Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

So Much At Steak

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

So Much At Steak

Tom Colicchio stresses the importance of butchering.

First off, I want to apologize for my long absence from this site. On May 10th I opened Craftsteak, at the new MGM Grand Resort and Casino in Connecticut, and like any new restaurant, it became my sole mistress for the past few weeks. Each time I open a restaurant, the first night still feels like my own personal episode of "Restaurant Wars" (minus the schlocky decor). Thanks to my talented and sleep-deprived staff, we made it through to a successful opening, and I can finally focus on something other than steak. As luck would have it, this week's challenge was all about ... steak.

I liked this week's episode, and not just because it dovetailed perfectly with my own efforts. I thought it illuminated some important basics about technique and ingredients.

First off, the importance of butchering. Butchering is not some archaic skill best left to others -- it's an essential part of any chef's technical repertoire. Spike won the Quickfire hands down because he had butchering experience and it showed in the clean, even, tomahawk steaks he created from one massive "109" (butcherspeak for a rib roast.) Leaving aesthetics aside, well-butchered meat is essential for proper cooking so that one area doesn't cook more quickly than the rest. It's also a good deal more economical to purchase large cuts of meat and butcher them yourself, since a good kitchen will find a use for every bone and scrap. A knowledge of butchering also affords one a more subtle understanding of meat that translates into better cooking. For example, the meat on a rib-eye is ever-so-slightly fattier up by the neck than by the loin, which means it needs to be cooked differently than the rest -- something you may not get from eyeballing the meat.

Watching the chefs cook their steaks was also interesting. Most of the chefs seemed to have a basic understanding of how to sear and develop nice color on their tomahawks, and I was pleased to see how many of them chose to pan roast their steaks, which allowed them to properly baste the meat with butter and herbs without inviting leaping flames to char the meat. (For the record, a charred steak tastes bitter. One should aim for a darkly caramelized crust on their steak, not stripes of burnt char.)

Equally important is the resting time - once the steak is off the flame, it needs to rest so that the juices, forced into the center by the heat, can redistribute throughout. Cutting into a steak before it is fully rested will produce the dreaded bullet effect -- a red bulls-eye in the center, surrounded by drier, grayish meat.


blogs_412_pic08.jpg

As for the Elimination Challenge, I thought it was a good one in that it approximated the challenges of dinner service in a real restaurant. It called for skillful, straightforward cooking, without hoops to jump through or last-minute hurdles out of left field. There were enough covers to put the chefs under pressure to cook quickly, but not so many as to be unmanageable. I was glad to get the chance to expedite - it gave me a way to connect with the chefs on shared turf, without the judges' table between us. Rather than add to their nervousness, I actually sensed that it relaxed the chefs to know someone else was driving the boat so that they could just put their heads down and do their jobs.

The most glaring mistake of the night was Spike choosing frozen scallops as the cornerstone of his appetizer. Why was this an issue? For one thing, a scallop's abundant natural sugars convert quickly to starch, so a frozen scallop will be far less flavorful than a fresh one, recently harvested. When you sear a nice, fresh scallop those sugars will caramelize beautifully, adding to its natural sweetness. When frozen scallops thaw, they soak up liquid and this moisture will make it impossible to get a nice sear on the surface, no matter how much you pat them dry. (One should always choose scallops at the market that are dry, over ones that have been resting in liquid, for this very reason.) On top of that, seafood that is frozen is manhandled and thrown about in processing, which is why so many of Spike's scallops were torn or broken. Put simply, while you can destroy a nice ingredient by cooking it badly, this doesn't hold true in reverse: it's nearly impossible to turn a mediocre ingredient into something tremendous, even if you cook it well. (The rare exceptions to this are stone fruit, which -- if imperfect -- can improve when grilled or roasted or used in a pie, and less-than-great tomatoes, whose flavors can be concentrated by slow oven-roasting. But that's about it.)


Now I understand that not everyone has fresh ingredients (especially seafood) available to them at all times, and there are many perfectly decent home cooks and restaurants throughout the country that, by necessity, must rely on some frozen ingredients. But that wasn't the case here -- Spike had first choice among a walk-in filled with high-quality fresh options. He didn't have to use the frozen, and, frankly, he should have known better. Even after I quizzed him about this, Spike seemed to miss the point, saying he was going to try to make the scallops "look good on the plate." That's just backwards logic: If you worry first and foremost about making a dish that works on all levels, trust me, it's going to look good on the plate.

Rick Tramonto took Spike to task over this, which brought on Spike's feisty reply, "With all due respect, the scallops were in your walk-in." My heart sunk when I heard this because I've known Rick for years and can say with certainty he doesn't use frozen seafood in his restaurant. Along with the high-end steaks they had provided for the show, Allen Bros. had included a variety of other products to round out the restaurant's existing stock, including frozen scallops, which is how they came to be in Tramonto's walk-in. I learned later that Rick knew this when we taped the show, but chose not to make a federal case out of it. But as a colleague and fan of Rick's, I feel it's important to set the record straight.

Lo and behold, the resulting dish of scallops with hearts of palm and oyster mushrooms was less than inspired. There was a depressing sameness to all of the flavors on the plate, with none of the meaty sweetness of a nice, fresh scallop to elevate the final result. Spike's main course - a beef chop which, though nicely cooked, was served with brussels sprouts, cipolini onions and a cloying sweet potato puree -- failed to redeem his appetizer. The dish was reminiscent of an old-world steakhouse meal, but it wasn't memorable and it lacked the inventiveness and flair his fellow chefs brought to the challenge.

For that reason Spike was sent home. It was clear he was well-liked by his peers, and he was a great addition to the Top Chef roster due both to his personality and his talent (not to mention his hats.) I wish him nothing but the best.


