Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

I Heart Dave Grohl

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

I Heart Dave Grohl

Top Chef's culinary producer Lee Anne Wong has something in common with the Foo Fighters — bacon!

First, let me start by saying this episode was a monster, but in it I got one of the bigger thrills of my life. OK, Grant Achatz. I had the privilege of trailing at Trio in Evanston while he was the star chef there. Not only was it fascinating to watch him and his team work together, from conceptualizing an idea to refining existing dishes, but it is even more meaningful to me now to see his evolution as a chef. My meal at Trio may have been the best I have ever had (I distinctly remember each of the 24 courses of my Tour de Force tasting menu), and I have eaten at Alinea on three subsequent occasions, each time a completely different and fulfilling experience. It was an honor to have Chef Achatz join us amidst his busy schedule. Some of you may know he is a recent cancer survivor, having battled a life threatening rare form of mouth cancer. He is a hero and a giant in the culinary world for his courage and focus as he continued to work in his kitchen while receiving treatment for his condition. Thankfully he is in remission now and was able to join us for this very rockin' Thanksgiving episode.

The TC Cookbook/Swanson thing was a complicated challenge for us to figure out. I had to choose the recipes and then stock the fridge with plenty of the ingredients from each recipe, each labeled on it's own tray, and then also supplement the pantry with additional ingredients for when they went to go make soup (unbeknownst to the contestants). For the most part, most of the soups were very good. I was particularly a fan of Danny's Ham and Egg Soup, which was rich and thick like a stew with a soft poached egg in it, crunchy bread crouton like French Onion, and lots of ham and cheese in a rich, flavorful broth. Leah's White Asparagus Soup was very good (I can't believe she hates white asparagus) and we knew by letting her pick her team it would create an interesting dynamic amongst the contestants (The talented vs. the misfits? Well, apparently at least in Leah's mind).

The concert was in Rochester, which is a seven-hour drive from NYC. Most of the crew and the contestants were taken up in buses. Team Culinary, fully aware that we would be building an outdoor kitchen, had to drive a cube truck full of equipment and rentals that would be needed to make sure that the teams could pull this off. I sent Peder up to Rochester in the cube truck that morning (I had to stick around for the quickfire) and he went to the market to set up the Butterball display that evening. Louise and I got into Rochester, driving our mini van (or the party wagon, as we like to call it), late that evening and went to bed right away as we had to build the kitchen the next morning. I love 4 a.m. wake-up calls. I didn't get too much sleep, probably because I was guilt-ridden by actually knowing that the contestants would be finding out that they were cooking Thanksgiving meal with only toasters, microwave ovens, and one hot plate. The funny thing about this challenge is that it was one that I had proposed to Shauna and Liz many seasons ago. I had done an episode of some cooking show for Fine Living in which I showed college students how to make a three-course meal using only a microwave and toaster oven. We all thought it was a great idea, but I more or less had it in mind for something like a fancy, multi-course meal for 20 people, not Thanksgiving for a roadie crew of 60. I actually laughingly told Shauna that I thought it was totally devious and mean that we'd put it upon them for a challenge like this (to which she responds, "I know, but this is Top Chef," which of course is the universal explanation for many of the crazy things we make them do).

There was a ton of discussion over culinary needs in setting this challenge up. How many microwaves and toaster ovens do we give them (one per contestant)? Should we give them a hot plate (yes, but only one)? I made sure each team had trays, platters, hot boxes, sterno, chafing dishes, the necessary equipment and electrical appliances to pull this off. We were outdoors so we had to buy a dozen coolers and order 300 lbs of ice. We built an outdoor pot washing area for each team, as there was no water source. We had to work with Grip and Electric to make sure the microwaves and toaster ovens wouldn't blow a fuse. And so on and so forth. So at 5 a.m., with my eyes still half shut, Team Culinary and the unionized roadie crew from the arena built an outdoor kitchen in less than 3 hours. Surprise! (First REAL challenging twist of the season). Yep. The contestants gave me dirty looks for the rest of the day. BUT, outside of the toaster oven microwave fiasco, they had everything else they could possibly need to make a fabulous meal, including blenders, food processors, kitchen aids, chafing dishes, hot boxes, and a ton of sterno. They had a huge pantry provided, and all the small tools and Gladware they would need to get through the challenge. I was thrilled to see that apparently Eugene was the only one who used his brain at the supermarket by picking up charcoal and making a fire pit out of one of the chafers. Not against the rules. Ariane realized that the hot box could act as an oven also, with the use of sterno and charcoal. This is exactly the point and what we want from our contestants; flexibility and resourcefulness.

