Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

My Life On The F-list

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

My Life On The F-list

Lee Anne Wong reveals the challenge behind the challenges.

Hi all. I get an "A" in tardiness, but that's only because I love to work. I missed blogging last week due to producing a very entertaining spot for the A-List Awards (watch what happens...). I'm sitting between two crusty old dudes on a plane on my way to Aspen, so I'm going to blog on the entire finale, even though I haven't seen the final episode. I'll go from memory, so please excuse any discrepancies with the final edit. Any typos are due to the fact that neither gentleman will give me any elbow room.

Ahhh ... the lovely isle of Puerto Rico. So close, but so far away. I was lectured many times on my continual mental faux pas of being in a tropical climate and repeating references to "back in the states" or (even worse) "in America ...", as Puerto Rico is an official US property, and while in Hawaii in January, I repeatedly and then comically kept insulting my relatives who live there ("Hawaii is part of the US"). Just doesn't feel like it because I live in NY. Point being, I'm glad I finally got to visit Puerto Rico. Actually three times within a few months; once for the scout, second time to do a photo shoot for Food & Wine and Rums of Puerto Rico (it's out this month, check it out -- I learned how to surf), and then finally for grueling two weeks of finale shooting. Within all three trips to PR, I got to visit many areas of the island, each with its own unique vibe and culture.

We filmed primarily in Old San Juan and have been working with the Puerto Rican Board of Tourism for the past year and half on setting up this shoot. Our contestants stayed in a really lovely hotel, El Convento, which we had stayed in for the scout. High ceilings -- they count for something. In developing the challenges for the entire finale, we had several things we had to consider: time, space, and resources. We wanted to choose a location for the frituras Quickfire that would give an authentic feel to the episode. The Reef Bar ended up working perfectly, as it had a spectacular view of Old San Juan, and a fairly well-equipped kitchen. Shannon and I packed up a measured amount of equipment in Chicago to ship to Puerto Rico, as we knew obtaining certain items would be difficult or expensive once on the island. And that's what we do -- move our blenders, pots, pans, and other small tools into any kitchen space to make sure our contestants have everything they need to create some great food.

The space at the Reef Bar was small and our main concern was whether two deep fryers would be enough and thankfully it was. The other decision was whether or not we should make them cook one or two frituras for the challenge. I always refer back to what Harold, Tiffani, and Dave went through, having a triple Quickfire with the high rollers and Cirque de Soleil, and I said two dishes in 40 minutes would be more challenging than one fritura dish in 30 minutes. Besides, this is the Top Chef finale. They've made it this far, so pressure should be not unfamiliar to them.


We wanted to find out who had done their homework and who hadn't. When you're going to a place like Hawaii or Puerto Rico as a finalist, you'd think you'd do your homework on the culture and cuisine, and especially because we give the final four a few months off before we film finale. Surprisingly, Stephanie readily admitted to production not studying up on PR before coming to finale. Before I get into more detail, let me say that I feel beyond fantastic about the final four. Not only because there were three women in the finale, but because all four of them have a very different point of view with their cuisines and cooking style, each extremely talented in their own way. All of the conspiracy theorists and haters out there should know that each one of them, including Lisa, fought very hard to get to this stage. I didn't even make it to finale, so please understand that the game itself is still based on individual challenges and the producers are not whispering in Tom or Padma's ear.

OK, the food. In comes Wilo Benet, one of the top chefs in Puerto Rico as our judge. I had eaten at his restaurant, Pikayo, during the scout and his pigeon pea risotto with chicharron changed my life. Shannon and I shopped for this Quickfire all over the island, visiting farmers' markets, roadside stands, and the Mercado to stock all of the local produce and proteins for this challenge. The best was when we bought the maduros from this little stand down by Caguas. The gentleman running the roadside stand raised more than one eyebrow when I went to purchase over four full bunches of maduros (sweet, yellow plantain) and then smiled when he realized I was going to buy a whole lot more.

I was surprised by both Antonia and Richard, when each had a dish that did not incorporate plantains as part of the fritura, instead using it as a condiment (in Richard's case, twice). I sampled all of the frituras and agreed with the judges in their choices for winner and loser. Stephanie's pork and shrimp fritter kicked ass, especially drenched in brown butter, and her tuna toston was surprisingly light.

