Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Dry and Dusty Days

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

Dry and Dusty Days

Lee Anne Wong talks about the roadbumps her team faced while preparing for the camping challenge.

Another doozy of an episode— “camping” I knew, would not be enjoyed by the contestants. Let’s start with the Quickfire. Cactus is not really a common ingredient, and not many contestants had worked with it previously. Having spent many years cooking in Mexico, cactus (nopales) is part of my culinary vocabulary. We sourced paddles with the needles still on, and white and red cactus fruit. I wasn’t actually there for the Quickfire as I was busy setting up “camp” all day. Mike Isabella’s simple presentation was well thought out and executed for one of my favorite chefs around, Mr. Tim Love. Tim and I share a love of roasting whole animals.

Let me tell you something about camping, at least camping Top Chef-style. My recommendation? Get a Petzl headlamp. While the Quickfire was going on, I was out at Shady Valley Ranch getting the chuck wagon and all else set up for the reveal later that day. We pimped out the chuck wagon with a limited pantry and the usual equipment, sans electrical appliances. Again, for every challenge not in the TC kitchen, my team and I lug around pots, pans, appliances, hand tools, towels, aprons, gladware, the list goes on and on. While I was doing this, I also worked with the guy who was setting up the gas-lined fire pits (same gentleman who helped us in Season 2 with our beach breakfast challenge in Malibu). When the chefs arrived, I took their coolers to a front building, which had a kitchen and refrigeration and organized and stored all of their ingredients. The art department sourced all of the cast iron for the challenge. It unfortunately did not arrive until the day of the Quickfire. I had to wait for the fire pits to finish getting set up, which was around 7 p.m. and for camera to get the shots of the chefs checking out the cooking stations. The cast iron came with a layer of chemical wax coating it to protect the surface. According to instructions, I had to burn the wax off over the grills, about thirty minutes per side. Then wash them, season them, and cook them over the grills again. With only three fire pits, I was still burning off the pans by the time the chefs went to bed, in the pitch dark, in a sandstorm. Thankfully, my friend Korey on the lighting team, saw fit to buy me a Petzl headlamp the next day. Now I carry it with me wherever I go.

I went home to nap for three hours and then drove an hour back to location at the crack of dawn. The weather was slated to reach the triple digits by late morning. We offered the chefs the choice of cooking in their TC jackets, or just t-shirts. Surprisingly, they chose to wear their jackets. The results of cooking in the very dusty desert were varied, and while some contestants created inventive and relatively palatable dishes, there were some that I wouldn’t go near with a ten-foot pole, especially on a hundred degree day. I’ll write what I can recall:

The Chicken Paillard was dry, and pretty pedestrian. Mike I.’s pork gyro was totally phoned in, and I could get a better gyro off the street in my hood in Astoria. Eli’s tuna sandwich with radish salad was also relatively boring, like something I’d find in a department store café. The char with the baked potato was gutsy, if not gigantic, and actually didn’t taste all that bad. Robin’s grilled romaine salad was unwieldy and underseasoned, though I love grilled lettuce. Ashley’s halibut, as big as it was, was well executed. Dishes I found interesting? The usual suspects … Mike Voltaggio’s dish was not well suited for the challenge; though it was completely delicious, unique, and virtually perfect, it was not exactly what the ranchers and cowboys expected. You see, there’s “gourmet cowboy” and then there’s white tablecloth out of context, which is where Michael sorta landed with this one. Kevin’s duck with watermelon and mole was VERY tasty, though I wish he could’ve cooked the skin out a little more so it was really crispy, but those are the hazards off cooking over a fire pit. Jen’s snapper and duck confit was also rich and filling, but with lighter flavors, like the Asian style julienned vegetables on top. Bryan’s dish was really the one that hit the mark with its simplicity and execution. All flavors and textures were appropriate for this type of challenge, and the roast pork with the polenta came off as gourmet without being over-the-top.

The not-so-tasty ten-foot pole ones? Just two for me: Ron’s ceviche and Mattin’s salad plate. Ron felt compelled to put some shit in a coconut shell (never a good idea unless you’re in Tahiti on vacation; didn’t you see Doug Rodriguez’s “spectacle?”) It was WAY too hot out to be serving raw fish for one; secondly, pairing a really nasty boozy shot with it (I think it had rum and Coco Lopez in it) doesn’t do much for the flavor profile, unless it’s a straight shot of tequila or mezcal. I have to pause as I think about Mattin’s dish…. no wait …. yes, truly one of the worst dishes all season. (Sorry, Mattin). I suppose those of you who live in Nevada and Arizona know what I’m talking about when I say “hot” day. It’s oppressive, like walking into a giant convection oven. It’s one of those oppressively hot days in the desert. First of all, Mattin didn’t cook anything. Though I kept everyone’s fish stored on ice the night before, the quality of his seafood was not so great come morning. What happens normally in a restaurant situation like this is you call an audible. If it’s not good, don’t use it, or figure out a way to use it so it doesn’t suck. Mattin’s plate was akin to a terrible diner salad platter, you know with the shrimp salad, egg salad, and coleslaw, or something you’d get from behind the deli counter. It’s just didn’t LOOK good, beyond smelling and tasting funky. And the outdoor heat…. It was no wonder the French prince ended up at the bottom of the pile. We had almost cast Mattin for Season 5, but too many Euros would have made for an even messier season. I’m glad we got see what he could do on Season 6, and while I adore his Basque style, campfire cooking is clearly not for him.

Funny enough, Tim and I recently competed against each other in a “camping Quickfire” for Victorinox Swiss Army in Central Park, where we could only use our Swiss Army knives and 3 jetboils on the ground to make two dishes in 30 minutes. I think I accidentally melted a plastic base that was still attached to one of the pots. Tim dropped his trout on the ground. Total mayhem. Thank goodness I’m not allowed to compete on TC anymore. Melissa Perello whupped both our asses, but it was fun. Headed out West to film a few more episodes of “Zeno Supper Club”, which are slated to air soon on YouTube! Stay tuned and check out our Web site in the meantime. See you soon!

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!