Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Walk Softly and Carry a Fresh Fish

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

Gail Talks OvenGate

Dookie Chase Makes Everybody Cry

Walk Softly and Carry a Fresh Fish

According to Lee Anne Wong, Manuel was sent for being too nice. Let her explain.


It's interesting to see the other chefs start to sweat the fact that Jen and Zoi are a couple, though from what I've seen so far they were both very respectful to the others in the house.

Daniel Boulud. One of the greatest French chefs in the world. The man who took more than 30 minutes to decide whose burger was best. When thinking of this Quickfire I was reminded of that terrible fruit basket challenge I had to endure. I was like a deer in headlights. A deer in headlights standing in front of a brunch buffet with a big beautiful melon carved out to hold a fruit salad.

We have one lovely lady named Doneen who produces the Quickfires. We came up with a list of techniques that could be used for his and the list was longer than you think.

It was interesting the way each of the contestants perceived the challenge. Some took it as a straight up cooking school test, displaying knife skills with perfect brunois, macedoine, julienne, and baton. Others saw it as an opportunity to display their originality and cooking skills. While Lisa complains that Daniel's style of cooking is not her style, that's fine. The challenge is not to recreate Daniel's food. Cooking methods? Saute, braise, roast, poach, deep fry, steam, pan roast, grill, smoked, cured, sashimi, pureed, clarified ... you get the idea. She's complaining about something hat has absolutely no relevance to the challenge at hand. In essence, most dishes that any chef creates involves at least three techniques, from the knife work to the cooking techniques to the plating and garnish.

Zoi did a great job by creating a beautiful but delicious composed salad. Runny egg yolks rock my world. Dale also interpreted the challenge in a unique manner, plating an artful vegetable sashimi composition on crushed ice. He also saw this as an opportunity to display his use of Asian style techniques. The daikon married with the creamy avocado was the best part of the dish.

Lisa, along with Memo and several others, went culinary school basic. The issue with this is that they were supposed to create a dish meant for consumption, not just knife skills. Everything needs seasoning; the flavors need to make sense. Richard did really well with his modern hors d'oeuvres/garniture plate. Uniquely done, thoughtfully plated, it was reminiscent of traditional French style accoutrement for a charcuterie platter. Bar Boulud has similar treatments of vegetables on their menu.

Spike's dish was messy -- the highlight being a nicely-carved, whole, raw mushroom. Appetizing. Dale won immunity and his choice of team. With so many team challenges right off the bat (16 contestants are difficult to manage logistically for certain challenges) an interesting dynamic is starting to appear amongst the contestants.

"Film Food" was a fun and easy challenge. Favorite movies of mine? Anything Python, Goldfinger, Anchorman, Good Fellas, Riding Giants. Favorite food movies? Dinner Rush, Big Night, Babette's Feast. Richard seems to be emerging as a sort of team leader, or at least the guy everyone wants to pair up with. It's kind of hilarious the way that Andrew considers Dale to be a third wheel. They choose the movie Willy Wonka, which I know by heart, and create this bizarrely simple dish that sounds unappetizing at first but very tasty combination of fatty smoked fish with the vegetal heat of the celery root and wasabi slightly sweetened with the white chocolate, and then there was the salty pop of the soy tapioca. It was a surprisingly good dish. The Oompa Loompa imitation? Not so tasteful. The dynamic between Spike and Manuel is interesting: cocky and controlling vs. lay down in the road for you. They based their movie around their dish, not the other way around. The dish was reminiscent of supermarket summer rolls, and the sea bass was indeed a tad fishy. The pickles had no relevance and would have made more sense if they were actually inside the roll rather than in their own corner on the plate. And the soba was undercooked making the roll difficult to eat.

Jen and Nikki chose Il Postino and I thought their dish reflected the movie very well. It may not have been the most creative, but the rustic style tortellini was delicious (I looove cavolo nero, black Tuscan kale) and the sweetness of the pumpkin complemented the other ingredients very well in a classic Italian style.

Antonia and Zoi chose Talk to Her, a movie by Pedro Almodovar. I find the way they sold the movie a little off. Yes, the movie is about two strong women (in comas). Anyways, I am a lamb chop fanatic. There are the kinds of people who would use a fork and knife to take down a lamb chop at a four star restaurant, and then there are those who pick up the bones afterwards with their bare hands so they can gnaw at the last of the tender meat. That's me with a lamb chop. Their dish was not bad. The lamb was cooked perfectly, though it was sliced very thin. I thought the puree could've used more saffron, as I could barely taste it to begin with.

It was interesting that Ryan and Mark go with A Christmas Story -- Mark not knowing this American classic. Either way, I thought it was an intuitive and fun interpretation they did of the final scene in which Ralphie and his family have Christmas dinner in the Chinese restaurant and an unforgettably racist version of "Deck the Halls" is sung by the staff. The quail subbed in for the duck and the Asian touch was added with the spring roll and seasoning of the cranberry chutney. It was a very successful dish. Stephanie was not familiar with the movie Top Secret either (I have vague memories of Val Kilmer, but I forgot the cow scene). It was creative and the salty caramel worked well with the steak and apple short rib dumpling.

I hope you all paid close attention to the gorgeous dining room, which was created by our Art and Lighting Departments. The marquis started as an idea in a notebook between Sam and Willy and two days later it was built and back lit. I helped put the letters on it.

Service went smoothly. The pear and celery soda was a nice touch with the smoked salmon. It was this sweet, smoky, salty, buttery, fruity vegetal combination. Completely weird, absolutely delicious, totally Willy Wonka. It was a winning dish that impressed Daniel Boulud and that's all that counts.

Next came the fishy summer roll with the undercooked buckwheat soba. Then the delicious tortellini. There I am in the elevator helping bring plates to the dining room. And the juicy quail. Tasty lamb chops and candied steak. All in all I thought they did really well -- the summer roll clearly the weakest dish of the bunch. Each team had a $150 to spend which worked out to $12 a head, an ample budget. At the end of the day they sent Manuel home for being too nice of a guy. Many would think it's Spike's fault for his misguidance and I would tend to agree, but you gotta have a little backbone to win this competition. I have enjoyed Manuel's food for several years, and I look forward to the next time I get sample his cuisine.

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!