Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Solving the Bocuse d’Or Puzzle

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

Solving the Bocuse d’Or Puzzle

Jerome Bocuse has some thoughts and advice for the cheftestant.

While nobody knows for sure what lies ahead for Kevin Gillespie in the Top Chef season finale, one thing is for certain after this week’s episode: his cooking competition days will extend at least until February, when he competes in the trials to select the American team that will represent the United States at the next Bocuse d’Or, sometimes nicknamed the Olympics of Cooking. A spot in that competition, along with 30,000 smackers, was his prize for winning this week’s elimination challenge—not bad for four hours’ work.

Kevin, along with guest judge Jerome Bocuse, were among the culinary glitterati in attendance at a Top Chef viewing party (and Bocuse d’Or USA fundraiser) at Astor Center in New York City last night. Also there were Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Daniel Boulud, Café Boulud’s Gavin Kaysen (who competed for the US at the 2007 Bocuse d’Or), Top Chef Season 5 winner Hosea Rosenberg, as well as assorted food journalists and chefs including Corton’s Paul Liebrandt and Artisanal’s Terrance Brennan.

As detailed in my upcoming book Knives at Dawn, in many ways, the Bocuse d’Or is a sporting event—a 5 1/2 hour marathon for which the teams train for months under the guidance of a culinary coach. Subtly reinforcing the sports theme, Top Chef engaged in two crucial head fakes last night: the first was creating the distinct impression that Kevin would be a fish hopelessly out of water in Bocuse d’Or territory. When it was announced that the food would have to be presented on mirrored platters, Kevin’s eyes almost crossed as he processed the information—how would this suit his decidedly un-show-offy style? He then decided to try cooking sous vide, a technique he had never used before, which is a very dicey proposition.  All the ingredients were in place for one of the more shocking upsets in Top Chef history.

(At the party, Kevin commented to me that he had another challenge to face—getting past cooking for Keller: Though he has never worked for the icon, his books have been an inspiration to him: “I could never thank him for the impact on my career,” said Kevin, who didn’t find a moment to convey this to Keller personally. “Unfortunately, I froze up when he came around. I wish I had used my words to thank him the way that I could. I’ve never had the opportunity to tell him how important his books have been to me and how important his views on food are to what I do for a living.”  Kevin was also impressed that although Keller is a famously exacting chef: “He was a real nice guy, very pleasant to deal with… he has very high standards; on the other hand he understood the constraints we were under, the pressure we were under, and was very gracious about that.”)

The other head fake was that while promos for the show emphasized the first-ever presence of Bocuse d’Or USA president Thomas Keller on the program, it was Jerome Bocuse, Vice President of the Bocuse d’Or USA, who actually joined the regulars at the Judges’ Table. This made perfect sense: Keller and Boulud—who were among those at the dinner table who tasted the cheftestants’ food—are often at the center of media attention for their leadership roles in the Bocuse d’Or USA, but it’s their partner in the enterprise, Bocuse—on board from the get-go—who brings the deepest institutional knowledge of the Bocuse d’Or to the effort.  In addition to his literal relationship to the competition (his father, iconic chef Paul Bocuse is its founder), Jerome Bocuse was the English language emcee of the event in Lyon, France, for years. He knows the competition in his bones—which is the only way to truly understand the distinct and highly nuanced combination of technique, flavor, and visual punch required to medal at the event. His instincts for what will fly and what won’t will be crucial to advising the next American team.

Having such a seasoned Bocuse d’Or presence as juror made it all the more impressive that Kevin was able to navigate the waters of this week’s challenge. Banking on the fundamental fairness of the judges, he decided to deliver, in his words, “complex flavor wrapped up in a very nice, neat, simple buckle.” In short, his food would be pretty, but not spectacular and—he hoped—simply taste better than the rest. (“My angle the entire time was that if I was going to do it simply, I had to do it perfectly,” he said at the party.) Even in the actual Bocuse d’Or, flavor counts for two-thirds of the score, against just one-third for presentation, so there was sound reasoning behind this strategy.

