Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Turning Up The Heat

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

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 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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

 



Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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. . .

Bravotv.com:  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!