Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Duck and Cover

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

Duck and Cover

Harold Dieterle reveals his favorite so far and explains the process of rendering skin.

The Quickfire this week was a good one. Your palate can be trained, but like 90%, more than 90% of your taste buds come from your nose, and some people just don't smell well. You gotta have that. You gotta be able to do that. It's just a memory thing is what it is. It's just remembering. I have a very strong palate, picking up on a lot of undertones and overtones of different flavors and textures. It's very important to be able to cook. Antonia hasn't really been doing or cooking anything that's really "Wow, oh my God." She makes good, simple food, probably similar to what I do. It's just a matter if it's appropriate for the challenge, and it's soulful, and the guest judges and Tom and Padma are all digging it.

Ming Tsai is a good guy. I like Ming. He's a lot of personality. He's really funny. And he's got -- I've never cooked with him -- but there's something to be said about someone who is a celebrity chef and still only has one restaurant, still has one focus. A lot can be said on that.

Onto the Elimination. Another team challenge, though. That's brutal. Has there been a straight up single chef Elimination yet? For Team Earth, it was a really shitty situation. Obviously with Antonia, you want yourself to be heard, and you want to play a role, but you really don't have anything to lose. It's really selfish the situation she put them in. I don't really recall Zoi being that strong and saying, "I want to do a soup." I do remember Spike saying, "I wanna do butternut squash soup." I mean it's really difficult to wow people with soup. Some people are really into those just straightforward, really home-cooked flavors. I love a bowl of soup, and I love making soup. I don't see anyone winning a challenge making soup. I don't see a challenge being won by someone making soup. That's just my feeling on it. Certainly if you do want to play it a little safe and go in that direction, soup could be a good thing, and I feel like they used a lot of earthy ingredients. They just didn't make the best of it I suppose. Sunchokes, and rosemary, and mushrooms, and beef -- I just don't know. The other ingredients sound great -- I can kinda see where they were going with that. You have a lot of sweet, and subtle, and earthy flavors, and then you blast rosemary in there. A specific situation where it's not used properly to make all the flavors harmonious, it can be problematic.

I'm with the judges on their Team Air critique because I'm a self-proclaimed duck fanatic. I was just watching them cook the duck, and I was just like, "Oh no." Duck is pretty sacred. I like to do -- I wouldn't call it poaching it -- but I like to take the duck, and I just like to pour a scented hot liquid over it to start the rendering the process of the fat a little bit, and then score it, and cook it super slow, skin-side down for a really, really long time. There's a couple of different ways to go from there. I like to take that fat that's rendering, and with my spoon just baste the duck and you can throw herbs in there too. There's a lot of different ways to skin a cat. But, I was watching them slice it, and I just wasn't into it.What's rendering? Duck is something that has such a thick, dense fat, like a pork belly, or bacon, or any type of cured meat. When it's slowly cooking it, the fat melts, almost like butter, so it's basically the same thing as melting the fat. Maybe I'm being a little harsh because duck is kind of my thing, and I just didn't think they gave it the love it deserved. Duck and pomegranates go great together. What they put with it, I thought was a great accompaniment. The handling of the duck itself, though, the duck could have used a lot more love.

As far as the little drink goes, it's not my thing. A lot of times, you have three people, and everyone wants to have their presence felt, so you do a little more, and you do this, you do that. But it didn't look nice. The drink didn't look nice. There was some pomegranate seed in there -- it looked like foggy water. It did. It didn't have a beautiful, pristine ruby color. You know, I can't taste it, I'm just strictly going on visuals.

Team Water was a f***ing mess.You can totally sous-vide fish, but first of all, when you do salmon, my first thing is, why would you leave the skin on the fish? I know you want to keep the moisture in, but sous-vide salmon skin and then you serve it with it on it, is not going to taste good -- I guarantee it. Even if there weren't scales on it. It's not a skin that steams well. I like a snapper skin or a black sea bass skin that you can pierce through nice and gingerly and eat it. It's not that type of skin.What I would have liked to have seen them do is cut the salmon skin off, cut it into pieces, brush it with some glucose or simple syrup or whatever you want and make little coquants or tuiles out of the skin and really crisp it up and give the dish some texture. Because if you look at their dish, you've got the faux caviar -- I've said my piece on that last week -- but I don't really know why they were getting up in Mark's shit about the parsnip and vanilla. I think those flavors go really nicely together. So, it was one of those situations where I would have had a hard time figuring out who to send home. And the scales? That's a major, major f***up. The fact of the matter is that Richard's been doing a really nice job, and they weren't ready to send him home yet for sure. I knew that he wasn't packing his bags because he's got major skills, and everybody gets at least one strike I would hope.

Team Fire's bacon was phenomenal; it looked great. And Dale can go and say whatever he wants about Lisa winning for cooking bacon, if you're going to break out a technique or a move that nobody's seen before, you're going to get props on it. I've never cooked bacon like that before. I've never thought about cooking bacon like that before. I don't know why I haven't put bacon with miso and maple syrup, but I'm thinking about throwing something like that on my brunch menu. It sounded phenomenal. Chili-grilled shrimp has been done before. Everybody knows about it. You're not putting anything new on the table. It takes some skill to do it right, certainly, and not overcook the shrimp for making that many plates, but it was good to see Lisa throw it down, and say, "You know what, guys? I don't want to make this. I don't want to do eggs. I think it's a bad move." And it paid off. Her resilience paid off. So, I respect that.

Serving hot food as a first course is just one of those things. There are a couple of ingredients, you gotta be really careful, and chilies are one of them as a first course. It's not that big of a deal. You can have a warm canape. Chilies are a concern. Garlic is another. Garlic that's not really cooked down really slowly, roasted garlic, raw garlic, you're going to be burping that up the whole meal. Blue cheese, peppers, types of things that are really strong and pungent -- you want save them towards the latter part of the meal. But Tom's absolutely right -- you have to be really careful with chilies.The fight after? Wow. It was an interesting scene. Stephanie was kinda holding it together. You got two sides that are just not feeling each other. Then you have Jenn and Spike going back and forth, battling it out. It was just like, geez, it's getting ugly. Richard was getting upset too.

I was sad to see Zoi go -- you can tell she's a really sweet girl. There can be only one I suppose.

Since you guys have been asking who my favorites are, I have to say, I like Stephanie. I like Richard. Stephanie and Richard, they're probably my two favorites. Not really amused by Andrew anymore. I lost it. I was amused by him the first time I saw the tapioca faux caviar, but it's boring to me at this point.


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!