Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Susan Ungaro

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

Susan Ungaro

President of the James Beard Foundation answers our questions about "The Last Supper." You obviously interact with legendary chefs all the time, but how was this experience special?
Yes, I’ve had the pleasure and honor to work with many of America’s greatest chefs on James Beard Foundation educational and fundraising projects and to meet even more of these culinary geniuses at our annual James Beard Awards, which are considered the “Grammys” or “Oscars” of the food industry. Just the thought of sharing a table, tasting, and judging alongside the professional palates of Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, Marcus Samuelson, Wylie Dufresne, and Tom, Padma, and Toby was daunting, fascinating and fun. I could only imagine how nervous and tense the final five Top Chef contenders were feeling no— and I felt sympathy and excitement for them. In most episodes, Padma introduces just one guest chef judge, who is often a James Beard Award winner. But tonight they were facing off before not one, not two but five multiple award-winners or nominees (including Tom), and me, the president of the Foundation. So I think I was feeling not only nervous for me, but also for them! Why did you choose the shrimp scampi as your last meal? What memories does it bring back for you?
When I was asked to pick “my last supper,” my first response was a comfort food: roast chicken, but Lidia had already made that selection. So I decided that if I were on death row, I’d also crave a last meal that would remind me of special times: dining out on romantic occasions (when I was younger and first dating my husband) and family holiday get-togethers. I’ve always loved shrimp, especially garlicky scampi versions. And I love tomatoes (in season, of course!) and especially relish the very country French buttery, garlicky and breaded tomato provencale. I also thought it would be an interesting challenge to see how the top chef contestant would create their version of shrimp scampi: a simple saute with garlic and butter or wine? Would he or she serve it plain, over rice or pasta? Would he or she serve it marinated and broiled (a favorite at-home recipe of mine is from Pierre Franey’s 60-Minute Gourmet cookbook where the shrimp is marinated in lots of garlic, oil, herbs, and bread crumbs and then broiled). What did you like about the dish/What didn’t work for you?
Hosea’s scampi was done just right! The shrimp were garlicky without being overwhelming. I would have preferred it if he had served them over rice, not naked, but the flavor was perfect. The tomato provencale lacked the gusto I would have liked in the bread crumb topping, but it was flavorful and satisfying. I truly think he did a good job and even quipped, “I could go to heaven now.” Which other dishes stood out to you for better or for worse? Who do you think had the best/the worst?
When I heard that Wylie chose Eggs Benedict, I was surprised and intrigued but knowing he’s famous for his prowess with molecular gastronomy, I figured he had his reasons! The chemistry of cooking an egg just right and getting the hollandaise sauce just perfect is a challenge. Unfortunately, it was a challenge Leah did not meet — especially on the sauce, which was hardly evident. Fabio’s roast chicken rocked and Carla’s squab was succulent. Everyone appreciated the perfectly roasted chicken — from its crispy skin to juicy interior, but his salad side dish disappointed. (One of the judges said it looked and tasted like the salad you get on an airline meal and it was true.) Simply-dressed greens with just a touch of salt, olive oil, lemon, and herbs would have made the whole dish my favorite.) So Carla’s squab and peas dish, which was a last request of Jacques', was probably the best of the the offerings — although I dare say most of us would not choose squab as the last morsel that passes our lips. Tom mentions (when discussing the squab) how old-school chefs like things a different way vs. younger chefs, do you find this to be true? Did you find it true during the dinner?
I was intrigued by the conversation between Tom and Jacques about the squab (was it overdone, underdone?). But honestly, I didn’t see the overall opinions on the five dishes differ between old-school and younger chefs. The discussion all came down to flavor and presentation regardless of their years in the food biz. Can you describe your position at James Beard and some new events that our foodie viewers would like to know about.
As President of the James Beard Foundation, I often say I have the best job in New York and perhaps the nation. Anyone can become a member and enjoy the privileges of discounts to all our special programs. For instance, over 200 days a year, chefs from all over the country come to the late James Beard’s townhouse in Greenwich Village and create their best meal with amazing wine pairings to raise money for our non-profit foundation’s mission to recognize excellence in the culinary arts and educate Americans about all aspects of the food world. Most notably, every year in the spring, the Foundation recognizes the best of the best chefs, cookbook authors, and media in the culinary world at our annual awards ceremony at Lincoln Center. Food lovers everywhere can buy a ticket to attend this red-carpet event. If you love Top Chef, you’ll really love spending an evening watching our awards show and then mingling and tasting at the gala reception that follows. This year, we are celebrating women in food and last year’s first female Top Chef winner, Stephanie Izard, will be joining us. We also help aspiring high-school students and mid-life career changers get a culinary education with our scholarship program. To get more information on all the exciting and meaningful programs we offer, please check out our website at Would love to have Top Chef viewers become James Beard Foundation foodies!


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!