Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Time Warp

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

And Don't Call Me Shirley

Gloopy, Soupy, and Radish Dresses!

Time Warp

Tom Colicchio was pleased with last week's performances. He wishes he could say the same about this week's.

At the close of Episode One, I mentioned how pleased I was by the level of cooking we experienced in the first Elimination Challenge. I wish I could say the same this week. Our diners - all applicants for Top Chef who weren't selected - were quite vocal in their displeasure (have I mentioned that they're all from New York?). The challenge: Come into Craft restaurant and prepare an appetizer, entree, or dessert. The only requirement was that it be New American cuisine.

What exactly is New American cuisine? Originally, the cuisine was based more on regional American cooking than it is now. As you know, there can be no such thing as "American food" per se, because each region of this vast country has placed its own cultural stamp on its own food. If you look at America as a melting pot, there's too much in that pot to create one homogenous cuisine, so New American cuisine began as chefs doing their plays on regional cuisines using fresh, seasonal, regional ingredients. While it may have been influenced by fusion, please don't confuse the two - fusion is specifically the melding of foods from different traditions, while New American cuisine began as finely trained American chefs, steeped in traditional technique yet working with a lack of pretension, taking American regional idioms and striving to do something original and different.

Larry Forgione's work at the River Cafe in New York is a perfect example of one of the places from which New American cuisine sprung - rather than buying from one purveyor, he sussed out local farmers, procuring different ingredients from different sources and crafting them into his take on various American classic dishes. Chefs such as he, and Alice Waters on the West Coast, and Bradley Ogden in the Midwest, not to mention a spattering of teachers like James Beard and Julia Child, are all examples of the pioneers of New American Cuisine. Looking at how the cuisine has morphed and where it is today: There are many chefs doing contemporary food, whether it's contemporary American, contemporary Spanish, contemporary French, etc. The traditions they are working within almost don't matter, since they are all basically using technique to apply great creativity and originality to terrific, generally seasonal, ingredients. Thirty years ago, you could spot the difference between an American muscle car and an Italian sports car a mile away. They were both cars, but they were created with widely divergent approaches to design and engineering, based on altogether different sensibilities. Now, those differences are far more nuanced. Ditto, contemporary cuisine. Take what Dan Barber is doing at Blue Hill: Is that considered "American Cuisine"? Well, he's an American chef using American food, so why not? Michael Ciramusti's seafood at Providence in LA utilizes cool techniques and intriguing juxtapositions of food. There's no question in my mind that it's contemporary cuisine, though people don't quite know how to label it. Is what Thomas Keller is doing considered French or American? Well, the French have a license on technique ... but so what? Is there more of a French sensibility or an American sensibility to what Thomas is doing? The better question is: Does it matter? The "wow" factor is there because it is contemporary cuisine. It's when New American cuisine started shifting from regional to contemporary that people started looking at it and saying "Wow."

For another example, look at Mario Batali's work: It is classified as Italian, though many die-hard Italian-cuisine lovers would quibble with that classification, arguing that it is merely based upon traditional Italian cuisine. And therein lies what makes it contemporary: As with our first Elimination Challenge last week, it comes down to "inspired by" vs. "authentic". And so it is with New American cuisine as well. "Inspired by" is part of the American vernacular in food as in all things - it's what takes all disciplines to new heights, and it is the story of America and Americans in general. The story of American food is illustrative of the larger story of America and American ingenuity. Here's how that might play out in terms of food: Say the challenge is to take the iconic American "clambake" as inspiration for a dish. The elements include lobster, clams, corn, tomatoes. Do I want the chefs to do a whole clambake? No, just a dish evocative of a clambake. Give this task to 20 chefs and you'll get 20 different dishes. One will be very literal and do a mini-clambake. Another may make a tortellini, making sauce with butter and corn juice, and do something else with the tomato. Another may make a corn relish. It's how you rework the food while keeping it evocative of the clambake that makes it interesting.

