Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

High Stakes Indeed

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

High Stakes Indeed

Jamie Lauren finally feels like this season is picking up with the French cuisine challenge.

First, I need to start by addressing some of the comments on my last few blogs. I know that a lot of you think that I am all about scallops, and sadly for the rest of my career I will always be associated with that joke. I must say, it makes me cringe when I hear it, much like it makes me cringe when someone asks me about Stefan and Team Rainbow, but this is my life now and I gotta roll with the punches. For the record, my blog is a matter of my opinion ... just like all of you are entitled to yours. If you don't like what I have to say, then don't read it. That being said, I love getting feedback from fans and will continue to try and address whatever questions you all have. My life has been an amazing ride this past year and I owe a great portion of that to Top Chef. I would definitely not be in the position I am now if it wasn't for the show, but, aside from all the jokes and teasing I have to say that I am lucky to be here because I know that there is a certain flip side to the show, and if a chef performs badly it isn't always great for their career. Think back on past seasons ...d o you remember chefs like Ken, Nimma, Lauren, or Valerie? I think this week Hector and Jesse are right in thinking TC was bad for their careers, because for them it may very well be just that ... or not ... I guess it all just depends on what happens next, and I hope it's not the curse of being eliminated early. I'll take being called Top Scallop/Stefan's Wife/Rainbow coalition anytime over being without a job that I love.

Anyway ... moving on to this week's episode ... all I can say is: FINALLY— An episode that actually had me on the edge of my seat! First of all, let me start by saying that I am classically French trained, and I lived and cooked in France when I graduated from culinary school. This is definitely an episode that I would have loved to be a part of. I think the idea of using snails quickly made up for the potato challenge last week. Snails are not easy to work with and they can be really awful if not cooked or paired properly, and let's just talk about someone being eliminated in QF! Craziness ... damn, talk about raising the stakes. Guess it just took them four episodes to do it. The QF challenges were always hard enough with their time constraints and forced ingredients, but to throw in the possibility of going home over snails ... that's the ultimate suckage. With the way the shots were edited it made it obvious who was in the bottom and who was in the top. I, for one, was a little bummed that we didn't get to see some of the chefs' dishes, but I loved the idea of Kevin's dish. Big Brussels sprout fan here, and their earthiness seems so smart with snails. I totally get why he won ... and Jen pairing snails with yuzu was also super smart. Citrus works great with the little creepy crawlies (they are kinda gross-looking, aren't they?). And then the twist,cook for your lives in the bottom three ... wow. I think I would have had a major anxiety attack. Talk about pressure ... 20 more minutes between staying or going. The thoughts that must have been going through those three ladies' heads. .. and as if someone read my blog last week and willed it to happen, we lost Jesse. Hate to say it, but it was time for her to go. I get how the pressure of being on TC works ... trust me ... once you are in the bottom it is really, REALLY hard to bounce back. There was a time last season when all I wanted to do was go home. I just beat myself up over and over about the undercooked egg, and then the raw scallops. It is a terrible place to be in and it definitely makes you a little vulnerable. I think that's why we lost Jesse. I don't think her head was ever fully in the game, and I also think she was incredibly outmatched by some of the other contestants.

Once the knife pulling started, I knew the elimination was going to be something really cool. I love the idea of the chefs pairing up in teams, and it was definitely obvious who the top four were going to be ... the brothers V. and Mike and Jen. They were smart to pair up together, and maybe a little lucky. As much as I hate to say it Mike Isabella was right when he said that they were the ones to beat. At this point I am starting to think that these four are the ones to beat. And you too, Kevin ... you lucky little guy! Sitting at that table with those luminaries ... I can only imagine how that felt. I am lucky that I have the privilege to call Hubert Keller a friend, and I know how incredible he is. I hope you had a chance to talk with him. He's not only an amazing chef, but also an incredibly sweet, generous, giving person ... and a great DJ! Also, in my opinion Kevin got a really good advantage of being able to taste the other competitors' dishes. That's an important thing that contestants rarely get to do. It's helpful to know what you are up against. Though I would have welcomed hearing his opinion a bit more.

Although the dishes that were created were supposed to be based on very traditional items, I felt the chefs took really good creative liberties with them. I was impressed by the top four, and was totally intrigued by the mustard noodles on the rabbit dish. Again, as I have mentioned in previous blogs, I would have really loved to see more of how the dishes were created, but I guess that's where consulting the posted recipes comes in handy. The trout was beautiful and it doesn't surprise me that it was the winner ... completely thought out-of-the-box, but within the restraints of the competition ... very smart. On the flip side, the other dishes all failed to impress with me. Mattin and Ashley's bacon veloute? Not really sure about that, and I am a bacon fanatic. It just didn't seem to work with poussin, which by nature is a delicate-fleshed young bird with a very mild flavor. It seems like all  the judges could taste in that dish was the bacon. Also, I have to say I really hated the tired clichéd asparagus jutting out from under the clearly overcooked breast. I mean, I could tell that from through the camera, so I can only imagine how it tasted. But then Hector and Ash put out a clearly uninspired dish. It almost seems embarrassing to even have them be in the same group as some of the other chefs (go ahead, someone say it ... they would have fit in well on my season ... it's cool, I'll wait.)

All in all, this was by far my favorite episode of the season so far. I think we are finally starting to see some really great, consistent caliber food and I do hope it continues. I am looking forward to the evolution of the brothers V., and if they are ever going to have it out. They both seem really professional and mellow ... will a fight ensue at some point? I mean, they are brothers, they must have picked on each other as kids. Also, I am wondering, as they whittle down to the cream, who will end up rising? Will one of our front-runner heroes fall to the curses of TC? It's reality TV after all, and anything can happen. I'm just happy to say that I am finally excited for the ride...

PS: For those interested in what I am up to...check out You can also follow me on Twitter (@chefjamielauren) if you really wanna know what I am doing (it's mostly drunken rambling, but amusing nonetheless....)

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!