At the viewing party, I caught up to Jerome Bocuse to ask him about the episode and his thoughts on Kevin’s preparation for the Bocuse d’Or USA team-selection event, which takes place in February at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, NY.

You and your colleagues have made a lot of progress in explaining the Bocuse d’Or to Americans over the past year, how much do you think Top Chef helped in that effort?
Bocuse: It’s a great exposure to the general public. I think today the Bocuse d’Or is known among all the [culinary] professionals, but I’m not sure the general public has a great sense of awareness of it. The fact that we were on national television was great exposure and very useful in explaining what the Bocuse d’Or is all about.  It was the biggest exposure we’ve ever had here in America for sure.

People train for years for the real Bocuse d’Or.  Were you impressed by how well the cheftestants did with this challenge, given the very short time frame they had in which to create and serve their platters?
What mattered the most with those candidates was the fact that they have to adapt to any situation whether it’s the Bocuse d’Or, or any challenge. It puts them on the spot and they cannot think twice and have to just go for it. If we ever get a Bocuse d’Or candidate from Top Chef, I think the fact that he went through a season of experiencing that diversity of scenarios will give him a great in advantage in not only how to handle the pressure, but also how to adapt to different scenarios. There’s a lot of preparation for the Bocuse d’Or, but a lot can go wrong and you have to adapt quickly. Top Chef is great training, not only from a strictly culinary point of view but also for the experience. 

What did you think of Kevin’s approach of making his food look just enough and banking on the flavor to carry the day?
I think that was very smart and that’s where he won last night. At the end, what are we looking for? First of all, that the fundamentals of cooking are there:  the right amount of cooking, the right seasoning. Then you can extrapolate, and work on the details. But if you don’t have a solid foundation you can’t go any farther.  It’s like a house; if the foundation is weak, everything will collapse after two weeks.  In cooking it’s the same thing. Before you add the seasoning, push the envelope, go to molecular cuisine, or whatever, you have to be sure your base, your foundation, is strong, that the meat is going to be cooked to the proper temperature and so on. 

Kevin is a very proudly regional American chef.  Do you think he needs to adjust his palate to compete in the Bocuse d’Or?
It’s a tricky question. I don’t think for the American competition he should adjust it.  He should cook with his heart, cook what he believes in.  If you try to go against what you’re feeling, it won’t come natural to you. If you don’t, somehow it’s not going to be as good as it would as if you went with the inspiration in what you believe in. After [the American team selection event], when you go to the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, it’s a new story.  Here in the U.S., the judging panel will understand what American food is all about. When you go and compete in Lyon, you are being judged by twenty-four judges from twenty-four countries. One or two might understand what American food is about, but the other nations won’t. The approach is slightly different there.

The Norwegian who won the Bocuse d’Or 2009 had dreamt of winning since he was twelve-years old. Do you think a lifelong desire is essential to Bocuse d’Or success?
I’m not sure. I think you can find different sources of motivation to win the Bocuse d’Or.  Whether being challenged for years, or [spontaneously] challenging Kevin, as we are now, to go to Hyde Park. [His attitude should be,] ‘They’re giving me that opportunity and I’m going to show them what I can do.” I’m sure there are different ways.  I’m sure that all the previous winners didn’t win because of lifelong inspiration. You could ask them why they did the Bocuse d’Or, or why they participated in Top Chef, and get different answers. Ultimately, it’s the challenge.

This is the second year running that a Top Chef candidate will appear in the U.S. team selection event. (Top Chef Season 3 winner Hung Hyunh competed in 2008.) Does the ability to do well on Top Chef offer some indication of the ability to do well in the Bocuse d’Or?

It’s about the pressure, and at the end of the day if you’re a good chef on television you can be a good chef in the Bocuse d’Or competition.  You’re performing in front of an audience, but you’re still cooking.  It’s all about cooking and how well you can cook under that pressure.

Andrew Friedman is the author of the soon-to-be-released Knives at Dawn: America’s Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d’Or Competition, which details the story of the 2009 American team.

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!