And before I wrap up for this week, I have to comment on last week's episode because it's clear Dale's dismissal has been a real bone of contention with viewers. Interestingly, after watching an episode purely as an audience member -- in other words without the benefit of having been there -- it's finally sunk in why our viewers get as riled as they do when the judges' decision doesn't jive with what they've seen I wasn't at the Judge's table last week. I saw the same version of the show as everyone else.

And based on what I saw, I expected Lisa to go home. She made two dishes that didn't work, and Dale made one. Dale was also credited with executing the short ribs (albeit from Spike's recipe) that were the team's sole saving grace. The judges said they let Dale go because his scallops were the worst dish of the night, and while I know there was plenty that was discussed among them that didn't make it into the episode, and while I certainly didn't taste the food, (which is my typical snarky response when someone gripes about my judgment -- "Look, buddy, YOU didn't taste the food,") from what I could see it was a pure numbers game. Lisa's two lousy dishes against Dale's one. End of story.

Tom

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

So she's going to take more time shopping at Whole Foods -- and ask for the best of Melissa's basket and Adam's shrimp.

Bravotv.com: Let's dive right in. How did it feel to go shopping?
Gail Simmons: Shopping at Whole Foods was fantastic and hilarious. It made us realize that you need to be strategic, which was the point of the exercise for us. They gave us 30 minutes, but we took a little longer. We didn't let the producers push us around! We’re not contestants and we weren't going to stand for it! So, you realize how little time you have, and how big Whole Foods can be. You spend a lot of time running around.

 

My strategy with my pantry was to get a lot of fresh, delicious food that you can cook in lots of different ways. A good balance of proteins, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, fresh herbs, grains. But I didn't want to get too much. Everyone has different strategies; Padma got a ton of different ingredients. Tom's pantry was very pared down. Richard and I were somewhere in the middle.

 

Bravotv.com: Let's start by talking about the two dishes that came from your pantry?
GS: Katsuji and Melissa. They used the same protein, but their dishes were very different. They both used shrimp which one of the proteins that I bought. I bought something else too, something that I know has given people trouble in the past (which is why I specifically chose it) -- chicken wings. And I really wanted people to use them. Instead, they chose the easy way out because shrimps cook quickly.

Melissa's used a lot of fresh vegetables, which I was hoping she would: dill, mint, artichoke. I was so excited about all of it. I think it was beautifully done, a lovely salad with that little shrimp on top with spiced yogurt. But it was just a salad with a quick-cooking seafood. It was so similar to what she had done in Restaurant Wars when she made a scallop with grapefruit salad. I believe she could have done so much more. Melissa keeps saying she wanted to focus on her knife skills, and, of course, your knife skills have to be precise. But I need to see more than just knife skills. I want to see cooking skills, I want to see roasting skills, braising skills. I want to see her hands get a little dirtier and her dishes not be as superficial. It was a light, lovely dish. I was happy to eat it for lunch. But when you're competing against six other really talented chefs, we all want to see a little more depth. Katsuji on the other hand went big. He used his ingredients in a really powerful way. The potato salad, the poached shrimp had bold seasoning and I loved how they went together. It was a great dish. It may not have been the best of the day, but I was actually really happy with what he chose to make.

 

Bravotv.com: So for the rest, let's talk about who was on top and who was on bottom.

GS: At the top there was Gregory who really was going for Padma's heart there. He did great with his coconut milk curry. A really balanced, powerful dish. But it's something we’ve seen from Gregory many times in the past. In fact, in the first challenge he made a similar spicy curry dish with chicken. As much as we thought it was a delicious bowl of food, it was so typical of what we expect from Gregory. George's food was really exciting for us. This was my first time tasting his food and meeting him on Top Chef. He did a great job. The kebab was moist, seasoned really well, and the lentils were beautiful too. My only small issue with the dish is I couldn't understand why he separated the lentils from the kebab in two separate dishes. Why not put lentils on the plate and the kebab right on top, with a dollop of the yogurt? It seemed a little bit disconnected to me. But all-in-all, a really strong dish. Doug had the winning dish of the night. He used Richard's crazy pantry in a way that I thought was smart, clear-cut, and creative. The chorizo and mussels and peppers, just how Tom said, go together well, as do the cauliflower and the garlic. There was sweetness, there was spice, it was light and fresh but had a soulful, rustic flavor we all loved. You could see use of technique. On the bottom were dishes that tried to stretch and didn’t come through. Mei did a great job overall, except her lamb was undercooked. You want lamb medium, medium rare, but the center of that meat was raw to the point where the texture was chewy and almost cold. It would have been better if she had been able to cook it five minutes longer. We talked about Melissa's mistakes already, which also landed her on the bottom. I totally applaud Adam for trying to make a quick-flash marinade. He's been in the middle for so long and he thought "I gotta go big or I gotta go home." He tried to go big and unfortunately, he went home because of that technique. I get the idea of what he was doing, I don't doubt that it could've been successful if it were perhaps done in a different setting, with a little more control. But the flash marinade of his shrimp did not cook it as needed. It was still grey, it was still raw, and the texture of raw shrimp is not appealing. It's squeaky, it's squishy, and it becomes sort of mushy. We wanted it firm and cooked through. It's not like fish that you can eat sashimi-style Unfortunately Adam's hard work, his big risk sent him home.

I will miss him. I think he's an incredibly articulate, clever chef. I think he has an extraordinary career ahead of him. I'm excited to see him back in New York City. I can't wait to eat his food again. Also I want to say of this entire episode that was it was thrilling to see our superfans in the kitchen. We've never let people come into the kitchen in that way before, even though people ask us all the time. It brought so much good energy to have basically a live audience with us for the day. Everyone was so psyched. It was amazing to be around people who really love the show, to let them eat food from our talented chefs. SO much fun!