Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Top Chef: The Final Four

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

Top Chef: The Final Four

Gail Simmons predicts who will pack their knives next.

Last night's episode sealed the fate of the final four -- three women -- Lisa, Antonia, and Stephanie will face off with the even-tempered, pink-clogged Mr. Blais in Puerto Rico next week.

I'm very excited to see that three women have made it to final four, and I think this is the year that the Top Chef title will be awarded to a woman. Richard's quite talented, that's for sure, but he's got some serious competition from Stephanie and Antonia. Lisa, not so much. She's gone next round, mark my words.

The Quickfire Challenge this week was a true test of chefness on many levels. First, it tested butchery, which is not something that many cooks know how to do. Trimming down and small butchery is one thing, but fabricating whole sides of beef and large animals is a rare skill among the restaurant chef community.

I wrote a story about a month ago on a local restaurant out in Brooklyn called Diner that's been using a small family farm in the Hudson Valley for their grass-fed beef. When the farm, Fleisher's, began selling only whole and half animals, the restaurant had to either find a different meat supplier (which they didn't want to do) or train one of its employees. They chose the latter and found a willing participant in a guy named Tom Mylan, who trained up at the Fleisher's farm to become a butcher. The need for in-house butchers is only going to continue to grow as more and more small family farms begin supplying farm-to-table and locavore restaurants with beef, lamb, and pork. The reason is simple: Small family farms can't afford to spend the time and money butchering animals into convenient cuts of steaks and chops. They're spending their time and resources on the more important stuff: making sure that the animals are raised right.

The Quickfire Challenge also tested another fundamental chef skill -- cooking meat to temperature. That's something that so basic any chef should be able to do it with his or her eyes closed, but as we've seen time and time again on Top Chef, sometimes it's the most basic skills that are the hardest to nail. What I think Top Chef gets right is this combination of testing the most important basic skills, alongside with more "advanced" capabilities like patience, palate, creativity, thoughtfulness, and presentation. To be a great chef, or a Top Chef, I suppose, you've got to master it all, from the most simple task -- like cooking a steak medium rare - to the most challenging, like creating a menu in the course of three hours, and serving it to a fine dining restaurant filled with hungry diners. That's why this week's challenges were so compelling.

In the end, Spike, who was the winner of Quickfire, lost the Elimination Challenge for something I thought was so surprising -- his insistence on sticking to those dreadful water-logged scallops. Why? There was no rule that said he had to stick to that protein. He could've cut his losses and perhaps made something on the fly and made it to Puerto Rico.

Last night's challenge did hook onto a major dining trend here in New York City and that's the steakhouse. The list of exceptional steakhouses has grown over the years from iconic stalwarts like Peter Luger's, the Palm, Sparks, Old Homestead, and Smith and Wollensky to include high end temples of grass-fed, house-aged, and Wagyu beef like Chef Tom's very own Craftsteak, BLT Steak, BLT Prime, Porter House, Quality Meats, and most recently Steve Hanson's newly opened Primehouse, which I just reviewed last week on my blog, The Strong Buzz.

While many of the best steaks in the city are served at these steakhouses, what's even more impressive to me is when I find a great steak at a regular restaurant. Here are two of my favorite spots for just that: The NY Strip Steak at The Little Owl, 90 Bedford Street (at Grove), 212-741-4695. Chef Joey Campanaro was Top Chef Season One Harold Dieterle's mentor way back when they both cooked at The Harrison. They've both since departed, and you'll find Joey cooking at his snug little West Village gem, The Little Owl.

While the most ordered dish on the menu is his gravy meatballs sliders -- sliders made from veal, pork and beef and smothered in Sunday gravy and snuggled into homemade garlic Parmesan rolls -- my favorite dish is his NY Strip, which is one of the most flavorful steaks you'll find in the city. It's a rather gargantuan portion of beautifully seasoned buttery meat, grilled perfectly to medium rare (just the way I like it) and served with quick saute of radicchio, pancetta and balsamic that is shamelessly bold. If you are a fan of quiet little flavors this is not the steak for you. This one is a big bossy baritone.

The Ribeye Tagliata at Centro Vinoteca, 74 Seventh Avenue South, at Barrow Street, 212-367-8040. Chef Anne Burrell is probably known to most as Mario Batali's sous-chef on Iron Chef, but to New York City's most discerning foodies, she's the spunky chef with a shock of blond hair cooking her heart out every night (in a mini-skirt) at Centro Vinoteca, where she dishes out heaping bowls of gorgeous homemade pasta (the pici with sausage ragu is a must), and a mouthwatering array of piccolini (little nibbles) like arancini, eggplant cakes with ricotta, and Parmesan-crusted wedges of fried cauliflower with a spicy agliata.

One of her hidden talents, however, has nothing to do with pasta and everything to do with steak. Her Ribeye, sliced thinly in the Florentine Tagliata style, comes with a crisped potato prosciutto fontina cake and broccoli rabe, and is one of the best steaks in the city. She credits her meat supplier, Pat LaFrieda. And while I agree that the quality of the meat is a testament to his sourcing, I've gotta give Anne credit where it's due. She seasons that meat just right and grills it so its got a beautiful char and just melts in your mouth. You may go for the pasta, but you'll leave craving that steak.

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!