Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Wedding War Zone

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

Wedding War Zone

Lee Anne Wong explains why Nikki went home.

It was a mix of complete and utter evil gleefulness and dread and sympathy for the contestants when we began planning this episode. What was even better is that the chefs were SO sure they would be doing Restaurant Wars. Honestly, they couldn't stop talking about it for weeks beforehand. My own personal shame and humility resurfaces like a bad meal when I think about my experience with both Restaurant Wars and the wedding challenge (but with a hiccup of laughter at the end).

The remaining chefs are an eclectic and funny group. I only get to see bits and pieces of them before and after challenges, so I am watching everything, including their personalities, for the first time, just like you. They all grew on me (like fungus) with their charm, wit, and sense of humor. They are by far the most talented group of Top Chefs to date as a whole. Man oh man, I'd love the opportunity to cook side by side with any of them. They're a good bunch.

What is even better is the fact that there are four women left to battle for the title in this episode. In seasons past, the women have dropped like flies early on in the season and the ladies who are left this season can cook their asses off. As a female chef, it's still a male dominated industry, plain and simple. So I am not only proud of these four girls, but I find myself rooting for them.


The relay race was such a hit last season that the producers decided to revive the challenge. If you've ever taken part in a relay race, even if it was in grade school, then you would know how it gets the adrenaline pumping. Competition CAN be fun (unless you're Dale). I determined the actual tasks for the race, focusing on classic techniques, the same as last season. Tom had at first thought the artichoke turning was too difficult and would take too long but we turned a few artichokes together in the production office and he agreed that it would be an appropriate challenge as knowing how to properly turn an artichoke is a skill, and not everyone is good at it.

In fact, my very first day in a real kitchen (Aquavit) the sous-chef made me turn an entire case of artichokes. I was still in culinary school at the time, but diligently did my best and didn't utter a word as I slowly made my way through 48 globe artichokes. My hands were on fire by the time I finished.

The fact that Nikki openly admitted she hasn't made mayonnaise by hand in years, gave me the squinty eye too. Really? No, REALLY? Dale's little temper tantrum at the end startled not only the other chefs but production too. (How could you not love Antonia at his point?) Dale's a great guy when he's out of the kitchen but I get his team's frustration with having to work side by side with someone who's constantly looking down at you (key word being team). I also understand his position of being with a team that is neither organized nor cohesive.


Catering a wedding is no joke. I can honestly say I've never had great food at a wedding, and I learned a lot from my own mistakes in our Season One wedding debacle. Corey and JP were awfully brave to offer up their special day to our chefs. Production loved the fact that Corey was all meat and potatoes. I think Richard, Antonia, Andrew, and Stephanie really did a great job in not only listening to the bride, but they also elevated hearty, classic American cuisine to fit the occasion. I remember working my 14 hours overnight. We were delirious by the time morning came, because if you hadn't noticed, we started the day early with a Quickfire, same as this season. Assigning Stephanie and Lisa solely to the cake was a good idea, and because of our own cake fiasco, I made sure they were prepared this time, supplying them with plenty of cake pans, fondant, and decorating tools, things we did not have during our challenge. Stephanie's jab at our cake mix was funny, but she had the advantage of seeing our anguish beforehand on TV. Had she been in our position, going through it for the first time, it may have been different. Even Tom had to agree after the fact that the cake mix was a good idea. It's just that we botched the cake up in so many other ways. Lisa's cake was akin to an ugly Mayan temple, but it was absolutely delicious. In the end, Richard's team had the better food, plain and simple and I find it admirable how he shared the prize with Stephanie.

The spoons and the forks powered through the night, and while Richard's team had a game plan it was interesting to see Nikki's team fail to communicate at all. It was true, Dale did have his hands in all the pots, and while his determination to get it done and speed were admirable, Lisa was right in saying there's no point in doing 25 things if only five are going to taste good. Dale's anger and ego got the better of him, whereas I think Spike's initial attitude in supporting Nikki was the right approach and could've made the difference between winning and losing had Dale had a change of heart. Communication was the key for a brutal challenge like this and Nikki's team forgot the most important point of the challenge: It was all about the bride and groom and their special day. It's not about who's going to get eliminated. Nikki was sent home for trying to have it both ways. She should've stepped into the role of team leader since she was the one dispensing advice on the menu, but when push came to shove, she refused to take responsibility. Had she taken on that role, she may have been able to save herself, but I guess we'll never know. I go to 24 Prince every now and then, it's in my work hood and it's a nice, casual place to grab a bite to eat. Now that I know Nikki, I'll be stopping by more often.

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!