I can't speak to the stupidity of both team names but both put out respectable food considering the conditions. The actual eating and serving area was a good ways away from the outdoor kitchen, so they all had to do quite a bit of running back and forth to get their stations set up. I sampled both teams food and at the end of the day, I preferred Team Cougar's a bit more, not to say that it didn't have its missteps. I think for me it was Ariane's delicious and moist turkey and Eugene's sweet and tender smoked pork loin. I found Team Sexy Pants' (again, stupid name) turkey to be dry and the gravy uninspired. Plus Team S.P. put out a salad bar, which may have been suitable for the Foo Fighters but to me screams Ponderosa. Part of being a chef is sometimes not giving the diner the choice, so I would have rather seen them make several interesting composed salads rather than fill a few bowls with canned chickpeas, olives, and shredded bagged cheddar cheese. Did I mention how much the salad bar turned me off? Team Cougar fell flat with not only its desserts (The bar-fait was really not good), but also with its salads and sides. What you don't see is that Richard had also made a mozzarella and tomato salad coated in basil pesto, which was fine, but really had no place on a Thanksgiving menu. It was a close call however, and Radhika's Vegan Cornbread Stuffing was a hit with all of them. And by the way, that episode was by the far the worst clean up I have ever had to do for any challenge in five seasons as the outdoor kitchen was destroyed by the rain, and the serving and dining area had only been "tidied up" by Team Cougar. Cry me a river Eugene. Unfortunately for sweet, sad Richard, his time was up. I thought he was very creative and had a great attitude the short time I got to spend with him. He left me a really nice note in his recipe book, which was turned into me after he left. I saw him recently at a TC event in Grand Central so he's doing well and I wish him the best. So the big thrill of my day? I got to look at the rider in which the Foos talk about their likes and dislikes. They have a whole paragraph dedicated to bacon. Bingo. I made bacon gift boxes for each one of them, complete with Bacon Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies and Billionaire's Bacon. After the Foos had judged the contestants and were on the way up to their dressing room to get ready for the show, Liz drags them over to say hi to me. Dave Grohl had his back turned to me and Liz says, "Dave, I just want to introduce you to our culinary producer..." and he turns around, points at me with a big smile in surprise and shouts, "Lee Anne!"

I almost passed out. I'm not usually star-struck very easily but this was Dave Grohl. And Taylor. And Chris. And Nate. I love the Foo Fighters and all of their music. So I start babbling like a drunken teenager to Dave and then feebly hand him a bag full of four bacon gift boxes, each individually sealed with bacon tape, to which he responds, "No way! We used to belong to bacon of the month club!" (I love you Dave Grohl). Handshakes, hugs, and the gift of pork were exchanged that day, a memory that will forever be burned into my teeny-bopper heart.

We were allowed to watch the show from stage right. Unbelieveable. Pat Smear was on hand to join them for a few songs. Later that evening I was out at a local bar with the crew when Tom, Padma, Gail, and Shauna showed up. They had been partying with the Foos backstage and said that after the show they devoured the bacon gift boxes and went bonkers over the cookies and billionaire's. Ahhhhh, spreading the pork gospel to the rock gods. It couldn't get anymore perfect and I hope to be able to someday bring more bacon their way. I have to start cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my entire family, like right now. I hope you all have an amazing holiday, and remember: turkey and dumplings the day after.

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!