Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Home Sweet City

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

Fin, Found, Floundering

What Danny Meyer Taught Gail Simmons

'Top Chef' Goes to Hog Heaven

Gris Gris Boucherie Ya Ya

Brian and Travis' Dud Spuds

Home Sweet City

Top Chef's head judge talks about the experience of competing in New York.

Welcome back to Top Chef! Thank you for tuning in for Season Five. I'm excited about the chefs who have assembled to compete this season. And welcome, too, to my hometown, New York City. To say that I'm glad we're here this season is an understatement. Aside from the obvious - staying put, being in my own home with my wife and son, not living out of suitcases - I'm also pleased to have this season of Top Chef happen in the city that is arguably the restaurant capital not only of the country but of the world.

Growing up a half-hour outside of New York, the city always had a pull for me, because I knew that that's where the food world was. But I saw that the city had one of two effects on those who grew up in its shadow: either you'd never go because you were too intimidated, or you felt the pull that I did, in which case the question was simply (and not so simply, as it turns out) "when." I faced this important question twice. I had been working in restaurants for almost nine years before I came to New York to work for the first time. My first job in the big city was at the Quilted Giraffe, where, after a scant four months, they gave me a sous-chef position. What a great intro to New York! I was working in what was widely considered one of the three top restaurants in the New York and, perhaps, the country. Coming off of that experience, my next move, logically, would have been to take a chef's position. But I chose to do so not in New York City, but back in New Jersey - I knew a chef should have a decidedly unique style and I wanted to develop and hone mine out of the spotlight. I worked in New Jersey for a year, then worked with Alfred Portale, and then traveled and did a stage in France. It was only all of these that I came back to New York and worked as a chef at Mondrian. This city has been my home ever since, and after all these years it still inspires both awe and love. I believe that all of our competing chefs this season were simultaneously excited and intimidated about coming to New York. If you're working in Miami or Boulder, you always wonder, "Can I compete in New York?" I find it interesting, for example, that Fabio had never come to New York; he went straight from Italy to California ... perhaps in anticipation of coming here eventually. The question we all face and must decide for ourselves is "Am I happy to be a big fish in a small pond somewhere else ... or do I want to take a shot at the top?" New York draws the best from everywhere, all coming here trying to make it. And even those who don't make it to the top and who are toiling somewhere in the middle here in NYC are still operating at a level of professionalism and creativity above that at the top of the heap in many other places. Using acting as a metaphor, New York is not like Hollywood, where you might luck into a break. Here, you must either do something so unique and different as to be noteworthy, like David Chang did with Momofuku, or you must rise to the top through sheer excellence, like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, for example. There are several routes by which one might make it in New York, but one way or another, this city brings out the absolute best - and the worst - in everybody who comes and tries. The best, for obvious reasons. The worst, because there's something about coming here and being so driven that you tend to put blinders on and forget everything else the city has to offer, and you don't go out and experience it all. I speak from personal experience: I am so hyper-focused on Manhattan, for example, that it was a long time before I discovered the joys and wonders of Brighton Beach, of Ozone Park. Some of the best Chinese food in the world, for example, is in Queens. Did you know that there is a neighborhood in Queens that is the single most diverse neighborhood in the entire world? In its grade school at one point in recent years there were students speaking fifty-seven different languages and dialects. Fifty-seven. I didn't make that up - it's true. And the neighborhood is a thriving and harmonious community. Full of great food, I might add. That community highlights what's amazing about New York. You are allowed to be your fullest self here, to bring everything with you, your food, your culture. You are encouraged not to assimilate. Mayor John Lindsay once said of the city he governed that "not only is New York the nation's melting pot, it is also the casserole, the chafing dish and the charcoal grill". He would have liked our first Elimination Challenge, which proved him right.