Again, Antonia's non-use of the plantain in her oyster fritter raised an eyebrow, and her slaw on a sweet plantain seemed uninspired, as I stocked the fridge with giant prawns, calamari, smoked salmon, foie gras, bacon, and another multitude of proteins. Lisa's dishes were very aggressive in flavor, but tasty nonetheless. Richard went the same way as Antonia, the rawness of the plantains getting them both in the end.


The pig challenge was extremely exciting to set up. First of all, Shauna and Liz told me, "This is your challenge." Had I actually participated I would've taken them all down. I came back from Puerto Rico and had a pig party for my birthday, which I had planned months beforehand, and I make it a point to cook a whole pig every year. This included our friend the swine, roasted whole in a caja china, grilled ribs and pork belly, various pork centric appetizers, including a giant charcuterie selection, a whole smoked Ossabow pork shoulder, Chef Michael White's jowl sauce, bacon chocolate cupcakes, bacon peanut butter cookies, and of course, a bacon bar with 10 different varieties of bacon from artisan producers in the South. Let's just say it was an amazing party and I received e-mails and phone calls all week from friends who complained of sweating and smelling like pork for days afterwards. Shannon and I worked with the Executive Chef of La Fortaleza, Luis Velez Vasquez, on getting the pigs and everything we needed for this challenge. First of all, the three of us were the only one who handled the dead pigs. Everyone else was grossed out by the sight of a whole dead animal (and a magical one at that). Let me remind you, bacon does not grow on the bacon tree.

We had bought four brand new Forschner cleavers with a meat mallet. They were not cheap. When three of the four broke during the butchering time Shannon and I debated on sending the broken ones back to the company with a note that said, "Thanks a lot." So we scored our contestants some machetes, which was kind of hilarious. Going back to the pairing of the contestants with eliminated chefs, Stephanie was very diplomatic in her assigning of partners. Dale almost did her in later on though. Richard impressed me with his butchering skills and preparation of the pig. In reality, he created six dishes in the kitchen, four of which made it to the table. He had our favorite politician Spike to help schmooze the crowd. I tried most of their dishes and the ones that stood out for me were Stephanie's blini with coconut braised pork (fresh blini out of the pan, lesson learned from the zoo challenge), Richard's pork and bean stew, using beans Spike found at the Mercado, and finally Richard's coffee braised pork shoulder. Chef Luis and I had spoken afterwards, as he had attended the party as a guest and he said, "I loved that dish because it was a 'chef's dish'." Meaning it was a dish that simple, yet sophisticated, and downright delicious. I wasn't there to see it but the I'm sure winning the Toyota Highlander was a nice surprise for him. Top Chef does Price is Right.

Sadly, my dear Antonia, and I absolutely adore this lady, was sent home. Her pigeon peas were indeed undercooked, and there was not a lot of texture or color to any of her dishes. I was actually setting up the kitchen for the final challenge when she had to do her exit shot. She sniffled, and I gave her a hug and welcomed her to my team: Numero Cuatro Chef. Other team members include Elia and Malarkey. I had the opportunity to socialize with her last week in NY for the A-list Awards and she reminds me of me in so many ways, meaning we have a very similar sense of humor. I'm out in Los Angeles often enough so I'm psyched to eat at Foxtail next time I'm there.


Final Challenge. First of all, can I say how mind blowing it was to see Eric Ripert, Dan Barber, and April Bloomfield all cooking in the same kitchen together. I divided the selected proteins in a manner that each contestant would have an ample choice of shellfish, seafood, poultry, and meats, with accompanying specialty proteins that would showcase or highlight that particular protein. (For example: quail eggs with the quail, foie gras and duck fat with the duck, and sweetbreads, kobe oxtails, and beef tongue to pair with the strip steak.) However, the contestants were not allowed to share proteins so I had to be sure that each list would be a list any chef would be psyched to work with. Ariane Daguin from D'Artagnan generously donated our meat proteins and the Chef's Garden also supplied us with some killer microgreens and vegetables. (I made a beautiful food display in the kitchen, which you never get to see.) Here's a run-down of the protein selection each chef had. Eric Ripert's list consisted of: caviar, clams, sea urchin, lobster, hamachi, snapper, poussins (baby chickens) quail, quail eggs, chorizo, bacon, veal tenderloin, and rack of lamb. Dan Barber's table had abalone, calamari, scallops, tuna, halibut, guinea hen, duck, duck fat, foie gras, prosciutto, pork belly, rabbit, and venison. April Bloomfield's table had oysters, octopus, head on prawns, jumbo lump crab, mahi mahi, organic chicken, squab, pancetta, sweetbreads, oxtails, beef tongue, wagyu strip, and ostrich steaks.

