Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

A Grain of Salt

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

A Grain of Salt

Tom explains how the smallest of details can either win you or lose you the title of Top Chef.

I’m very excited that our season finale is set in Napa Valley during “the Crush,” the time of year when the grapes are harvested and, literally, crushed to make wine. The aroma of crushed grapes actually hangs in the air, the community pulls together around this collective endeavor, and there are celebrations at wineries throughout the valley. Michael Chiarello was one of the first chefs to settle in Napa Valley and make a name for himself, originally with Tre Vigne … and now, thanks to his efforts and those of Thomas Keller and others, the region has become a leading destination for lovers of food and wine. In fact, I think it’s actually rated second nationally, right behind Disney/Orlando. And yet, as upscale as it’s become, it is still a farming community at heart and in practice; it still has those farming roots, which I think is what keeps it on an even keel. I’ve been going on and off for the past 30 years (I can’t believe I just wrote that); I love that it is one of the little pockets of our country wherein people are growing food to complement the wine.

I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that I thought the challenge – cooking two dishes, one vegetarian, one with a local protein, and both with all-local ingredients, was great. Our four finalists did, too – I’m sure you noted their exuberance while exploring the ingredients available to them to select from. Everything was grown and/or raised within 100 miles of where we were, and everything was exceptionally fresh. It was almost a hindrance, as the myriad gorgeous options derailed the chefs’ original thoughts but then it was hard to focus in that short time period on replacement dishes with so many ideas swirling about in their heads. This certainly happened to Jennifer.

This was the strongest group of chefs ever to going into a Top Chef finale. All four are highly accomplished. And it’s the first time that the four strongest chefs in a season actually made it to the finale – no one snuck in through a side door to get there – as evidenced by the fact that between the four of them, they always won the Elimination Challenges. No one made any excuses for their dishes at this Elimination Challenge, and everyone performed very well. At this stage, with these chefs, no one was going home for a bad dish; we knew that it was going to be about small details.  

It may not make sense to you but it was clear to us immediately that it would be Jen who would be going home. What it came down to was that both of her dishes were way too salty. Jen’s overseasoning of both her dishes stood out to the judges like a sore thumb. We had our conversation at Judges' Table about whom to send home, but it was pro forma; we already knew and were in complete accord.

There was more of a discussion about who was going to win, where each of the remaining three made excellent choices and also made minor mistakes. With Michael’s egg dish, he did not take care that the whites of the eggs were perfect, and the balance was off as regards the size of the egg (too big for the veggies). And the proportions were similarly off in his strange-yet-good foie terrine in turnip soup with pear. Gail felt there was not enough foie to soup.  I liked it a lot, though. He took a risk and created a dish where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Kevin’s braised meat was not braised enough and was stringy, but it was still really, really tasty, and the polenta he served with it was really good. As for that little radish and carrot dish of his, it was pretty amazing for such a simple dish. We unanimously marveled.

Bryan’s dishes were both strong. One was slightly underseasoned but still well-conceived, well-executed, and good. He had the most minor of mistakes made that day and presented two strong dishes, garnering him the win.

Jen is a great competitor, who is her own worst critic and as a result, at times, her own worst enemy. She made a good call to switch gears when the coals weren’t hot enough. It was hard to see her go, as it would have been to see any of the four. As with any one of the four finalists, Jen could have won the title of “Top Chef” – it really came down to how things went on a given day. As with an Olympian who can lose the gold by one-one-hundredth of a second, when you get to this point you can have a great day or a bad day, and it can come down to a few extra pinches of salt.



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!