Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Small Screening

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

The Small Screening

Tom Colicchio shares his wisdom about presenting food on TV. He would know — he's never had a major disaster!

It's amusing to me how so many of our cheftestants said, in response to this week's Elimination Challenge, that they did not want to "do TV" in their careers as chefs ... while they're doing TV to advance their careers as chefs. As I recall, they were saying those words directly into the lens of a television camera. Let's face it: The media has long been a critical factor in shaping high-level careers of all kinds, and today's Top Chefs must be able not only to cook, but to generate heat about their cooking. On TV.

If a chef can get on television, whether local or national, s/he should not hesitate. Chefs should be pleased to start with local television - its viewers, of course, are your future patrons, and this is your moment to hook them. You're establishing relationships. If you do a good job the first time, you will have made the segment producer look good to his/her boss and they'll be happy to have you back, which, of course helps as you progress in your career and want to promote newer ventures. Here in NYC, the chefs' entree to television is usually CBS's "Chef on a Shoestring", which is great. The national morning shows are the biggies that you ultimately want to be on, but they usually won't let you on until you show them some tape and they like what they see. This is another reason it's important to do something in your local market and to do it well. I have always finished my segments and I've never had a major disaster. This is not to say that I haven't had my share of anxiety. My first time on television was the worst experience of my life. In '91, right after winning Best New Chef from Food and Wine magazine, I was asked to appear on Regis and Kathy Lee. I was doing a braised red snapper in a lemon rosemary vinaigrette with roasted red peppers and an eggplant caviar napoleon. I was told to be there at 8 a.m. and showed up prepped and ready to go ... only to be yelled at by the producer, who said I should've been there at 6, had missed rehearsal, and "was going to screw it all up." Nowadays, there is someone on the set to help you set it all up; back then, it was just me, setting up off-camera. And this producer kept coming by every five minutes to shout at me that I was going to screw it all up. To make matters worse, Regis made a few references to missing rehearsal that I thought were directed at me, too, until I realized that he himself had missed rehearsal and was actually busting on himself. The segment went off without a hitch and the producer who had been yelling at me beforehand was thrilled with me afterwards, offering to have me back any time I wanted ... while I was thinking "Are you kidding? I was so nervous, I'm NEVER doing live TV again."

Clearly, I got over it. TV's actually very easy to do. You can make things as complicated or as simple as you want. The best way to assure you finish on time is to have swap-outs, where food is already prepared. You can have as many swap-outs as you like, to use along the way, and you should always have a beauty plate done. Jamie was looking to do her entire dish in the two minutes allotted, which is why she came up short. Leah should have had a duck already cooked, should have had the relish already made, and should've had the whole thing already plated. You'll notice that Stefan didn't try to make his whole soup in two minutes - he had the ingredients ready to show us how to make it, but then had the soup finished for a swap-out. Jeff handled his segment perfectly: He had a beauty plate ready, and the food was really good. In that segment on Regis and Kathy Lee, I had swap-outs for every step of the process: I had the fish raw, plus in the oven, plus the beauty-dish already made. The various elements of the eggplant caviar napoleon were ready, as was the fully assembled dish, and I swapped at each step. It's the only way I could be sure to finish the segment successfully in the time allotted.

A lot of our contestants didn't make it on time. We were trying to distract them, because this is exactly what happens on air: The hosts will be asking a barrage of questions throughout. Speaking of the host, always ask him or her to help you ("Can you stir this for me?"), which none of our cheftestants did. Engage the host. He or she is the one with whom the audience feels a connection, so you are being introduced to your viewers through the host and need to establish that you have a rapport with him or her. No matter what. Once, in Dallas, the on-air talent mispronounced my name and introduced me as the new chef of the W Hotel. I didn't correct him, which would have been a gaffe, but at the end I just put in a plug for "the new Craft Restaurant at the W Hotel". As for your rapport with the audience, mugging like Daniel did doesn't usually go over well. It's just unprofessional. And as for rapport with the crew, I always bring a ton of extra food for the stagehands. These folks have been at work since 4 a.m., so by the time you're on at 10, they're pretty hungry.

Finally, when doing a segment on TV, you're usually there for a reason such as a new restaurant. You want to take that moment and shine, plug your work, and, in the very short time allotted, find that one message to put out there and then stay on that message the whole time, using descriptive words that help convey the food to an audience that only has a visual of it. Ariane did all of that really well. She mentioned her restaurant in New Jersey right up front, she highlighted the fresh Jersey ingredients that she'd chosen to honor the state, and pointed out that the ingredients were readily available and the recipe easily accessible to the home viewer. The only caveat I'll make is that you want to pick a signature dish that will help set you up, and there wasn't anything unique enough about Ariane's selection to do that for her.

This challenge was a test of both flavor and presentation, and presentation of the chef as well as the food It was as "New York" as a challenge could be, and I encourage our cheftestants to hone the skills required to master it. By the way, I was asked to do Top Chef based on a segment the producer of Top Chef saw on the Today show. I'm glad that segment went off without a hitch.

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!