Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

You Guessed It ... Da Bears.

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

You Guessed It ... Da Bears.

Find out who Lee Anne Wong diagnoses with "café-itis."

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Had I had to live in that house with Spike, I would've probably started hiding his ridiculous hats after the first week. Maybe grab one and hide it in the basement closet. Or put another one on the roof. I mean, you could have a thousand places to hide his hats in that house. What a constant source of entertainment! (Honestly, there's not much else to do.)

I remember hearing through the production grapevine about Jen's sobbing in interview about how Zoi's the love of her life and blah blah blah. Personally I think it's great that they were both brave and secure enough as a couple to agree to do the show together. But the crying on camera? Dude, she's not dying. She just gets to go home earlier. She can water the plants and feed the cat.

I think it's positively fascinating how Lisa doesn't consider herself to be a negative person so Dale must be the problem. I actually commend Dale for standing by his opinion. "Sorry I yelled at you for being a bitch, but you're still a bitch." It is extremely hard to live day and night with someone who oozes negative energy and I recall quite vividly how that affected my relationship with Tiffani while we were on the show together. Things between us are of course worlds better now as we have both matured since our experience on the show, and she's doing really well and is much happier these days. Lisa was always relatively nice and respectful to me (when she wasn't complaining) but she's the one in the fishbowl so I would often witness or hear about her interactions in the kitchen and home with the other contestants. But whereas I would compare Lisa's level of unpleasantness to a disgruntled dog, Tiffani, at the time, was more like a really pissed off jungle cat with really big teeth and really sharp claws. Either way, the vibe sucks. First of all, I've been traveling to Chicago for the past five years.The first time was when I had first started my job at The French Culinary and I set up a stage for myself at Charlie Trotter's and at Trio, when Grant Achatz was just starting to be recognized as one of the most singularly talented and innovative chefs in the country. I ate at both restaurants, I ate at NoMi. I had my absolute favorite meal of all time at Trio, two days after I had trailed in the kitchen. On subsequent visits, I've eaten at Moto, Alinea, Green Zebra, Topolobampo, and Schwa, to name a few. But the one restaurant I return to time and time again, sometimes eating there twice in one week while I was staying in Chicago and the food I miss the most while I am here in NY? Avec. I was super excited to meet Koren. I babbled on to her like a crazed drooling fan about the pizza I had had on my first visit to Avec: Sardines with Caramelized Fennel and Shaved Lardo. It was absurdly delicious and I am praying she puts it back on the menu someday.

ANYWAYS, my whole point was to congratulate Chef Koren on being named one of Food & Wine's Top 10 Best New Chefs of 2008. She certainly deserves it as the brandade at Balthazar is scrumptious but the brandade at Avec blows it out of the water. And those chorizo stuffed dates ... I'm making Homer Simpson sounds. PKTMP002.JPG

We had a great selection of beers. I love beer and food pairing, and more attention and respect is being given to beer these days as craft breweries have sprung up worldwide, and even the mass produced lighter style lagers are improved in quality and taste, though I wouldn't be caught dead drinking certain light beers. For all you NYers, head over to the Blind Tiger where my friend Louise is a bartender and the head chef. They have a tremendous beer selection, always with several unique cask beers and even a gravity keg. She's occasionally put my billionaire's bacon on the menu as a special (it never lasts very long ... the bacon, I mean.)

Anyways, I tasted all of the dishes, here's my rundown: Richard's Grilled Tuna with Pickled Vegetables was good, and the flavors reminded me of Vietnamese Bahn Mi. Very tasty and surprisingly the bread did not overpower the tuna. The trout and fruit were kind of weird and gross for me. It needed a savory element -- it was just fish and fruitiness.

Dale's pork five minutes before plating was pretty raw in the middle though it was seared on the outside and he put it back in the oven on high heat right before plating and ended up overcooking the pork. With the dry pretzel crumbs and an over-reduced miso caramel that hardened to the plate, it was a dry and unpleasant experience. The miso cod was textbook and quite boring. Nikki's fried shrimp were worse. I could've gotten a better plate of shrimp from Long John Silvers. The shrimp were easily U-12 in size and overbreaded and underseasoned (give me creamy dipping sauce!).

