Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Speak Up, Listen Up

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

Speak Up, Listen Up

Tom Colicchio explains how Jamie could've gotten her first Elimination win.

This challenge involved cooking for Gail Simmons' bridal shower. While that was a noble reason to cook and a beautiful affair, many of our chefs were overly concerned with the fact that they were cooking for a bridal shower, when, in fact, that was a red herring: The important thing was to use the theme they had drawn (old, new, borrowed or blue) and simply make good food. (I was also surprised to hear how often people mentioned the fact that they were cooking for 45 guests. This number should not rattle a chef.)

OK, the "Blue" team had it the toughest conceptually. There is no such thing as blue food (even Hubbard Squash, which is as blue as food gets on the outside, has orange flesh on the inside). The team came up with a good idea - the deep blue sea - but then didn't follow it through particularly well. Chilean Sea Bass was a terrible choice. Aside from not being associated with blue water, the Patagonia Toothfish (it's real name) is one that nobody should ever use, as it's been fished out and is endangered (for more about that, you can check out Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish, by G. Bruce Knecht). Even if it weren't an ethical gaffe, this fish is never fresh, but always arrives at the store frozen and is defrosted there. Choice of fish aside, the dish itself just wasn't very good. The whole thing was very pedestrian. Between the very soft fish, the crust that wasn't crisp, and the corn sauce, there was no texture in the dish at all. The team could have done something dynamic and interesting with the deep blue sea concept, but they just didn't. It was a boring dish. Far from playing it safe, the "New" Team went overboard in the other direction and, ultimately, imploded. Where to even start...? An interactive dish could have been OK, but to pull it off would have required a team of very good technical chefs. Nothing was cooked right. This was not a dish where everything could be cooked in advance and reheated. The shrimp was ridiculously overcooked. Beef has some tolerance to it and might have withstood reheating, but Daniel overcrowded the pan, so instead of being sauteed, the beef was just steamed. There is a way to cook mushrooms, but Daniel doesn't know it, and they were horrible. The rice was made incorrectly, and Eugene actually thought he could fix it. You cannot fix bad rice. I always tell my cooks that invariably something will go wrong and they should not try to sneak it past the chef - they'd just be passing bad food along to the diner. I just opened a new Craft in Atlanta this week and on opening night the fingerling potatoes were undercooked. One of the cooks put a lid on them, cranked up the heat and started boiling them to death, but I stopped him. There was no fixing the potatoes in time to plate them; they need to be cooked slowly. I turned to the waiter and told him to please go out and apologize to the diner, explain that the fingerlings weren't ready, and we'd be sending out gratin instead. Then I turned and reminded my chef that he needed to have tasted every single thing in the kitchen to make sure everything was seasoned and cooked correctly. Luckily, the chef from Craft Dallas, who was visiting to help with the opening, caught it in time. Checks and balances. Team "New" should have had checks and balances (note: Carla didn't even taste the mushrooms that Daniel added to her salad), but I don't think they had the judgment. They would have relabeled the fingerlings, "crunchy potatoes," and sent them out. Half the table at Gail's bridal shower work for Food & Wine magazine. There's no way bad rice could have been passed off as something else no matter what Eugene added to it or how hard he beat it with that pan. The team had plenty of time to redo the rice the following day. Why didn't they? This is a good argument for why Eugene should have been thrown off, so why Daniel? When you point out what's bad about a dish, most chefs say, "OK, I see that." Here, not only did every person at the table share the same opinion about the dish, but as we're explaining it, it becomes clear that Daniel doesn't even have the baseline knowledge to understand what we're telling him. He made every bad mistake you can make with every element he brought to the dish, and yet he stood there and defended himself instead of listening and learning. Quite honestly, all three of the chefs had a hand in this mess and all three of them should have gone home, but here's the inherent problem of a team challenge: Once you've figured out that a certain dish is the worst one, we're left with figuring out who caused the least and the most detriment to the dish. While Carla should have spoken up and fought to fix the problems with the dish, we let her off the hook, because her contributions were the least problematic. But Daniel was oblivious to the problems and not only didn't try to fix them, he kept compounding them. He was clearly lost. He had the least amount of skill and know-how, and when certain things were pointed out to him, he just point-blank said, "You're wrong." Part of my role, aside from judging, is to help the cheftestants become better chefs. I'm not allowed to advise them outright while they're cooking, but time and again chefs from past seasons have told me afterwards that they've really learned from my comments and our conversations about the food. But you can't even begin to have a conversation with Daniel, because he's not listening. There's no common ground. It's like having a relationship and wanting to talk about the problems in order to improve the relationship and having the other person say, "There are no problems." There's nowhere to go with that. You get a sense that Carla and Eugene were willing to listen and grow, but Daniel wasn't. He really believed that they'd created a great dish and wasn't open to learning anything.

A note about the winning dish: Viewers typically think that we judges are privy to all the info the viewers have by the time everyone's at the Judges' Table, but we're not. The cameras were rolling when the cheftestants conceived of their dishes, the viewers heard the chefs at the supermarket, in their loft, during prep in the Top Chef kitchen, but the judges don't see any of that footage in advance. While I pay a visit to the kitchen and ask some questions while the chefs are cooking, we basically just sample the food at the challenge and judge it from there. We give the chefs a chance to explain, clarify, and illuminate us when we're questioning them at the Judges' Table, and I, for one, wish they would use that opportunity more than they do. Jamie's carrot puree was terrific; Ariane's lamb was perfect. That's what the judges knew, and what they based their decision on. Jamie could have spoken up and taken deserved credit for having conceptualized the dish and been the team leader on it, but she didn't. That information would have been salient to the judges, who loved the whole dish, and it might have tipped the scales in her favor and earned her the win.

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!