Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Step It Up And Cook

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

Step It Up And Cook

Lee Anne Wong breaks down the holiday episode ... one partridge in a pear tree at a time.

Setting up for Christmas in the middle of the summer is always fun. We did it in Chicago too when we filmed the Christmas special. It was decided the day before the challenge that we needed to create a beautiful holiday table for the reveal. Because we were already swamped with Gail's bridal shower challenge, I went shopping for the ingredients and then left Louise on set to prep it all while we went on location for the bridal shower. The next morning we came in at the crack of dawn to finish cooking and plating all of the food. The table was missing something -- we had the ham, we had the goose, but it needed a centerpiece, something big. You try finding a whole turkey in the dead of August. My PA Bev found one that was frozen solid. We put that puppy in a 450°F oven (we had about two hours before the cameras would roll), thawed it a little, brushed it with some molasses and let it go for 30 minutes till it looked like a fully cooked golden brown turkey. The problem with the set was that the building had the front door open all of the time, so naturally the flies came to check out our Christmas buffet. We tried citronella candles (like in Puerto Rico) but alas, it was not enough. Sadly, and much to the chagrin of the camera and sound crew, we had to spray the entire Christmas buffet with Deep Woods Off. The things we do for television.

One Pot Wonder was an idea of mine from last season. It seemed fitting considering the Queen of Homemaking was to be our judge. I also tasted the beauty plates and here's my assessment:

Eugene's pork stew with cornstarch was not great. Maybe it's because he didn't attend culinary school, but the better choice would've been to use a roux (a mixture of flour and fat, traditionally butter) to thicken his stew. Cornstarch while often used for thickening, created a thick, glossy texture to the broth that was unnatural at best. Plus the pork was very chewy and the entire dish needed salt and acid. Stefan's veal goulash was very good. It was studded with small chunks of chorizo and I was most impressed that he tourneed his potatoes (turned them into little seven-sided footballs). It's one of those things that they make you do at culinary school that will give you arthritis if you do it long enough, hence my appreciation for his efforts. Hosea's paella was also very tasty, full of that saffron, seafood, meaty goodness. The pork with apples and bacon might be the first decent thing I had seen from Melissa in a while. And Jamie's scallop (you will begin to see a trend) was also very good, and well balanced. I happen to love making potato risotto. The key is to keep the potatoes just slightly al dente, so they retain their shape -- if you overcook it, then you end up with lumpy mashed potatoes (and do you really want a splash of vinegary verjus on top of your mashed potatoes?). The steak and cauliflower was good also, if not very basic. I don't necessarily think it was the best dish. I feel like Hosea and Stefan did well by cooking dishes that really were all cooked in one pot together, not cooked and then pulled out and set aside while you clean the pot to cook the next thing. But what Martha wants, Martha gets. Carla's turkey and apple stuffing was okay, though the turkey was a little dry and flavorless. Fabio's duck with mushroom polenta was bland with an overall soft, mushy texture. Italian grandmothers can't always be right I guess. The amfAR fundraiser was the first big challenge we had given them. We only required an hors d'oeuvre, though some people chose to do a slightly larger tasting portion. I figured 250 pieces of hors d'oeuvres could be done easily in three hours. The Harlem Gospel Choir came to set and the soulful sounds of Christmas filled the stage and I think actually filled the crew's spirits as well. The contestants' reactions were great and the challenge, while a little far-fetched, left plenty of room for interpretation. We set up the Prince George Ballroom (The Art and Lighting Departments did an AMAZING job decorating and lighting everything). We gave each contestant 2 tables, 2 portable gas burners, 2 chafing dishes, a cutting board, towels, and a pot washing station. The contestants got to bring a cooler each and 4 rolling racks. I also gave each of them a supply of various serving platters, trays, and risers for their table in addition to the disposable plates and forks, spoons, and cocktail napkins we gave them. It was a choice of plating individually or using the platters to let your guests come and take hors d'oeuvres. When you are alone and serving 250 people you have to consider the actual execution of your dish and how much time it will take and how many steps are involved.

I was on site setting up with Louise and Bev. We left Angie and Peder back at the stage to help load out the contestants and drive the cube truck over with their coolers and rolling racks. I got the call shortly after I got there. Angie was in a panic because the chefs and producers were freaking out (naturally). The fridges had been overloaded with hot food the night before and one of them broke down. The problem was with Radhika, Hosea, and Melissa's food. After speaking with Liz, one of the exec producers, we saw that technically we could still give them 2 hours to do something before they had to get in a van to come to the ballroom. I told Angie that Radhika should use the leftover duck legs in the fridge, but Radhika didn't want to use the legs. I told her that the closest grocery store would probably only have chicken breasts, which she agreed to, so Angie and Peder ran out and came back with 20 lbs of chicken breast and 2 whole pork loins. It was the best they could do in Bushwick at the last minute. By the time they got back the duck legs were already being cooked (thank goodness). I had spoken with Bengt and heard that all of the contestants were pitching in to help so we were confident they would be able to get it done in time. At this point the producers already knew they couldn't send anyone home because of the fridge incident (it unlevels the playing field, therefore we can't eliminate anyone), but the chefs didn't know this. The results were indeed a bit boring as I tasted all of the food porn once again. What struck me was that none of the dishes had a very "holiday" feel to them. Here's the lowdown:

12 drummers drumming: Stefan's chicken pot pie was precious and very good. The bechamel could've been a bit more flavorful but I liked his idea and it was the closest thing to winter warmth I could see. In their defense, it was August, though -- outside of fresh cranberries, you can get squash and root vegetables year round at Whole Foods.

