Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Think Outside The Pot

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

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

Think Outside The Pot

Stephanie Izard misses Eric Ripert in a Santa suit, but overall thinks this season's chefs adequately brought the holiday spirit.

It is time for the holidays. I would say that everyone on this week's episode did a good job of bringing in the Christmas spirit while filming in the summer. I was hoping that there would be a recurrence of last year's Christmas special and Eric Ripert would come dressed as Santa, but Martha was a fun addition as well. I had the opportunity to meet her a couple of times this summer while I was cooking in the Hamptons. Though her style is very different from that of most restaurant chefs including myself, I have to give her props. She is a very intelligent woman who has overcome some interesting obstacles (prison usually has a negative effect on someone's career) and remained an American icon.

The Quickfire Challenge, in true Martha style, is to create a holiday inspired meal in one pot. The chefs have many different interpretations of the challenge. Some made one or two components in the pot and then used the grill for part of the meal, while others cooked a portion of the dish then removed it and reused the pot or pan for another component. Fabio recreated his grandmother's polenta and topped it with pan roasted duck breast. I wish I could have tasted this myself as I am a huge fan of polenta and would think that someone with that accent could make it pretty well. Martha was not a fan though which I think in turn made Fabio less than a fan of her. Eugene decided in the end that he needed a thickening agent for his stew. Choosing corn starch was his downfall with the queen of home cooking. I am sure there are a number of home cooks who use corn starch as a quick thickener and it is often used to thicken sauces in Asian cuisine. Martha is just not a fan. Another disappointment for her was the potato "risotto." I have often seen vegetables cooked in the style of risotto, such as cauliflower and salsify, with a delicious end result. he problem with potato is that it has so much natural starch that when slowly cooked in risotto style it may become overly heavy which often happens to a poorly made risotto. I think it was a creative approach but just did not seem to work. On a more positive note, Martha was a big fan of Jamie's grilled scallop served over a kale and potato stew. This was a nice and hearty approach to a scallop dish and Martha seems to be almost as big of a scallop fan as Jamie. Ariane goes simple with a velvety cauliflower puree topped with filet mignon. I am a big fan of cauliflower puree but it just did not seem to have as much creativity as some of the other dishes. I felt that Hosea captured the win on this Quickfire. He made a dish that is in fact a one pot dish, and according to Martha and Padma he had great flavor as well. I guess Martha was just more drawn to her fellow Jersey girl's dish than the classic Spanish paella.

To get everyone further into the Christmas spirit, in comes the Harlem Gospel Choir singing the Twelve Days of Christmas. I think I was most entertained watching Padma get down to the gospel version of this holiday favorite while the chefs seemed to grasp where the theme to their dishes would be coming from this week. Though I have heard this song way too many times to count throughout the years I could not quite remember how many ladies were dancing and how many pipers were piping. There are some chefs who had to use a bit more creativity to create a dish that would fit the theme. Nine ladies dancing? Ten Lords a-leaping? Might need some creative storytelling to make some of these work.

The great part about this challenge is that they are creating food for a fundraiser to benefit amfAR which is the American Foundation for AIDS Research which is a great cause. Natasha Richardson, who is a supporter of the foundation will be the guest judge along with Michelle Bernstein who I had the pleasure of meeting at a Common Threads benefit here in Chicago. Very cool woman and talented chef.

The chefs all hit the market and try to figure out how to make tasty hors d'oeuvres that fit into the day of Christmas they chose. They also have only three hours of prep and will be serving 250 tasting portions by themselves at the event. Most of the chefs have experience doing charity events and passing out a large number of portions in a short amount of time, but I am sure they are used to having a helper at two so they can keep the food flowing as well as have time to chat with the guests. The first night of prep seems to go well for everyone. Many have chosen relatively simple dishes and have only a few components to their dish. At the end of prep time they all squeeze their prep into the coolers and head home. The excitement comes the next morning when a few of the chefs realize their cooler has gone down overnight. I am pretty sure that shoving a bunch of hot prepared food that has not been cooled down properly into the overly corwded cooler was the problem here, and the chefs should have known better than to expect the refridgeration to stand up to this. This is why in restaurants we cool our prep in ice baths before putting them in the reach in or walk-in to make sure the proper temperature is maintained.

Luckily the two chefs who were most affected were able to come back from this with the help of their fellow cheftestants. Rad still had her duck legs which she had time to braise and Hosea was given some pork loin to work with. Part of being a chef is being able to bounce back from a mishap such as this. You have to hold yourself together, figure out a new plan and move on. Some times you luck out and the new dish works out better than the original.

Since the song has been stuck in my head for the past few days, I thought about going through the dishes day by Christmas Day. Though I am finally at home and just got to see the ending of the episode with Tom's visit to the stew room, it made his reaction to even the winning dishes make more sense. Braised duck on toast, pork tenderloin with cabbage and apples, chicken pot pie, and a salad were the top dishes of the night. Though they were executed well and had good flavor, they seemed to be lacking in the creativity department. On the downside, Jamie served raw scallops with a chilled soup which did not go over well with Michelle and the other judges. Had she seared the scallops the outcome may have been much different. Melissa put together some flavors that classically work well but just let the gorgonzola take over the dish. Then there was the overly sweet ceviche with the golden rings of pineapple. Eugene tried to stand behind his dish but it seemed that Michelle Bernstein was no match for him on this one. No one wants to hear criticism about their food, but everyone makes mistakes from time to time and a good chef can take the criticism and learn from it. Having Tom come into the stew room is something that never happens so I am sure the chefs were a bit freaked out to see him walk in an sit down. It seems to me that Tom has been a bit disappointed thus far with the food this season and that this week just pushed him over the edge. Tom knows good food, and he enjoys cooking and eating good food and, I think it has been noticeable through the past few weeks that he has not been enjoying the food put in front of him as he would hope. The chefs were chosen from thousands of chefs from around the country who would love the opportunity to compete on the show and to meet great chefs like Tom and all of the other guest judges. They need to start cooking with more heart and prove to Tom that they deserve the opportunity they were given. I am looking forward to next week when the chefs are given the chance to really show what they can do. I am sure they have it in them and a little kick in the ass from Tom was the reality check they needed.

I just have to quickly say that that drunken outburst from Leah was just priceless. Having spent many a hours in that back room I know that many beers are had and a lot of drunken incidents occur. Pretty sure Dale would not have picked a fight for no reason after we won a challenge nor would Jen have kicked a chair against the wall if we were not passing the time with some brews. However, might not want to let the booze speak to Tom that way. Or please do so again because it was pretty entertaining.

Looking forward to some great food next week! And of course some tasty scallops from Jamie.

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!