Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Just Desserts

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

Just Desserts

Season 4's winner talks turkey and how to get more info on her new project!

Well I was happy to see the outcome of last week finally. Not that I am happy to see someone go, but I think the judges made the right decision I should know better than to try to guess the outcome by the editing alone.

Thanks again for the comments and feedback! Last week was a big week for my new restaurant in that the name and some other details got leaked on the internet. There will be more information to come as things get a bit further and are a bit more secure but for now if you are interested just search for The Drunken Goat Chicago and you can get a little info on the new place.

Back to the show. I must say I was shocked to see Grant Achatz walk into the Top Chef kitchen. Being Chicago's real top chef, many people thought he would appear last season. Of course with all that Grant has gone through recently I was not expecting him last year. It is so great to see that he has recovered from his battle with cancer and is now reaching new heights at his restaurant and with his beautiful new book. Chicago is lucky to have such great talent and I eagerly await my next meal at Alinea.

The chefs begin by pulling knives with seemingly random numbers (I know I could not guess where they were going with this one). Out comes the Top Chef Cookbook comprising of dishes created by chefs during the first three seasons along with Blais' tasty banana scallops from our dessert challenge. I love the way they snuck in a little merchandise plug ... hoping next week the chefs will all be wearing the fabulous "Culinary Boner" t-shirts. Turns out that each number represents a page in the book with a recipe that the chef is to put their own twist on in an hour... a whole hour? Something fishy is going on for sure.

Of course half way through the challenge, once the chefs are well into their creations, in comes Grant announcing he is actually in the mood for soup. Most of the chefs seem pretty happy with the change. Jamie mentions her love for making soup and Carla mentions the final ingredient in soup being love. I have to agree that making soup is very satisfying. You end up with a well balanced bowl of comfort to slirp up and enjoy, well hopefully. For the most part, the soups that we got to see look quite tasty. Seeing Fabio's made me laugh a bit remembering back to the original dish that Mike created while completely high on pain killers, but Grant found his soup a bit flat. Melissa had a bit of a misstep as well. I thought it was a nice idea to recreate a classic Italian Wedding Soup but it seemed to miss the mark. Richard seemed to know he was a bit off with the balance as he ran out of time to add in some lime juice which would have helped with the acidity.

I thought Daniel's looked delicious. Reminded me of a ham hock and leek soup I like to make that stemmed from my love of French onion soup growing up. Just so warming and hearty. I am also a sucker for anything with chickpeas so Jamie's soup called out to me as well. Friends make fun of me for the lack of food in my apartment at any given time, but there are always some chickpeas around. I can imagine that the pickled chilis and cilantro yogurt would have brightened the peas up nicely. Leah was chosen as the favorite for her chilled white asparagus soup. It is a difficult vegetable to work with as Grant points out, as it can turn out quite bitter, though when cooked properly in a soup it can be refreshing and delicious. Leah must have handled it just right.

I would say we all could have guessed that this week's elimination would involve some turkey. Having won the Quickfire, Leah gets the honor of choosing her team. Brings me back to elementary school when we were picking teams for never want to be the last one picked, or in this case the seven not picked. For the most part I probably would have chosen the same team. Even though it is still early in the competition there seem to be some standouts, and I am sure some choices were made based on who Leah gets along with and believes she will work well with. Jamie, Hosea, Fabio, Stefan, Melissa, and Radhika will join Leah on team Sexy Pants. Not sure I want to keep writing Sexy Pants so from now on they are SP for short. Team Cougar, named after Ariane who is apparently the hot mamma of the bunch, will also include Jeff, Eugene, Alex, Daniel, Richard and Carla. I can imagine that Team Cougar feels the extra pressure of proving themselves since they were not the chosen ones, but it seems to me like anyone's game.

The fun twist this week is that they will cooking for the Foo Fighters. They claim to be long time fans of the show (not sure if I buy this but what the heck) and are hoping for a Thanksgiving feast for themselves along with their crew and roadies. After the chefs do a walkthrough of the arena in Rochester, they are walked outside to their lovely kitchen. Yes, outside with microwaves, toaster ovens, and one burner. A step up from a row of Easy Bake ovens but not quite what the chefs were hoping for. Both teams begin to go through their menus once again and strategize on use of the equipment. Jeff emerges as a natural leader once again, helping stop the chaos of seven chefs talking over each other and organizing the team's menu. rianne is a bit disgruntled as she seems to have the most insight into catering yet no one is really listening to her. She has chosen to do the turkey which is of course the center of the meal and it seems a few of the chefs do not trust she is up for the task. I think it is a great opportunity for her to prove herself after a couple of close calls on the chopping block. Team SP seems pretty confident, as most of the members of that team have been doing very well thus far. After a quick trip to the store the cooking gets underway. I would say that the most impressive showing is by Eugene. He actually used his brain and made a make shift roasting grill for his pork. I think that when this challenge was given to the chefs, the hope was that rather than restricting their cooking with toaster ovens, they would come up with creative ways to cook their food. I had some friends who made a roaster for a suckling pig this summer out of two metal gates and some cinder blocks. Chefs in general tend to have creative minds and it is fun to see them at work.

Other than that, the chefs just did the best they could with what they were given. There were not many super standouts, but it is Thanksgiving and I think it is best to stick with the classics and just execute them well. With the Foo Fighters, the vegan stuffing that Radhika made was the best dish of the evening while they were also happy with the little burnt marshmallows team SP had on the sweet potatoes. Arianne pulled through with the better of the two turkeys served which was great to see. Sure she was relieved not to be in the bottom two again this week. The bread pudding, however, was very dry and did not compare to Rad's stuffing and Daniel tried to sneak in some crunchy potatoes that had not cooked all the way. Much easier to get a potato soft in the microwave before you cut it. Seems time just got the best of him and as Tom pointed out he would have been better off making the decision not to serve them at all. That is a tough decision to make especially if that is your only offering to the table. Would you go home for serving nothing?

A bit of a struggle in the dessert area again seems to be the deciding factor. Hosea makes a decent fruit crisp and Fabio makes a pumpkin Tiramisu. I am not a pumpkin pie person but that Tiramisu looked light and delicious. A great alternative to the classic. Jeff attempts to change up the classic pie as well but not in a good way. The berries and pumkin did not seem to really compliment each other and the pumkin "mousse" was a strange texture which the Foo Fighter's did not quite get. Richard decided to make banana S'mores based on the rider listing bananas dipped in chocolate as a favorite of the band. I am a huge S'more fan but what he made did not really seem to resemble what I love about S'mores. Warm gooey marshmallow with melting chocolate on a crisp graham cracker. Makes me hungry just thinking about it. The dessert Richard wound up with just did not have the same effect, and the band was a bit turned off by the "spit" garnish. So team SP gets to go have a goof time at the concert while the Cougars have to hang in back and clean up. Kind of rough. Gives them a lot of time to wonder why the other team was chosen and who is going home. It was very close seeing as neither team was perfect and Arianne actually had the better turkey. Radhika's stuffing must have been damn tasty and the Cougar desserts must have lost them the fun night out.

At Judges' Table, Jeff is spoken very highly of by his teammates for his leadership skills. This is a big part of being a chef. It is not just about the food so although he put out two very mediocre dishes he pulled through by showing he has the ability to run a kitchen. Richard was just not able to hold on with the dish he put out this week. I am sure Tom will miss the weekly remarks on how hot he is. Looks like Team Rainbow is down to one but Jamie seems to be holding strong.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! Hope many of you are enjoying a tasty deep fried turkey!

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!