Stephanie's mussels were intuitively unique and delicious. Lucky girl chose the wheat style beer. For those of you who like the lemon, try orange. It's actually the proper citrus to pair with wheat style beers and has a much more gentle acidity that marries well with the beer. If you add a shot of OJ and vodka to a Hoegaarden, we call that a "Dirty Hoe". Try four of those and let me know how you feel. Anyways, The lamb was tasty with Mark's manuka honey. A crepinette is supposed to be a small, breaded, flattened sausage patty sauteed in butter. Ryan's was a grossly large and unrefined meatball. The charcuterie plate was a lazy cop out in my opinion. The bacon cheeseburger was "ehhh (a little dry)." The shrimp and scallop beignets were delicious, even after sitting around for an hour. The creamy avocado complemented the airy fritter with a nice limey tang.
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So imagine everyone on the crew running around doing their "Da Bears" "Dit-ka" schtick. Funny enough, I had a close enough encounter with Mike Ditka at a bar in NY about eight years ago. It's a story for the ages but to save a friend's dignity, let's just say he's a very nice man. We got to Soldier Field while it was still dark out. Weber had brought sample grills, one gas and one charcoal, for our chefs to look at once we revealed the challenge and stopped down for rules. They are ginormous in size. Like the Humvee of grills. The charcoal one was the size of a flying saucer like the Jetsons, and I wanted to sit in it. We actually set up a decoy table with all the eliminated contestants who served straight burgers and hot dogs we provided for them. It was a very popular table, believe it or not. The refrigeration space problem is one of those logistical things we take into account. It's hard to accommodate the food of 16 chefs versus two or four teams.

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I love tailgating. I love the Giants, always have. Though I did get to mug with Gale Sayers, Richard Dent, and William "The Fridge" Perry, I look forward to tailgating at Giants Stadium with my chef friends (and good God do we throw down.). Paul Kahan is Chef/Owner of both Avec and Blackbird. His Chef de Cuisine at Blackbird is the very talented Mike Sheerin, who used to be the sous at wd~50. I remember when we finally had placed all of the grills, and the tents were pitched, and the band marched through, and I stopped and looked around and I was like, "WOW. Top Chef and the NFL. We've come a long way." Nominated for two James Beard Awards this year, by the way. Anyways, the food.
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Spike's wings with jicama slaw were delicious -- the wings were sticky-spicy-sweet. He had a nice hot chocolate to accompany, which was awesome because it was cold and rainy out. Stephanie's pork tenderloin was also delicious, the almighty bacon part of the equation once again. The rosemary sauce was surprisingly subtle. The Jerk chicken sandwich was good. But it was still just a chicken sandwich. Ryan is Brian Malarkey reincarnated and the used car salesman act can't sell the awkward bone in chicken thigh over the dry bread salad with the undercooked poached pear with crème fraiche and boozy syrup. Spazz McGee's shrimp were average as well as Lisa's predictable skirt steak with salsa verde. The pate melt was delicious as well as the Middle Eastern-inspired chicken kebab with yogurt and quinoa tabouli. Dale's ribs and potato salad, however, kicked ass. I ate an entire quart of the potato salad in one sitting after taking home the leftovers from filming the recipe for "Wong Way."

While Mark's soup had very good shellfish flavor, and was hot and creamy, the texture was very unrefined and would have been better as a fine puree with precision cut vegetables and seafood folded in. His chowder had absolutely no cognizance with the yakitori skewer also. Plus his station was indeed disgusting. I know this because I had to clean up after him after the challenge. The sausage and peppers just made me angry 1. Because she used store-made sausage. And 2. Because it was the most unimaginative dish she could possibly think of. At least Richard had a fun take on a burger. And then she ran out of garnish for the sausage for the judges. There's really no excuse for that, period. When we read the rules, we are always very specific about how many portions they need to reserve for the judges. Ryan, on the other hand, suffers from cafe-itis. Having worked at a sandwich and soup shop back in San Fran, his cooking choices throughout the competition have been good, but not terribly inspired or appropriate. The point is to use the grill. To make the pear relevant at all maybe he should've grilled it instead. It all reminded me of that terrible Waldorf salad, which was like a bad 1950s housewife version. Not to say that he isn't a talented chef, but we've got some super talented competitors this season and his style could not hold up over time. He does have a great attitude though and he's a pleasantly cheesy kind of guy. I wish him all the best in his future endeavors. I've got sweet, sweet stories for next week's episode. Can't wait to see it!

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Hugh Acheson wonders about the health of the kids at Emerson College and debates the cost of roasting that much foie gras.

In this, the tenth episode of this 12th season, we open in the kitchen of the chefs super secret lair. Katusji has taken his wit, wisdom and wherewithal back to his Kosher Japanese Cal-Mex empire to work on a masa matzoh ball taco. He is described as "the most loveable dick in the entire world," which seems pretty on point. These remaining five seem saddened because Katsuji provided respite from the drudgery of competition. They mourn as well, because all understood, though it was never talked about, like a solemn vow, that they could all beat Katsuji in this cooking game. He was the San Diego Padres of Top Chef, the team that all the other competition knew would be an easy beat when the time came.

So the quintet of Mei, Gregory, Dougeeeee, Melissa and George remain. They are all have the stuff that could allow them to win the dough, but Mei and Gregory have really shown that if we must have hierarchy then they are the top two contenders.