And so I was discouraged in this Elimination Challenge that a bunch of young chefs all currently working in America were told to "do New American" and turned to quiche, to meatloaf, to homey, regional "comfort food," when I think that American food is so much more than that.

In general, the food looked clunky on the plate; almost nothing looked refined. The only dish I saw that I thought was very contemporary in its plating was Leah's. Padma thought it looked very '80s, but I thought it was very modern. But while it looked great, it lacked flavor. Jamie's dish was nice, corn-filled, which was appropriate, as we shot the season in the summertime. Carla's pastry was very good. I wish she'd done something with that cheddar to incorporate it, but it was a good dish. There was nothing new about it, but at least it was a good dish. Fabio won because his food was the best, but he actually took an Italian dish that has worked its way into American cuisine. Adding the olives was a nice touch, but one that was scarcely new - Fabio was using a technique that was actually seven years old. Nobody actually fulfilled the mandate.

Hosea got into trouble when he walked into the store and found himself facing bad canned crabmeat. He should have gone to Plan B right away and made a different dish. But that's a bad judgment call, not a bad dish. Ariane tried to do a take on an American dish, a lemon meringue pie, and do something modern. At least she had the idea, but it was poorly executed. She knew in advance that the dessert was too sweet. She could have added more lemon juice, even reducing it down so it would not be too liquid. She could have used lemon zest. Dessert goes out last; Ariane had the time to do something to fix the problem ... why didn't she?

Jill's dish failed in so many ways. The goal is always to celebrate and elevate the ingredients, but she took a potentially special item - an ostrich egg - and made it unspectacular. No one can tell which bird egg has been mixed into a quiche by tasting it. And why quiche? The task called for New American and she did Old French. I don't understand how she thought she could win this competition with a quiche. Were this a one-shot deal - whoever wins this challenge wins the whole competition - would you make a quiche? Furthermore, it was a poorly made quiche, just a terrible dish. I remember looking at it and thinking "Oh my god, why would somebody do this?" I  understand that the term "New American cuisine" is a bit esoteric. Take Grant Achatz's work at his restaurant Alinea, in Chicago. The food is so contemporary as to even be considered bizarre by some. I was at a demo he gave a few weeks ago. He's really into playing with aromas and their effects upon taste. Let's say he's doing an autumn dish: He will burn apples and cinnamon, trap the vapors in a sealed plastic "pillow," and then cut the pillow and place it on the table beneath the food, so that the aromas escape and enhance the dining experience. The food certainly isn't French, though he employs plenty of French techniques. It isn't Italian, despite his using many Italian ingredients. It is not homespun, even though he his musings about fall lead to thoughts of burning leaves, and so a burning leaf garnishes an autumnal dish. Do I consider what he's doing "New American cuisine"? You bet. Do I think our chefs should be emulating Grant Achatz? No, that's not the point. I mention him because he is progressive and is ever challenging himself. It irked me that the chefs in this Elimination Challenge were turning out the American food of twenty-thirty years ago, not the American food of now ... or tomorrow. As a whole the food showed a lack of the American spirit, that ingenuity and forward thinking. Sometimes people cling too much to tradition. Our chefs weren't going "New American", just "American." Which is fine at Thanksgiving at Grandma's, but won't cut it at a top restaurant the rest of the year.

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Gail can't believe that Keriann wouldn't have shown her teammates how she wanted her dish executed. This week was Restaurant Wars!
GS: Restaurant Wars is always an exciting episode because it’s so hard to do what we are asking of chefs to do. Opening a restaurant is truly so difficult, on a good day if you’re dealing with people you love and work with all the time, let alone with three people you’re competing against and have never worked with in this way before. You don’t really know their strengths and weaknesses, and this is where that it all comes out. So looking first at the Grey Team, Melissa, Doug, Mei, Adam
GS: I knew it was a strong team from the start, but we’ve had plenty of strong teams that have failed in the past. You never know until you sit down at that table to eat their meal. I could tell that they were all serious and they have all performed pretty well up to this point though. Although the other team was stacked too, with Gregory who's won a lot and Katsuji who was coming off his win in the Thanksgiving challenge. Keriann and Katie have made some great dishes too. It was anyone’s game.

