Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

She's Tricky

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

She's Tricky

Gail Simmons gives a bigger picture about what she thought of each of the finalists' dishes.

This is where it gets tricky. I know we probably say this at the same point every season, but I truly believe this was by far the most difficult decision we have had to make in the history of the competition (until next week’s, of course!). Never before has Top Chef had four finalists of such equal and notable skill vying for the title. That is not to say we have not had impressive talent in every season along the way, but I think most people will agree that these four cheftestants were pegged from the start as the ones to watch. As they stood before us at Judges’ Table in Napa, we knew destiny meant for them all to be there. This is best proven by the fact that throughout the entire sixth season, no chef other than these four won a single Elimination Challenge.

We shot the two-part finale only about six weeks ago, so much of it is still fresh in my mind. As I will explain, the food served in this challenge was all beautiful and well-produced. I enjoyed almost all of it, whether that actually came through in my commentary or not. As I have said before, our Judges’ Table discussions are never taken lightly. We rehash every element of food served by each chef and we are all given ample chance to say what we liked and disliked about everything. We debate at length the merits of each plate, the skill used in its preparation and the flavor combinations, as well as the presentation. This can often take six hours or more (finale Judges’ Table sessions usually run into early morning, as was again the case this season). It then becomes the job of our producers and editors to boil our discussion down to its most vital points, which are shown within the larger show as a mere few minutes. Such is the nature of reality television….

With that in mind, I want to stress how difficult our penultimate challenge was for the final four chefs. We asked Kevin, Bryan, Michael, and Jennifer to create two tasting-size dishes to serve at a winery “crush” party, celebrating the Napa harvest, for 150 guests. We gave them five hours within which to cook, requested that one dish be a vegetarian option, and that everything be sourced from a nearby farmers’ market carrying only local products, with the exception of salt and oil. They also had to cook and serve these 300 dishes from start to finish without assistance. For any seasoned caterer, this would have been a complicated feat, let alone having to do it in front of multiple cameras, in an unfamiliar restaurant kitchen. Talk about pressure.

None of the dishes we tasted were ill-conceived per se. They all made perfect sense in concept and were thoughtfully presented. Almost everything tasted good, so it was up to us to take each one apart in detail and discuss the tiniest possible discrepancies, in order to come to a fair decision. As we mentioned on the show, Michael’s Vegetable Pistou with Heirloom Tomato Coulis and 63-Degree Egg was clever and flavorful, but the egg had not been shaken carefully enough from its watery shell and appeared to overwhelm the other elements of the dish. Also, the brunoise vegetables were chopped so finely that they lost their structure, causing them to be a bit mushy and not as recognizable as we had hoped, considering the clear amount of work he had put into them. It was his Turnip Soup with Foie Gras Terrine, Poached Pear & Glazed Turnip that took my breath away. Here was one of the most interesting flavor combinations I had tasted on the show to date and it spoke to the immense talent Michael has at pairing contrasting flavors and textures. What you did not hear me say to him was how truly incredible the combination was: that bitter, bright green turnip soup, paired with smooth, rich foie gras and sweet, soft, wine-poached pear. It was a revelation! My only small issue (stated mainly because I wanted more) was that, when not eaten in the same bite as the other components, the turnip soup was quite bitter, as turnips always are. Since there was much more soup than foie gras or pear, this happened more often than not. I personally think the dish would have been absolutely perfect had the soup been thickened slightly and used as more of a sauce or puree.

Kevin’s dishes were just what we had come to expect from him: simple in presentation but elaborate in taste. His vegetarian dish of Roasted Beets & Carrots with Carrot Top Puree & San Andreas Cheese was striking to behold and had deceptively bold flavors for such a stark plate. His Grass-fed Brisket with Pumpkin Polenta & Marinated Root Vegetables was also a lovely idea. On top of the brisket lay a small, highly acidic pickled salad that lent a fabulous crunchy contrast to the rest of the plate. But the brisket was clearly undercooked and tougher than even he could argue it should be. That’s the thing about Kevin: He is so articulate and passionate about his food that he could make any flaw sound intentional. His knowledge, cooking methods and explanations are so interesting that it is easy to be swayed by them. In this case, however, we were not convinced. 

We all agreed Bryan’s two dishes were the strongest overall and so he won the challenge (a fitting episode conclusion, considering his brother won the Quickfire, including a new Toyota Prius). His Goat Cheese Ravioli with Delicata Squash Puree & Bronze Fennel was subtle and so savory. It was the perfect harvest dish, combining plenty of earthy flavors and silky textures. It also showed off his pasta-dough-making skills. It could have benefited from a little more salt, but that was certainly not enough of a reason to dislike it in any way. His Fig-Glazed Short Ribs with Celeriac Puree, Wax Beans & Wild Arugula was almost as enchanting. Each element was cooked impeccably; the combination of ingredients was clever and cohesive. Our only small quandary was that we wished the figs he used for his glaze were more pronounced. Again, hardly a criticism, considering the balance the dish already demonstrated.

After tasting all this wonderful food, we felt that Jennifer’s dishes did not quite measure up. The concepts for both were excellent and I am confident that, given a few more hours or some off-camera time to work on them, she would make them winners. She simply fell short in a few areas of execution. The Chèvre Mousse with Honey Mushrooms, Braised Radishes & Basil was significantly oversalted. The duck breast in her Braised Duck Legs and Confit of Duck Breast with Squash Puree & Foie Gras Vinaigrette was a bit bland and dry. The braised legs had been chopped so finely that the meaty texture was lost, and the vinaigrette, although delicious, was in short supply.

I do not mean any disrespect to any other of the incredibly talented and creative people we have had as contestants over the years, but I believe without a doubt that Jennifer is by far the strongest female cook we have had on the show. Correction: She is by far one of the strongest cooks we have ever had on the show, period. Had this been any other season, I am sure she would have smoked them all (then sliced and served them to us in the most elegant fashion). She proved time and again, through the 26 challenges she faced, that she is a formidable force in the kitchen. I am inspired and awed by her. Most importantly, I am sincerely grateful I was able to get to know her just a little and taste of her wonderful food.

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!