I loved this challenge, which was to go to a randomly assigned neighborhood such as Little Italy, Chinatown, Astoria or Brighton Beach, shop there, and then return to the Top Chef kitchen to create a meal inspired by what that neighborhood had to offer. I thought it was the perfect challenge to kick off this season. It gave us a chance to see the real New York, not just the rarified high-end restaurants that get all of the press. And it gave us an opportunity to meet our Season Five chefs and get to know their personalities and particular styles. As you saw on the show tonight, some of the chefs were jazzed and motivated by the challenge; others were intimidated. A word about that, if I may: I think this issue of inspiration vs. intimidation spoke not only to the chefs' individual personalities, but to their levels of experience as chefs, as well. I would love nothing better than to find a culinary student with such outsized talent that it preempts the need for experience, but I believe that a chef needs both. Remember, I wrote above that I spent nine years working with food before I came to New York. Not only working, but traveling, eating, experiencing food. A chef with more experience of the world and its food would not be intimidated by the thought of cooking with foods from another region, whether she or he had ever done so before. Rather, she or he would say "I understand this - it's still just cooking." The point of our challenge was for the chefs to be inspired by new ingredients and then decide how to make them their own. In fact, that's what American cooking is about. Hosea's dish is a good example of what I'm talking about. Hosea was clearly working with his Russian theme, serving smoked fish, caviar and potato pancakes, or latkes. (Each latke, by the way, was flavored to correspond with the sauce with which it was paired.) And yet Hosea managed to give us a clear sense of his own plating style; though it contained traditional Russian elements, the plate looked very modern. He didn't make the top three, but the dish was beautifully executed.

Let's contrast this with Patrick, still a culinary student, who simply lacks experience. Some things can't be learned in school - one must travel. This is why, for example, it's so important to do a stage if you're studying French food. There, you learn why; here, you just learn how. Food in Alsace is different than in Brittany or the Loire Valley. Similarly, as Jean-Georges pointed out, you can't just put bok choy on a plate and call it "Chinese Food." And what, if anything, did Patrick do to make that piece of salmon reflect Chinatown? He could have marinated it in plum wine, sesame oil, ginger...anything. There was nothing about the salmon that "spoke Chinese." This is why I believe a student just isn't ready to contend in this competition. Experience traveling, gaining familiarity with food and coming to understand it would have enabled Patrick to look at the unique items in Chinatown, put them together and make them his own.

One way Patrick might have been more successful would have been to think of one Chinese dish he loved - orange-flavored beef, for example, think about what was in that dish - beef cut thin, dipped in corn starch and fried; sauce with sezhuan peppers and burnt orange peel, and then play with how to take those flavors and turn them into a dish he could call his own. Hmmm ... perhaps take a short rib, braise it in orange and the chilis and some of the spices. What else could be brought in? What else would work with this? Chinese long beans, great in garlic and soy. OK. Maybe take the short-rib, mince it, and turn it into a wonton? Etc. I encourage chefs to take the idea of a full dish and rework it, making it your own, as Hosea did so successfully. Like Hosea, Eugene's experience as a chef yielded him success in this Elimination Challenge. He didn't know anything about Indian food. He didn't have to - he's a smart enough cook, who cooked his way past the problem. Knowing how to cook lamb and how to cook curry were enough to get him through this challenge. Although Padma said that he created an authentic Indian dish, it is not traditionally made with rack of lamb. Alex used the knowledge of his own culture's cuisine and was excited to adapt it. Jamie took the idea of Greek ingredients - olives, eggplant puree - and then did her own play on a Greek Salad. It wasn't a Greek dish per se. It didn't have to be. The challenge was not to make an authentic dish but, rather, to use the neighborhood and foods for inspiration. If I take a vacation in Spain and eat around, it's almost impossible for me not to bring the ideas back and play with them. I find ingredients in my travels and then work them into what I do back home. If you're in a creative field, everything you do out in the world will find its expression in your work. Paul Simon traveled to Africa, to Brazil, and created albums that were fusions. His inspirations found their way into both the music and the lyrics in ways that were seamless, not forced.

By the way, while Patrick had the technique but not the inspiration, Ariane had the inspiration but not the technique. Her undercooking of the farro was such a rudimentary mistake that we just could not give her a pass on it. She knew it, too. I could all but see her kicking herself. I must add that I was a bit taken aback by her defense of her lack of knowledge of Mediterranean cuisine despite living so close to New York. She commented, basically, that she didn't need to explore because at home she had books to refer to were she faced with a particular cooking challenge. I have always taken to heart the words of Jacques Pepin, who wrote in La Technique not to read the book as a book, but, rather, to treat it as an apprenticeship. Don't just read ... DO. Cook your way through. In other words, gain experience.

So here we are, with chefs from diverse backgrounds and even diverse countries, all converging in New York for these next several weeks. We started them off with little apples in their first Quickfire Challenge. Now we'll see what the Big Apple has in store for each of them...

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

So she's going to take more time shopping at Whole Foods -- and ask for the best of Melissa's basket and Adam's shrimp.

Bravotv.com: Let's dive right in. How did it feel to go shopping?
Gail Simmons: Shopping at Whole Foods was fantastic and hilarious. It made us realize that you need to be strategic, which was the point of the exercise for us. They gave us 30 minutes, but we took a little longer. We didn't let the producers push us around! We’re not contestants and we weren't going to stand for it! So, you realize how little time you have, and how big Whole Foods can be. You spend a lot of time running around.

