Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Lions and Vultures and Bears, Oh My

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

Lions and Vultures and Bears, Oh My

Tom Colicchio wonders why the chefs would make something for the Elimination Challenge that they've never made before.

I'm never part of judging the Quickfires, so I don't usually have a lot to say about them, but I particularly liked this week's challenge -- to create an entree from only five ingredients (excluding salt, pepper, sugar and oil), because I think it illustrates an important point about cooking that I learned from teaching cooking classes -- sometimes too many choices can distract and overwhelm, rather than inspire. When I limited my students to only three ingredients, it kept them from going all over the map, and seemed to free them up creatively. It's very tempting for cooks (especially here, in a competition setting) to want to dazzle us by loading the plate with numerous ingredients and a complicated presentation, but that can be a sign of immaturity. It takes self-confidence to select just a few great ingredients and cook them in a way that allows their very essence to emerge. I just returned from a great week in Venice with my son, where we had a few truly memorable meals. Some of the best dishes were composed with just a few beautiful ingredients, prepared very simply - roasted fish, risotto, pasta with a simple ragout of clams, tomatoes, and prosciutto, etc. What made the dishes great wasn't the number of ingredients on the plate but their freshness and skillful, confident preparation. It's pretty telling that Mark -- who left one of his five ingredients back at the Green City Market -- ended up winning the Quickfire challenge with his remaining four.

I was happy to see Wylie Dufresne join us at the Judges' table. Wylie is innovative, talented, and humble -- a great combination. (Congratulations, by the way, Wylie on getting 3 stars at wd~50 in The New York Times). We divided the chefs up into five teams -- Bears, Lions, Gorillas, Vultures, and Penguins, and sent them off to shop and cook hors d'oeuvres for 200 guests, using the key components of their respective animal's diet. While the animal angle might seem like the tricky part of this, honestly, it was the catering element that presented the greatest challenge. Most chefs are asked to cater something off-site at one point or another in their careers. The skill lies in designing a menu that can be prepared ahead of time, then assembled and finished at the event itself. (It's rare to have a full kitchen at an event site, occasionally there is a kitchen 'tent' with a few burners, but a single gas burner or hot plate is the norm.) A trained chef understands that some foods just don't store and travel well, and plans accordingly. Some dishes will travel fine, but you need to modify the normal steps you would take to accommodate serving them later. For example, you wouldn't add salt to a crab salad hours ahead of time in your home, so why do it here? The salt is going to draw the moisture out of the dish and make it watery, so seasoning should be saved for the moment before serving. Another case in point is Valerie's blini. Valerie should have had the items in her dish ready for assembly and then made the blini a la minute (which means "last minute") in a pan over their burner as the night unfolded. Her teammates were there to do the assembly. Of course, even that wouldn't have saved the rest of the dish, since the rutabagas were partly raw, giving the dish an unintentionally unpleasant crunch. But that brings me to another point.

A catered event is not the place to teach yourself new skills. By this I'm not suggesting our cooks should have played it safe during the challenge, rather that they should have drawn from their (hopefully expansive) body of tried-and-true dishes that they already knew worked. Every chef has these, which can then be a great stepping off point for on-the-fly, seasonal creativity. It's important to remember that a catered event is often a big moment in someone's life (think wedding, anniversary party, etc.) and in my opinion, that is not the place to start the process of trial and error that is (in another setting) so crucial for a developing chef. I am surprised how often I've heard a contestant admit, "I never made this before," as they went about preparing the dish that lost them the competition. I don't think there would have been any shame in Valerie admitting to her teammates, "I've never made blini, and I'm not feeling confident about that. I'd rather make my famous XYZ (insert slam dunk dish here) instead." Andrew understood this. He pulled out a neat trick with his balsamic tapioca "caviar" over Team Penguin's squid ceviche. Clearly this was something he'd made before. He knew it would work, he knew it had visual appeal and would make sense with the overall "black and white," seafood-inspired penguin menu. It was a good call. Another important point about catering: Unlike a restaurant meal, which can achieve balance over an entire dish, a canape has to work in one bite -- the balance of flavors and textures must be immediate, and in order for the item to be memorable, should pack a real wallop of flavor. Well-spiced, highly flavorful items work best as canapes, which is why Team Vulture's Moroccan-spiced meatballs and anchovies with quinoa worked so well.

At first Team Bear made the right call not to serve their mushrooms stuffed with berries when they saw they didn't work, but then Nikki turned around and served them to the judges. Huh? She said the problem was that they were cold, and everyone on the team felt they looked like bear --ahem -- poop, but personally I think we would have let the appearance slide somewhat if they had tasted really good. Dale's idea to garnish the mushrooms with Pecorino didn't help - in fact, it made them worse. At first bite it was clear that none of the Bears had tasted the dish. If they had, they wouldn't have served them to anyone, least of all those of us deciding their fate.

Ultimately the Bears and the Gorillas were called to the carpet, with the Bears edging out their competitors because they were accountable for only one of our three least favorite dishes. The Gorillas, responsible for the other two, lost big. Ultimately we decided Stephanie -- who, despite her watery crab salad, had redeemed herself with the delicious banana bread with salted caramel sauce -- could stay. Valerie, the blini-maker, was out. We gave the win to Team Penguin. In addition to creating three delicious dishes, the Penguins nailed the challenge from a few angles; the food was intelligent and tasted good, and they carried the black and white visual "penguin" theme throughout the presentation, which was a nice touch. Andrew was named the winner because of his interesting contribution to the ceviche and his surprising and fun yuzu "glacier." It took some guts to play with thickening agents and tapioca while cooking for Wylie -- it's not easy to impress people on their own turf -- but this time around, Andrew pulled it off.


P.S. My apologies to Paul Kahan, whose wonderful restaurant Blackbird I accidentally called "Bluebird" in last week's blog. Blame it on the jet lag. I had an amazing lunch there on Monday (sea scallops with truffle and banana puree, and an entree of duck pastrami for those of you who are curious). It was a memorable meal -- one of many I've enjoyed there over the years.

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!