Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

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Wolf(gang) Pack

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

Wolf(gang) Pack

Richard Blais vividly remembers the first few days as a cheftestant.

It happens relatively quickly. You get a phone call. Then, in a few hours, a list of things you can bring. Followed by a longer list of things you can’t. And then a few hundred papers to sign. You receive flight information and contact info for people you’ve never met. They will be “handling you,” whatever that means. In a few days, you’re off to be a contestant on Top Chef. At the time you don’t know it, but that Wired magazine with Brad Pitt on the cover and that pretty awful hot dog at the airport will be your last taste of freedom for a while.

Upon arrival, you will be stripped of your belongings. Your Red Sox cap, gone — it’s branded.  (Why do you think you see so many home-printed t-shirts?) Cell phone, wallet, money, ID, notebook with recipes. Gone. Even that magazine. Confiscated, for six weeks, you can hope at least. At this point, I’m sure they are checking toothpaste tubes for illegally transported methyl cellulose. It’s serious.

There is a part to the first few days of being on Top Chef that's like prison, I expect. There’s bad food, blood being spilled, and alliances being made. For as long as you’re filming, you will never even go to the bathroom alone. You won’t need a shank of course, unless it's lamb. 

You get to meet your fellow competitors now. At a house that I’m guessing is a good upgrade from where most of the cast usually resides. I remember our house in Chicago had a toilet seat warmer. That was nice. There will be a scramble for bunk beds (not sure why). And there’s so much chatter and name-dropping going on that the prison-like atmosphere becomes more summer camp-ish, or since there’s alcohol in abundance, maybe college.

I’ve worked for him, or her. I’ve got this nomination, or this award. I’ve been on that TV show. At my restaurant this, at my restaurant that. My style is this. I grow my own food, etc. etc. This casual social mixer seems harmless and fun. Hair starts to come down. Neckerchiefs start to loosen. 

But in an hour’s time, half of the pack will have been virtually eliminated.

That is a bold statement but one I can make with certainty. Of course there is maybe one contestant each year who finishes way beyond everyone’s expectations. But the first true accomplishment during the competition is getting half-way through. The contestants can lay odds (see what I did there?) on who will be in the game very easily. All it takes is this first gathering.

It’s a wolf pack. And the strong are going to show their teeth before they even put on a jacket. Whether it’s by discussing their pedigree, boasting of their restaurant’s stars, or clearly defining their style in a sentence. It’s game time, way before the first set of challenges.

I wouldn’t be worried about the guy who gets rip roaring drunk on the first night. He won’t have the stamina for the grind. Nor would I be concerned about the two girls who consistently just say they are “happy to be here.” Thats a tail between the legs. The blond who just started cooking dinner for all of us, she has guts and she’ll do well. That guy’s knives are serious. And homeboy at the other bunk just unpacked an ingredient I’ve never heard of. They’ll be here for a bit. Guy deciding what colored scarf to wear tomorrow ... Adios!

The first episode is always hard to blog without recapping. My first swing through this blog was four pages long. But after rewatching the episode, I found it obvious, the body language, comments, and clues that we were shown, that reveal to the viewer who could go far this season.

So, who do you think will be unpacking their knives for a long stay with this season’s wolf pack in the dessert?

Special note: I know all three Atlanta-based contestants well. And Eli Kirshtein on a personal and professional level (he was the best man at my wedding, and my sous-chef for years) .

Keep up with me at or read about my most recent challenge in my column in Creative Loafing, “Knife’s Edge.” Follow me on Twitter @RichardBlais

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!