 

My strategy with my pantry was to get a lot of fresh, delicious food that you can cook in lots of different ways. A good balance of proteins, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, fresh herbs, grains. But I didn't want to get too much. Everyone has different strategies; Padma got a ton of different ingredients. Tom's pantry was very pared down. Richard and I were somewhere in the middle.

 

Bravotv.com: Let's start by talking about the two dishes that came from your pantry?
GS: Katsuji and Melissa. They used the same protein, but their dishes were very different. They both used shrimp which one of the proteins that I bought. I bought something else too, something that I know has given people trouble in the past (which is why I specifically chose it) -- chicken wings. And I really wanted people to use them. Instead, they chose the easy way out because shrimps cook quickly.

Melissa's used a lot of fresh vegetables, which I was hoping she would: dill, mint, artichoke. I was so excited about all of it. I think it was beautifully done, a lovely salad with that little shrimp on top with spiced yogurt. But it was just a salad with a quick-cooking seafood. It was so similar to what she had done in Restaurant Wars when she made a scallop with grapefruit salad. I believe she could have done so much more. Melissa keeps saying she wanted to focus on her knife skills, and, of course, your knife skills have to be precise. But I need to see more than just knife skills. I want to see cooking skills, I want to see roasting skills, braising skills. I want to see her hands get a little dirtier and her dishes not be as superficial. It was a light, lovely dish. I was happy to eat it for lunch. But when you're competing against six other really talented chefs, we all want to see a little more depth. Katsuji on the other hand went big. He used his ingredients in a really powerful way. The potato salad, the poached shrimp had bold seasoning and I loved how they went together. It was a great dish. It may not have been the best of the day, but I was actually really happy with what he chose to make.

 

Bravotv.com: So for the rest, let's talk about who was on top and who was on bottom.

GS: At the top there was Gregory who really was going for Padma's heart there. He did great with his coconut milk curry. A really balanced, powerful dish. But it's something we’ve seen from Gregory many times in the past. In fact, in the first challenge he made a similar spicy curry dish with chicken. As much as we thought it was a delicious bowl of food, it was so typical of what we expect from Gregory. George's food was really exciting for us. This was my first time tasting his food and meeting him on Top Chef. He did a great job. The kebab was moist, seasoned really well, and the lentils were beautiful too. My only small issue with the dish is I couldn't understand why he separated the lentils from the kebab in two separate dishes. Why not put lentils on the plate and the kebab right on top, with a dollop of the yogurt? It seemed a little bit disconnected to me. But all-in-all, a really strong dish. Doug had the winning dish of the night. He used Richard's crazy pantry in a way that I thought was smart, clear-cut, and creative. The chorizo and mussels and peppers, just how Tom said, go together well, as do the cauliflower and the garlic. There was sweetness, there was spice, it was light and fresh but had a soulful, rustic flavor we all loved. You could see use of technique. On the bottom were dishes that tried to stretch and didn’t come through. Mei did a great job overall, except her lamb was undercooked. You want lamb medium, medium rare, but the center of that meat was raw to the point where the texture was chewy and almost cold. It would have been better if she had been able to cook it five minutes longer. We talked about Melissa's mistakes already, which also landed her on the bottom. I totally applaud Adam for trying to make a quick-flash marinade. He's been in the middle for so long and he thought "I gotta go big or I gotta go home." He tried to go big and unfortunately, he went home because of that technique. I get the idea of what he was doing, I don't doubt that it could've been successful if it were perhaps done in a different setting, with a little more control. But the flash marinade of his shrimp did not cook it as needed. It was still grey, it was still raw, and the texture of raw shrimp is not appealing. It's squeaky, it's squishy, and it becomes sort of mushy. We wanted it firm and cooked through. It's not like fish that you can eat sashimi-style Unfortunately Adam's hard work, his big risk sent him home.

I will miss him. I think he's an incredibly articulate, clever chef. I think he has an extraordinary career ahead of him. I'm excited to see him back in New York City. I can't wait to eat his food again. Also I want to say of this entire episode that was it was thrilling to see our superfans in the kitchen. We've never let people come into the kitchen in that way before, even though people ask us all the time. It brought so much good energy to have basically a live audience with us for the day. Everyone was so psyched. It was amazing to be around people who really love the show, to let them eat food from our talented chefs. SO much fun!