Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Home Sweet City

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

Gail Talks OvenGate

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 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!