the freshest seafood possible.

So now the question for the judges is not using the barbecue at all vs. not making something that is upscale enough? I think Tre did phone it in. The salmon that I had tasted was actually under seasoned and I had wished there were more pronounced acidity and peach flavor to his barbecue sauce.

Joey's drumsticks missed the concept of the challenge altogether and were clumsy and messy to eat. Less than glamorous, though obviously he had no problem throwing stones at Howie. With Howie, I believe he jumped the gun to overcompensate for not having his food ready on time for the last challenge. A little bit of Clay-itis, resulting in a dry, overcooked pork tenderloin.
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Sandee was sent home because she, in fact, did not grill anything at all. I had provided each of them with a small sautee pan and a saucepan on site for saucing and accessorizing so that they could truly create a gourmet dish for this challenge. The problem was that Sandee forgot to use the actual grill to impart any flavor on her food. While tasty, I agree with Chef Van Aken that the sweetness of the date overpowered the minuscule slice of lobster on the skewer. Sandee is a young chef in terms of the fact that she has only been cooking for 3 years. She has already accomplished so much in that short period of time and is continuing to hone her skills in lovely South Beach. I wish her the best, as she is a truly sweet and talented individual.

Watching this episode made me grill-hungry. Thankfully I'll have a grill to use when I head to Los Angeles for the 4th of July (again, NYC backyards are hard to come by). My barbecue will include marinated rib eye and skirt steaks and bacon in many shapes and sizes (bacon wrapped prawns on the grill, billionaire's bacon, and bacon chocolate cake). Can't wait to fire up the barbie (insert Australian accent). Until then, as my friend Harold would say, keep it hot.

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!