Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Jacques Pepin

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

Jacques Pepin

The legendary chef answers our questions about his guest judging experience. The whole theme of this episode revolved around "the last meal." You chose squab and peas. What does that dish mean to you?
I had a hard time there because I would, of course, want my last meal to be very, very, very long with all the food that I like. When I was a kid the squab was one of the special treats that we would get occasionally throughout the year. The fresh peas, for me, is really a celebration of spring and is very appealing to me. Carla did that very, very well. I remember the peas more than the squab actually. They were really fantastic. You had made a comment that peas would be out of season by the time the show was taped. Do you think that would be a problem for her?
No, there's always a way of finding things. Actually, you can do those peas with tiny frozen peas which are picked out of the pod, specifically if you are picking the very smalls ones, which are higher in sugar and closer to the top. That works very well with it, but of course it's not to be compared with fresh peas. I remember the butter reduction she did with it — it was very good. The chefs seemed a little unsure as to whether they should cook the dishes traditionally or put their own spin on it. What was the concensus at the table?
Well, both. I suppose that if you want to please someone you learn a little about that someone and try to cook to please them. If you live with a husband or a wife you are trying to please your mate and you cook what they like to eat. However, you cannot escape yourself. To cook well you have to cook with your gut. It has to be your food. Tom and Carla agreed that the squab was slightly overcooked. You said that you didn't mind. Tom then went into something about how old school and new school differ on the way they like it cooked. Do you agree with that?
I don't know if it's only older chefs or old school chefs. It's a question of personal preference or taste. It's a question of the fad or the fashion at that time. We used to roast a duck, which I still love. A roast duck you put in the oven for an hour at 400 degree and the skin is crispy and well done. You can do that at home. Many years ago this was the only way that duck was cooked. Now the only way you can have duck is with the breast rare and the leg is confit or whatever and it is kind of ridiculous because one is just after the other. All of a sudden you have the old style coming back new again and you have those types of things. It's more of a question of passion than anything else. It's a question of personal preferences. Sure, I could have had the squab slightly less cooked than it was, but it was quite well seared and satisfying and What do you remember of the other dishes that were presented? Did any of them stand out to you?
I remember one. I remember the poached egg with hollandaise sauce. The hollandaise sauce was a disaster because of the yolk. I didn't discuss it because it wasn't my dish. The beginning of the yolk was not cooked enough. When you add the liquid it just collapsed and the whole thing was covered in liquid. I think that a pretty bad disaster. Do you watch Top Chef?
Occasionally. I've seen a couple of them. I never know exactly when it's on. I tend to stay with the news or stuff like that. It's very rare that I look at things like that. Have you noticed, without even watching, that things like Food Network or Top Chef have changed the way chef are perceived?
Certainly. Yes. For me, at the French Culinary Institute in New York or at Boston University where I taught for 24 years, I see that 1 out of 2 chefs who graduate want to either write a book or do a TV show or do one of those things. To a certain extent it's for the better — the more people who are into food the better it is for us. Tell us about your experiencse with restaurants.
I opened a restaurant in New York and I opened two restaurants in Connecticut. I had a bunch. After that, I realized that if I open a restaurant I can do nothing else. This is where I work. I'm extremely involved in it. I am now also Executive Culinary Director of Oceania Cruise line. I work on the menu and the dishes with them. Do you have new show coming on PBS?
I have a show that started couple of months ago. I did a series called Fast Food My Way, and this is More Fast Food My Way. We do 26 shows in one shot and I do a book with it and that's for a couple of years. Doing a show is relatively easy, doing a book is much harder and time consuming. If I do it every couple of years it's fine which is what I've been doing for the last 20 or so years on PBS. I've had eleven series on Overall, how was the experience for you judging Top Chef?
It was great. I love Tom Colicchio — he is a great guy. I saw my friend Lidia Bastiniach. It was a great day and I really enjoyed it. Anything else you have to add?
Certainly the style of cooking has changed, especially for the chefs now. I was a young chef when I worked at the Plaza Athenee in Paris or Le Pavillon in New York and there was a striped bass done in the style of the Le Pavillon in New York. So the goal of any chef working there was to duplicate that dish exactly the way it was. So even now serving that dish, I say "that is the striped bass from Le Pavillon." So we all strive to duplicate that dish and that exact taste whether it was in Paris or in New York. So it was kind of a teamwork, certainly different from what it is now. Now, mostly for chefs, it's a question of expressing yourself. It has become much more of an egocentric type of thing. You want to extract your own taste, you want to sign your dish, you want people to know that's it's "my" dish when, in fact, the point was exactly the opposite, it was to try to confine to the style of the house and duplicate that dish exactly the way it had been done. There's certainly less pressure in some ways now to perform exactly all the time. Do you think that's something chefs should learn now? Do you think one way is better?
It's just a progression. Also, when you are young you don't cook as well as when you get older. There's all kind of reasons why you change, but certainly cooking evolves as you get older and as you change and you know more about cooking. When you're younger you tend to add and add and add, and when you get older you tend to retreat and retreat. You give more to the taste of the dish itself with maybe less emphasis on the garnish and decoration and presentation and so forth.

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!