11 pipers piping- Hosea's smoked pork loin with braised cabbage was really good, the smokiness of the pork loin pairing well with the smokiness of the chipotle pepper sauce.

10 lords a leaping: Jeff's Cheese Islands, while not attractive to look at, was also flavorful and delicious. The only issue is that it's a dish you can't make a lot of at once and it needs to be served hot. While Jeff seems to think he's running circles around the other contestants, I would have to agree, only in the sense that he reminds me slightly of Hung by breaking out into a full sprint from the pantry to the stove to his station (running IN circles, I'd say), if you watch this episode and episodes past.

9 ladies dancing: Fabio's crab cakes with rainbow slaw were reminiscent of TGIFridays.

8 maids a milking: Interestingly enough, I had no idea Melissa's original cheese was brie that had gone bad in the fridge. We knew we wouldn't be able to get her schmancy cheese in Bushwick so Bengt called me asking for gorgonzola dolce, which I sent Louise to Murray's for. It was in fact the overpowering flavor of the blue cheese that landed Melissa at loser's table, plus the fact that the beef disappeared beneath it's strong flavor and the bread was sloppily cut and also way too thick and unpleasantly untoasted. 7 swans a swimming: Jamie and the slimy scallops. Occasionally the Top Chef scallop gods will come slap you on the hand for using them too much.

6 geese a laying: Ariane's deviled eggs were, well, deviled eggs (and terrible ones at that).

5 golden rings: Eugene's ceviche with the pineapple circle and potato chip really mystified me. First of all, he should've learned from the last challenge that separating all of the components makes no sense. How is someone supposed to eat it? Dump the ceviche on the potato chip and then eat the pineapple or try to stack the chip with everything or eat it all separately in a certain order? Besides being too sweet, I thought it was a terrible interpretation of his number, and I was dying to see if he'd buy some small cippolini onions to make miniature onion rings.

3 french hens: Leah's braised guinea hen on puff pastry was good in theory but one of the most common mistakes with hors d'oeuvres is the base to topping ratio. If you have something dry and crumbly and thick like the puff pastry as the base then the topping should be moist and creamy and there should be enough of it to balance out the dry part.

2 turtledoves: Carla's chicken was indeed one note and overcooked in my opinion. She hadn't tasted her food once again as the salt levels were enough to get her sent home. The partridge in a pear tree: Radhika's improvised braised duck legs on toasted brioche with (check it out) Indian spiced pear chutney, was very good, though the bread was also still too thick.

All I can say is what an interesting Judges' Table it was that evening. The contestants having worked late the night before, were tired and not in the mood for criticism. Tom's little talk with them didn't really help at the time and even though they all escaped elimination at the end of the evening the contestants were complaining about the fact that Natasha Richardson was a judge and how she was unqualified, basically blaming everything but themselves for their performance. I ended up having another conversation with them the next morning. It was true that they had served mediocre food rather than amazing food. My pep talk came from a contestant's perspective, and while I got the death stare from some contestants (cross arms with the back-the-f***-off-look), I think I was able to get my point across to others. They had been frustrated and felt restricted by the rules of the challenges but I let them know that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to really challenge themselves and have fun with it, as it is rare for any chef to be able to receive direct criticism from a panel of experts on a regular basis. It's a chance to find out what you are doing wrong, both in cooking and in team dynamics, and correct your mistakes. These are lessons that last a lifetime, like what NOT to do for a wedding menu, and not allowing your teammate to serve the overcooked carrots. I also told them that it did not matter who was judging them. We are in the business of serving people so any customer has a right to their opinion and I am positive Natasha Richardson is more qualified and her palate more well traveled than even some of our contestants (I am sure she and Liam Neeson have eaten all over the world in the finest restaurants). Bottom line: it doesn't matter that she's an actor. And that's really what Top Chef is all about, or at least what I got out of it. As chefs, we make ourselves and our food open to criticism on a daily basis, but are usually somewhat restricted by budgets, seasonality, food genres, etc., and in most normal situations your customers won't come back to your kitchen and nitpick over the details of the food they just ate. It is through our creativity and thought process that we can overcome these restrictions and still deliver a knockout dish. Our challenges are meant to inspire our contestants and make them think (hence Gene and the improv charcoal pit), and I have always said that it is the talent and individuality of our contestants that drive the show, not the challenges. We just needed to make this bunch see that this was an opportunity to let go of all of the restrictions that they were so used to dealing with on a daily basis and have fun and just cook. You see it when Harold made the popcorn ceviche, and even when Hung made a Smurf village out of cereal. There's levity in the ridiculousness of being on Top Chef and I think now that we're pretty much done filming I think they get that it's one of the most unique experiences of their lives. For more behind the scenes, here's an interview I did last month with Zagat. Best wishes for a safe and happy holiday to all and I'll see you after the New Year!

Xoxo- Lee Anne

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!