From a culinary producer's point of view, it's a little frustrating to see our chefs go for the same old proteins again and again, even with such a selection. (Scallops: Official Sponsor of Top Chef.) And Lisa and the damn prawns. Leave the shrimp alone already and show me that you can cook something else. It drove me bonkers because getting all of those beautiful proteins to the island of Puerto Rico almost shaved ten years off my life in stress alone. (My fish arrived two hours before we began the final challenge.) Obviously there was quite a bit of repetition, especially from Richard, so I was puzzled by some of their protein choices.


Let's talk about the meal. I sampled each dish too. Richard's smoked scallop was good, if not slightly underseasoned and the scallop may have been overpowered by the sweetness of the mango. I remember wishing the scallop had more smoke flavor. Lisa's prawn was well-prepared, and her chili sauce was very nice, but the dish suffered from being drenched in too much chili sauce and the giant pile of potato chips on the plate, which gave it a very unrefined feel. Stephanie's snapper was cooked perfectly, though I would think by now everyone would know Tom's intense dislike for truffle oil, which slightly overpowered the delicate flavors of the clam and white asparagus broth. It was rich dish, but not heavy, and certainly the most elegant of the three.

For the second course, I liked the idea of Richard's dish, and it was good, but because it was all piled together in a bowl it became hard to distinguish all of the ingredients. I love a soft poached egg, and foie gras, but there was also braised guinea hen, morels, peas, and some other stuff in there. It was sophisticated but the dish lacked acid and salt to balance out the many ingredients. I gotta say, I was not a fan of the presentation, or the idea of a soup with a chicken dumpling as her poultry course, but Lisa knocked it out of the park with her coconut soup. The flavors were bold and refreshing. Stephanie's dish was OK, but the lobster flavor was lost with the addition of mango in the sauce (which complements the quail well) and the ravioli could've used more lobster.

For the meat course, I was sad to see Richard do pork belly the same way for the second day in a row, especially when he had rabbit and venison (and Dan Barber). The dish felt incomplete, with just a pickled radish salad on top. While some would debate the fattiness and crispiness of the pork belly, it was still delicious, of course. It's pork belly. Lisa's wagyu steak was beyond black and blue. As Tom said, you need to cook a piece of meat like that a little more so the fat has a chance to melt. The sauce was cloyingly sweet and distracted from what could've been a solid dish, had the beef been cooked properly. I remember thinking it would have been more interesting had she put some braised oxtail or sliced and fried beef tongue on the plate to accompany the steak.

Stephanie's lamb dish killed them, probably being the most surprising and satisfying dish for our judges. I made it a few weeks ago for "Wong Way." It was just me, a producer, our DP, and one of our co-EPs. We devoured the lamb at 8 in the morning.


Dessert was interesting. Props for the bacon ice cream, as you all know by now I put the bacon in everything, including dessert. But it's the third time we've seen banana scallops. Lisa's coconut black rice was a salty sweet surprise, with candied coconut, salty taro sticks, and ripe mango. Stephanie's dish was weird and unrefined. The vanilla cake was good, but the combination of the banana, pineapple, and ricotta never quite came together (and I even made the ricotta fresh for her). All you season five potentials should study up on your dessert.

All in all, it came down to which meal they would rather eat again, and Gail had said as much when I ran into her the next day. All three chefs are immense talents and have nothing to be ashamed of. Stephanie and Richard were particularly hard on themselves at Judges' Table. Richard is one of the most creative chefs I have ever met, humble and focused, and a great competitor without having to be nasty. I want to congratulate him on his newborn baby and I have no doubt his future is paved in gold. I observed Lisa from a distance the entire season and would occasionally hear about the situations that made her so unpopular, but at the end of the day she's a badass cook and quite frankly I adore her confidence. She's now over at Mai House, where I'm sure she'll be able to excel with her signature flavors.

And at last, THE FIRST FEMALE TOP CHEF!!!! I'm never allowed to say it, but I was rooting for Stephanie since block party. She is a creative and resourceful chef, with a good knowledge of how to balance flavors and textures. Add the fact that she's got a stellar attitude both in and out of the kitchen, she's a natural hero and role model not just for females but for all cooks out there. Congratulations, Stephanie, you have no idea how happy I am for you. I'm sure I'll see her soon. It's been fun kids.