Quickfire begins with Andy and his college roommate. Andy just told the roommate that those "games" they played late at night in their bunkbeds WILL be talked about in his next book, so Dave, you have some explaining to the wife and kids. Andy, we are told, is "known for his antics." That he is.

Andy exorts the contestants to hook up with each other and I immediately think of Dougie spooning with Georgie. I then have to wash my eyes out with steel wool and bleach to remove the image. This hurts and still the image remains.

Padma gets Andy back on task and she introduces the Quickfire. It is a collegiate showdown of ramen proportions but the catch is that they must use the contents of the fridge of some poor frosh. Out come the stoner, the nerd, the sorority girl, the lady who should have graduated in '05 and one other innocuous soul. Their fridge contents make me worry about a scurvy outbreak at Emerson College.

We are regaled with stories of the craziest things they all did in college. Melissa built a 24-story beer bong. I went to school in Montreal so my craziest times were hanging out at Biftek on St. Laurent and getting drunk playing pool. Oh wait, I DID THAT EVERY NIGHT until I dropped out of college. Luckily I had some cooking skillz.

Gregory concocts a bacon, Doritos, leftover pizza broth, and I am immediately worried about the future of our country. Dougie has made a Cobb salad ramen with a "coconut-pineapple" broth, and I start looking for my Canadian passport. George, who has no idea what ramen is, 'cause Mike Isabella has never let him out before, is cobbling together a version of SpaghettiOs 2.0s. It has a hint of hot dog, but so does Andy, so this may be well liked. Melissa is making a "Crunchy Carbonara Ramen" which is probably already dispensed out of a coin machine in Tokyo and actually sounds pretty tasty. There is hope. Mei makes a smoked tomato miso with upcycled sushi. Sounds okay, so I stow the passport back and the "go bag."

There is no immunity but the winner gets 5K. Not bad for fifteen minutes of work/fame. Bottoms are Mei and Dougie. Tops are Gregory and George with Melissa winning this murky challenge.

They go to the little room of stewage and watch Julia Child. Then Jacques Pepin stops by and everyone gasps in amazement. I do too because if you don’t love Pepin you are not a nice person. He da bomb.

The Elimination Challenge is to come up with a dish inspired from Julia's cooking. Three hours to cook and one hour to finish on site tomorrow. They chat with Jacques for a while to learn the secrets of Julia, other than the fact that she was totally a CIA spy.

Doug is silent because of where he comes from. Texas shrugs as he says, "I grew up in East Texas and here I am meeting Jacques Pepin." Then he follows this ode to the state of Texas with, "I am from Texas so I can't pronounce things very well." C'mon Doug, your state gave us that Rick Perry character! He's fun to watch!

Doug is insistent on making a whole roasted foie gras. George is braising some veal and presenting it with some vegetables and pommes puree. There is some French going on around here. Melissa is challenging herself with shortribs. Mei is making duck a l'orange but you know it will show off some of herself. You can't spell Mei without ME. Gregory is making Coq au Vin. Tom wanders in during cooking to advise them to channel Julia and then they all try to sound like Julia. None of them will ever be known for their impersonation abilities.

We eat. It's outside. It's beautiful. The diners, or the we, are Dana Cowin, Jacques, Alex Prudhomme (related to Julia), Tom, Padma, Boston chefs Barbara Lynch, Joanne Chang, Mary Dumont, and little old me. I am hungry so don't talk much.

The food is really good overall. There were some issues like drier ribs, monotonous veal, raw foie, and maybe some flabby duck skin, but pound-for-pound they did the dishes well. Tops are Gregory and Mei, and the verdict is an interesting one. Gregory nailed a classic, but it was like he channeled Julia too much and did a textbook version, while Mei nailed a riff on a dish with her duck a l'orange. It is arbitrary who should win but Mei pulls it off and wins a just decision.

Not so arbitrary but still close is the bottom trio of Melissa, George, and Doug. Melissa erred in rib cookery. George cooked stunning veg but it was the veal that was a yawn. Alas, Doug bows out with his dish, a dish that he had never done but dreamed about. You don't just do roasted whole lobes of foie at the restaurant you work at, cause the owner chef would probably stab you if you ruined the 300 bucks in product. But this is TV money so he took a chance. The problem is that cooking whole foie is tricky. You can''t sear it too much or you will render away the beauty, and then you need to temper-roast it in a medium heat oven. Then it comes out and you rest it on a wire rack. It is pretty much served just warm. He did all of those steps, but over-seared it and then cooked it a hair hot, and not long enough, resultingin a greasy, yet raw internal. Funny thing is that the rest of the stuff on the plate was awesome. Well Doug, you were a favorite of ours and I wish you much success in Last Chance Kitchen.

And now we are four. Until next time.

For a good time, follow me on Twitter @hughacheson

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