Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Rolling With Role Reversal

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

Rolling With Role Reversal

The judges switch it up with a blind tasting. And Tom sheds light on what to expect from new judge Toby Young.

People think that I have a hand in the weekly Elimination Challenges. I generally don't, but this week was the exception to that rule. With Chef Jean-Christophe Novelli as guest judge, there would have been some sort of pastry challenge, but in light of my locker-room pep talk to the cheftestants last week, the other producers and I decided to scrap it and, instead, to implement a challenge that would accomplish two things:

The chefs had started this Season on good footing, cooking well in the first episode, but they seemed to be struggling after that. So the first thing we wanted was to give them a chance to cook whatever they wished with no restraints from us, to just lay it all out there. Second, whenever we criticized their food, this season's chefs tended to have looks on their faces that said that they thought we were just out of our minds. So we wanted them to taste each other's food and learn firsthand where the judge's comments were coming from.

And I'm pleased to be able to say that overall the dishes were better. As I've said before, the contestants tend to get bogged down in what the challenge is, to over-think it, and to forget that the point is to make great food. Here, the challenge was simply to make great food. Jeff's dish had nice components, all very good, but it seemed like amuses on a plate as opposed to a cohering dish. Radhika's soup was a bit overspiced, but I thought it was good. Fabio was getting a little overconfident. He should most certainly have checked his lamb; he would have had time to make it perfect. His pasta was great, the ravioli filling and mushroom sauce were all really good. Toby's analogy to British stars cast in a film in supporting roles and upstaging the lead actors was very apt for Hosea's dish. His vegetables were great, but the halibut was overcooked. And Jamie's dish was great. There's no rule that says she can't continue to make scallops, and her frequent decision to use them probably had a lot to do with the offerings available at Whole Foods Market while we were shooting the season. I thought the chefs' personalities came through; I thought their limitations did, too. Which leads me to the notion of judging blind. Since Season One, I've frequently been exhorted to judge blind, as though we may be influenced in our decisions about the food by our knowledge of who created it. As I've said before, we don't know what's going on behind the scenes all season (until we watch it much later, when it airs!), nor do we make decisions based on personalities. We just judge the food. But as this challenge proves, it makes no difference whether we are judging blind or not - though we were not told in advance of eating the food, it was pretty obvious pretty quickly, at least to me, who had cooked what. Even without even tasting the food, you at home would have known right away that the Indian food was Radhika's and the Italian food was Fabio's. (As with Jamie's scallops, there was no reason Radhika couldn't continue to infuse her food with an Indian sensibility despite her protestations in Episode One that she would not be doing so, or that Fabio couldn't continue to draw his selections from Italian cuisine.) And beyond that, having actually eaten everyone's food through six prior challenges, it was readily apparent to me right away who had made what. So much for "blind."

Toby and Jean-Christophe were the only ones at the table truly judging blind. As an aside, I think this was a good introduction to Toby. He's exceptionally witty and thought at first that he was being called on as a judge to use that wit and take potshots at the chefs, but he quickly realized that they were all very serious-minded about their food and about this competition, and he switched gears and began assessing the food in earnest. He's fun to work with and I know you'll enjoy him as the season progresses. Meanwhile, blind or otherwise, all of the judges were in accord about the two weakest dishes.

Interestingly, they were the weakest for opposite reasons, both involving creativity in cooking. Unlike last week's challenge, this one was not the producers' attempt to be creative but, rather, an open invitation to the chefs to be so; the contestants could not have had a greater opportunity to show us who they were as chefs. And Melissa gave us fish tacos. I stand by what I said at the Judges' Table.

Eugene, on the other hand, went in the other direction and was being creative for creativity's own sake. It would take a far more skilled and experienced chef than Eugene to find a way to make daikon meld well with basil and tomato. OK, he wanted to use it in lieu of a noodle - great. But that doesn't mean it can just be substituted for pasta. It still tastes radishy. I'm not saying not to try unconventional pairings. A dish by Pierre Garnier with duck breast, clams, and truffle comes to mind, for example, that was delicious. But that's because Garnier is both talented and seasoned enough to pull it off. Eugene is getting too far ahead of himself. He's not yet far enough along to connect those dots effectively. If he wanted to use basil, perhaps the daikon could have stood in for a rice noodle in a Thai-inspired dish. But what was nice to see was his willingness to take risks and push the envelope.

In general, I was glad to see the chefs step up their game this week and put more of themselves into their work. This week marked the midpoint of the season. Roughly half of the chefs are left, and now that they've tasted and judged each others' foods, let's see if that affects how they move forward from here...

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!