Till next time.

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Gail can't believe that Keriann wouldn't have shown her teammates how she wanted her dish executed.

Bravotv.com: This week was Restaurant Wars!
GS: Restaurant Wars is always an exciting episode because it’s so hard to do what we are asking of chefs to do. Opening a restaurant is truly so difficult, on a good day if you’re dealing with people you love and work with all the time, let alone with three people you’re competing against and have never worked with in this way before. You don’t really know their strengths and weaknesses, and this is where that it all comes out.

Bravotv.com: So looking first at the Grey Team, Melissa, Doug, Mei, Adam
GS: I knew it was a strong team from the start, but we’ve had plenty of strong teams that have failed in the past. You never know until you sit down at that table to eat their meal. I could tell that they were all serious and they have all performed pretty well up to this point though. Although the other team was stacked too, with Gregory who's won a lot and Katsuji who was coming off his win in the Thanksgiving challenge. Keriann and Katie have made some great dishes too. It was anyone’s game.

I think it was smart of the Grey Team to chose Adam as their front of the house man. He’s gregarious, he’s affable, he is a great storyteller, a great talker, and he has a sense of urgency and confidence. Sometimes he can be over-confident maybe, but I think you want someone working front of house who’s willing to take on that risk. Plus he’s done it before. He understands the importance of that role.

Putting Keriann in the front of the house could have been a good move too. She’s certainly a lovely person. She’s well-spoken and definitely wanted to take on the challenge. I just wasn’t sure if they put her out front because they didn’t want her in the kitchen or because they really thought she’d be good for that role. Either way, that’s the way the cards fell. Katie taking on the chef position I thought was a real risk -- she doesn’t run a kitchen day-to-day. I was proud of her for wanting to do it, maybe because she runs pop-ups, she knows how to do something really quickly like this and that experience could come in handy. The other team chose Doug as their chef, who also doesn’t run a restaurant every single day; he is a sous chef. But you can tell he has that drive and understanding of service, he expedites every day in his restaurant and that’s a really huge piece of how a good restaurant runs. It seemed like everyone knew their roles and everyone was happy at the start. They weren’t forced into anything.

I actually liked both restaurant concepts in theory. "Four Pigs" was family style, rustic, comforting, American, bold flavors, relaxed environment. I think that suited who they were, and I think they did a great job. The concept of "Magellan" was a really great idea too. Magellan being an explorer, the spice route, all of the dishes having complex spice elements. The issue you run into with that concept though is that if it’s too loose, everyone is literally all over the map (pun intended). So even though the idea’s inspiration is exploration, when you as the customer sit down and eat that meal, do you really want to be eating things from all over the map? Do they go together? Sometimes the chefs get carried away by the idea of that exploration, and forget that a meal still has to feel cohesive. I don’t know who would want to be eating seven different cuisines all at one table. There needs to be a common thread between them more than just that they all have spice. All spices don’t taste good when they’re combined. I think that’s the first issue this team had. They were all making their own dishes and not really discussing how those dishes would talk to each other when they were actually put on people’s plates.

Bravotv.com: So, let’s start with the dishes from the Grey Team.
GS: The Grey Team started with Adam’s salt-baked clams with ramps, bacon and sunflower seeds. Very seasonal (we filmed this in the spring), very New England. I love clams from that part of the country. We saw that he got in a little hot water when he lost his first set of clam shells, but he was able to completely bounce back. The dish was tasty, it was a perfect starter, a savory little bite. And you were really able to taste all of those flavors without overshadowing the clam itself, which with ramps and bacon is a hard thing to do.

Mei’s chicken liver toast with plum puree was also delicious. The plums cut through the fat in the chicken liver which I loved. It was a little bit too wet though, so the chicken liver dripped and was a little bit looser than what I wanted. I like it to be just a little thicker so there’s a more texture to it, and also so it doesn’t drip all over your hand. It did remind us of a very sophisticated peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was salty and tart, and had just enough richness from that liver to satisfy you but not fill you up. Beautifully presented.

We all loved Doug’s braised pork shoulder. The baked beans, onion, and mustard went so well together. The mustard lightened up the dish and the pickled onions of course did too. It was a homey, comforting dish. The pork shoulder just melted in your mouth. I wish I had a bowl of it right now actually.

