Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Feeling Nervous

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

Feeling Nervous

Gail explains why the judges were just as nervous as the chefs at this week's dining table.

Watching this final challenge in Las Vegas, shot almost six months ago, I found myself breaking into bouts of chills alternating with moments of cold sweat. For the first time in six seasons of Top Chef, I also found myself brought to tears. I can still recall so clearly how nervous Tom, Padma, and I were when we sat down to eat that day. Somehow it felt as if we were being judged as much as the contestants. The table of diners who joined us, each person an active board member of the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, was in ways more daunting even than when Joel Robouchon paid us a visit. For me, this was perhaps because I have a very personal relationship with many of these talented chefs. Daniel Boulud is my former boss and still a great mentor of mine. In fact, this coming February I will host a gala tribute dinner in his honor at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Gavin Kaysen is the executive chef of Daniel’s Café Boulud, so I cannot help but consider him part of my former work family. He is also a former Food & Wine Best New Chef, as are Daniel, Thomas, Traci, and Alex. Together, this astoundingly gifted group represents what could be considered the past, present and future of modern American fine dining. By inviting them to help us judge a Bocuse d’Or–style challenge on our show, we were declaring our belief that these final five contestants were up for such a prohibitive task. What if they failed? And in front of this intimidating group, no less? It would have been our own reputations, as much as the contestants’, at stake.

Here’s just a little background: Often referred to as the “Culinary Olympics,” the Bocuse d’Or is held every other year in Lyon. Founded in 1987 by one of France’s greatest chefs, Paul Bocuse, the competition aims to broaden the public’s understanding of, and appreciation for, the exceptional skill and precision required to be a master chef of haute cuisine. Each national team—chef and assistant—must present to a panel of judges (who, I assure, you are MUCH more critical than we are) two classic platter-style dishes, one fish and one meat. Each platter must include three elaborate sides or garnishes. The guests at our table in Las Vegas make up a portion of the group that selects, counsels, and coaches the young chef chosen to represent America. Chefs from every corner of the world train year-round to have the chance at being the one chosen by their country to compete in the culminating Lyon event. 24 countries are represented in what is considered the most difficult and rigorous culinary challenge in the world. And we gave our cheftestants just four measly hours....

Knowing all this, you can imagine the pride and great relief I felt at witnessing them produce dishes of that magnitude and skill in such a short amount of time. Obviously, there was no way they could create anything as precise as is presented at the actual Bocuse d’Or finals, but every one of our chefs reaffirmed for me why they are so worthy of being in the top five, and how devoted they all are to their craft. It is vital in watching this specific episode to actually understand that there were in fact two simultaneous challenges on which they were being judged, which makes their accomplishments even more impressive: first, to succeed at giving us a Bocuse-inspired platter of meat or fish, and second, to remember that at Judges' Table we would be evaluating them on their dishes within the confines of Top Chef. Our fellow diners, for the most part, assessed the meal from within their rarefied paradigm, which explains why they were all so incredibly meticulous in their judgments and may have appeared slightly too stringent with their commentary. Tom, Padma and I, on the other hand, needed to keep in mind our own agenda for the show, which was, above all else, who would be moving onward to our Napa finale.

Our final decision was painstaking. It is possible that both viewers and contestants alike may feel frustrated by the fact that Kevin won. It was clear that his presentation was the simplest. He did not deliver a platter as complex and technically demanding as those of his competitors. If this were the real Bocuse d’Or, he would no doubt have been at the bottom of the heap. But let’s not forget that this was, first and foremost, a challenge to determine who will be Top Chef. Here is a prime example of when cooking simply and realistically, but with a sense of urgency and attention to detail, is best. Kevin acknowledged his own capabilities and weighed them against the time he had to execute the challenge at hand. He knew if he tried to overreach there was a serious chance he would fail. There was already too much on the line for him to suddenly try to cook beyond his personal level of integrity and means. His was the only platter we tasted that day in which at least one key element was not severely overcooked or underseasoned. Kevin gave us a dish composed of beautifully poached and caramelized lamb loin with sherry-glazed golden beets, baked asparagus with sunchoke cream and buttered toast. Although simple in design, each component was flawless. Eaten together, they were balanced and cohesive.

Saying goodbye to Eli was a little devastating for us all. At such a young age, he stood his ground week after week against fierce competition. I know the other chefs were very close with him and at this late stage it was difficult to let him go. Again, we were truly blown away by what each of the chefs cooked for us. In judging their food, we forced ourselves to split hairs over which dish was the least successful. We loved the concept of Eli’s pistachio-crusted lamb loin wrapped in lamb sausage with arugula and tarragon coulis. His ras al hanout and carrot puree with yogurt foam was bright and full of flavor. The tomato and piquillo pepper marmalade over a brioche crouton was also a lovely idea. But the sausage had just too many pieces of fat within it that had not been properly rendered and its caulfat lining could still be detected around the meat, making the focal point of the dish almost impossible to eat. In addition, the brioche under his marmalade was dry and bland, an elementary mistake we could not overlook. Eli did an extraordinary job and I am confident that none of the contestants eliminated before him could have done as well. I know he has a long and exciting future ahead and I cannot wait to see how it all unfolds.

Phew! After re-experiencing how intense that last Las Vegas challenge was, I am a little exhausted myself and could use a drink. Thankfully, our next stop is the Napa Valley, where I can assure you there will be no shortage of wonderful wine and even better food from our much-deserving final four. Cheers!

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!