I think it was smart of the Grey Team to chose Adam as their front of the house man. He’s gregarious, he’s affable, he is a great storyteller, a great talker, and he has a sense of urgency and confidence. Sometimes he can be over-confident maybe, but I think you want someone working front of house who’s willing to take on that risk. Plus he’s done it before. He understands the importance of that role.

Putting Keriann in the front of the house could have been a good move too. She’s certainly a lovely person. She’s well-spoken and definitely wanted to take on the challenge. I just wasn’t sure if they put her out front because they didn’t want her in the kitchen or because they really thought she’d be good for that role. Either way, that’s the way the cards fell. Katie taking on the chef position I thought was a real risk -- she doesn’t run a kitchen day-to-day. I was proud of her for wanting to do it, maybe because she runs pop-ups, she knows how to do something really quickly like this and that experience could come in handy. The other team chose Doug as their chef, who also doesn’t run a restaurant every single day; he is a sous chef. But you can tell he has that drive and understanding of service, he expedites every day in his restaurant and that’s a really huge piece of how a good restaurant runs. It seemed like everyone knew their roles and everyone was happy at the start. They weren’t forced into anything.

I actually liked both restaurant concepts in theory. "Four Pigs" was family style, rustic, comforting, American, bold flavors, relaxed environment. I think that suited who they were, and I think they did a great job. The concept of "Magellan" was a really great idea too. Magellan being an explorer, the spice route, all of the dishes having complex spice elements. The issue you run into with that concept though is that if it’s too loose, everyone is literally all over the map (pun intended). So even though the idea’s inspiration is exploration, when you as the customer sit down and eat that meal, do you really want to be eating things from all over the map? Do they go together? Sometimes the chefs get carried away by the idea of that exploration, and forget that a meal still has to feel cohesive. I don’t know who would want to be eating seven different cuisines all at one table. There needs to be a common thread between them more than just that they all have spice. All spices don’t taste good when they’re combined. I think that’s the first issue this team had. They were all making their own dishes and not really discussing how those dishes would talk to each other when they were actually put on people’s plates. So, let’s start with the dishes from the Grey Team.
GS: The Grey Team started with Adam’s salt-baked clams with ramps, bacon and sunflower seeds. Very seasonal (we filmed this in the spring), very New England. I love clams from that part of the country. We saw that he got in a little hot water when he lost his first set of clam shells, but he was able to completely bounce back. The dish was tasty, it was a perfect starter, a savory little bite. And you were really able to taste all of those flavors without overshadowing the clam itself, which with ramps and bacon is a hard thing to do.

Mei’s chicken liver toast with plum puree was also delicious. The plums cut through the fat in the chicken liver which I loved. It was a little bit too wet though, so the chicken liver dripped and was a little bit looser than what I wanted. I like it to be just a little thicker so there’s a more texture to it, and also so it doesn’t drip all over your hand. It did remind us of a very sophisticated peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was salty and tart, and had just enough richness from that liver to satisfy you but not fill you up. Beautifully presented.

We all loved Doug’s braised pork shoulder. The baked beans, onion, and mustard went so well together. The mustard lightened up the dish and the pickled onions of course did too. It was a homey, comforting dish. The pork shoulder just melted in your mouth. I wish I had a bowl of it right now actually.

Melissa’s scallop was probably the weakest dish on that team. By no means does that mean it was awful. It was a lovely idea, light and fresh. Scallops and grapefruit and radish are a perfect combination. It felt a little bit more like an appetizer salad though than a main course. Her scallops were on the salty side and a little bit overcooked too. We wanted them a bit softer, a little more rare in the center. It was a really nice dish, but compared to the other dishes on her team, it felt a simple and slightly out of place. Everything else had a soulfulness to it and this seemed to be sort of off in the corner, but I was still happy to eat it.