Melissa’s scallop was probably the weakest dish on that team. By no means does that mean it was awful. It was a lovely idea, light and fresh. Scallops and grapefruit and radish are a perfect combination. It felt a little bit more like an appetizer salad though than a main course. Her scallops were on the salty side and a little bit overcooked too. We wanted them a bit softer, a little more rare in the center. It was a really nice dish, but compared to the other dishes on her team, it felt a simple and slightly out of place. Everything else had a soulfulness to it and this seemed to be sort of off in the corner, but I was still happy to eat it.

Mei's brussels sprouts was their side dish and they were also really tasty. Brussels sprouts and anchovies go surprisingly well together! But they was over-dressed and the brussels were a little overcooked. They just needed to be toned down. I can remember when we were finished eating them, there was a pool of vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl. If she had been a little more light-handed on the vinaigrette when she tossed it, it probably would have been a better dish.

Melissa’s dessert was very well-made -- apples, mixed-berries, cardamom cream, a classic fruit cobbler. I just wish she had done something a little more interesting. Berry cobbler is something anyone can make at home. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a good dish. You’re a professional chef though, and this is Top Chef so if you’re going to give me a cobbler, show me cobbler in a way I haven’t seen before. Whether that’s a special biscuit on top or a combination of flavors of fruits, or a presentation I haven’t seen. In every way this cobbler was basic. I enjoyed eating it, it just was a little boring.

Bravotv.com: And then Magellan…
GS: Oh Magellan. We all were really excited when Katie’s roasted beets came to the table. It sounded fantastic. But she made the dish in a composed way, meaning that the beets were on one side, the curry was just underneath. Everything was separate, so it was very difficult to taste all together. Her flaw was that there wasn’t a conversation going on between all of the components in the dish. She left the beets completely dry on the side of the plate, but she had this beautiful curry and this coconut and this pickled cauliflower, she could have dressed them wonderfully, had she mixed them up, had she presented the dish in a different way. It really shows you that ingredients are only one piece of the puzzle. You can have five different beautiful ingredients, but unless you put the dish together in a way that highlights them, it falls flat.

Katsuji’s hamachi sashimi was totally fine. The hamachi was very big and cut in a bit of a ragged way. I wish they had been smaller or more smoothly cut, so that they weren’t as messy to eat and a little more refined. But the dish itself was perfectly well made. I liked his dried pozole too; I thought it was very interesting. A little odd, a little out there, but I applaud Katsuji for pushing boundaries of what we think of as pozole with it.

Gregory also made two dishes. His seared haddock was my favorite dish of the night. The fish was great, the tomato was flavorful. I thought the dish came together nicely, it was cohesive. I liked the garam masala. Although he could have probably simplified a little bit. His pork tenderloin was perfectly cooked too, it sounded so rich and delicious in its description, but was a little disappointing to eat because it was a little less flavorful than I expected with all of those components. Like Katie, he also separated out all of the ingredients. I was hoping to get a dish that was really bold in these Chinese flavors, the hosin and the XO sauce. I wanted it all to be mixed in a way that every bite had all of those tastes and it wasn't.

And then there was our dessert, Keriann’s vanilla crepe. I’m still totally confused as to how she wanted it. She wanted it room temperature, she wanted that mousse to be stiff and hard, not spreadable? I can’t understand how it would’ve been served that way and been successful either. But I do know that the way it was served definitely didn’t work. As much as I’m sure she was devastated by the way her team chose to change her dish, and especially that they didn’t tell her before they did so, I still think it would not have been a successful dish had she served it her way either. I’m just totally baffled by how it was supposed to be, and how she didn’t notice until the second half of service that it was being served in a different way. What I especially don’t understand is how she didn’t plate one for them first. If she had just plated a full dish, showed it to all of them and they all tasted it before she went out to service, they all would’ve known exactly how she wanted it and would’ve done it that way. How do you create a dish and leave people to execute it but not show them how it’s supposed to be? That’s why we decided Keriann had to be the one to be eliminated. There were a lot of problems with service at Magellan. Clearly, customers weren’t getting dishes, or they were getting dishes twice. No one knew where anything was, it was impossible to get water or a server. It was impossible to find Keriann. She put food down and then walked away without explaining it. There were so many times when we were completely thrown off by the service. And, in addition to all this, her dish didn’t make sense -- not only because of how Katie and Katsuji changed it, but in her vision in the first place. Keriann worked hard, she pushed herself, I’m proud of her. I think she’s a strong person, a good cook and will have a successful. I just don’t think this was her day.

Next episode: the judges hit Whole Foods!

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