Mei's brussels sprouts was their side dish and they were also really tasty. Brussels sprouts and anchovies go surprisingly well together! But they was over-dressed and the brussels were a little overcooked. They just needed to be toned down. I can remember when we were finished eating them, there was a pool of vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl. If she had been a little more light-handed on the vinaigrette when she tossed it, it probably would have been a better dish.

Melissa’s dessert was very well-made -- apples, mixed-berries, cardamom cream, a classic fruit cobbler. I just wish she had done something a little more interesting. Berry cobbler is something anyone can make at home. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a good dish. You’re a professional chef though, and this is Top Chef so if you’re going to give me a cobbler, show me cobbler in a way I haven’t seen before. Whether that’s a special biscuit on top or a combination of flavors of fruits, or a presentation I haven’t seen. In every way this cobbler was basic. I enjoyed eating it, it just was a little boring. And then Magellan…
GS: Oh Magellan. We all were really excited when Katie’s roasted beets came to the table. It sounded fantastic. But she made the dish in a composed way, meaning that the beets were on one side, the curry was just underneath. Everything was separate, so it was very difficult to taste all together. Her flaw was that there wasn’t a conversation going on between all of the components in the dish. She left the beets completely dry on the side of the plate, but she had this beautiful curry and this coconut and this pickled cauliflower, she could have dressed them wonderfully, had she mixed them up, had she presented the dish in a different way. It really shows you that ingredients are only one piece of the puzzle. You can have five different beautiful ingredients, but unless you put the dish together in a way that highlights them, it falls flat.

Katsuji’s hamachi sashimi was totally fine. The hamachi was very big and cut in a bit of a ragged way. I wish they had been smaller or more smoothly cut, so that they weren’t as messy to eat and a little more refined. But the dish itself was perfectly well made. I liked his dried pozole too; I thought it was very interesting. A little odd, a little out there, but I applaud Katsuji for pushing boundaries of what we think of as pozole with it.

Gregory also made two dishes. His seared haddock was my favorite dish of the night. The fish was great, the tomato was flavorful. I thought the dish came together nicely, it was cohesive. I liked the garam masala. Although he could have probably simplified a little bit. His pork tenderloin was perfectly cooked too, it sounded so rich and delicious in its description, but was a little disappointing to eat because it was a little less flavorful than I expected with all of those components. Like Katie, he also separated out all of the ingredients. I was hoping to get a dish that was really bold in these Chinese flavors, the hosin and the XO sauce. I wanted it all to be mixed in a way that every bite had all of those tastes and it wasn't.

And then there was our dessert, Keriann’s vanilla crepe. I’m still totally confused as to how she wanted it. She wanted it room temperature, she wanted that mousse to be stiff and hard, not spreadable? I can’t understand how it would’ve been served that way and been successful either. But I do know that the way it was served definitely didn’t work. As much as I’m sure she was devastated by the way her team chose to change her dish, and especially that they didn’t tell her before they did so, I still think it would not have been a successful dish had she served it her way either. I’m just totally baffled by how it was supposed to be, and how she didn’t notice until the second half of service that it was being served in a different way. What I especially don’t understand is how she didn’t plate one for them first. If she had just plated a full dish, showed it to all of them and they all tasted it before she went out to service, they all would’ve known exactly how she wanted it and would’ve done it that way. How do you create a dish and leave people to execute it but not show them how it’s supposed to be? That’s why we decided Keriann had to be the one to be eliminated. There were a lot of problems with service at Magellan. Clearly, customers weren’t getting dishes, or they were getting dishes twice. No one knew where anything was, it was impossible to get water or a server. It was impossible to find Keriann. She put food down and then walked away without explaining it. There were so many times when we were completely thrown off by the service. And, in addition to all this, her dish didn’t make sense -- not only because of how Katie and Katsuji changed it, but in her vision in the first place. Keriann worked hard, she pushed herself, I’m proud of her. I think she’s a strong person, a good cook and will have a successful. I just don’t think this was her day.

Next episode: the judges hit Whole Foods!

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