Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Notes on Notes

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

Notes on Notes

Tom talks about pairing Pinot with pig, and where Ash went wrong.

Having just come back from the Southeast, where pig is a mainstay, I’m primed and ready to talk about this week’s challenge, cooking for Charlie Palmer’s “Pig and Pinot” fundraiser. It’s a big event, and it’s great that Charlie lent it to the show. My ten-week old baby is smiling away at me as I type this … I suspect he’s going to like both pig and Pinot down the road as much as his dad does.

About the pairings aspect of this week’s challenge: Pinot Noir is a very complex grape. It can be very feminine, with sweet, bright red notes like strawberries or cherries, or it can go to barnyard complexity (as Toby was trying to articulate) with cooked fruits and wet hay-like notes … and it runs everything in between. Chocolate notes, leather notes, stewed fruits, tar … all kinds of stuff. Charlie hit on it very quickly in the episode, saying that you can either work with “opposites” or “similars”: so many of the chefs used cherries in their dishes because by doing so they were echoing what they found in the wine. The other way is to go the complete opposite, as when pairing an eggplant-colored dress with an acid-yellow clutch (my wife tells me). Just as opposites really do attract with people, opposite flavors in a wine and a dish can often complement one another very well. So it was fun to see what our cheftestants would discover in their pinots and how that would translate into the choices they made with their food.

I also really liked the challenge because it used all the parts of the animal. You treat the belly very differently than the leg, the loin very differently than the shoulder, so this challenge highlighted the versatility of this animal … if not the chefs.

What do I mean by this? Well, for example, a shoulder has a lot of connective tissue and collagen, so you’d want to braise or confit it, to break down those collagens or connective tissues. When done correctly, this can yield a more flavorful piece of meat than some of the easier ones like loins or chops, which could go for a quick roasting or grilling. In general, the animal takes smoke well. It can go Asian, Italian, Korean, or All-American such as BBQ. These are the reasons that, as I stated above, this was a great challenge for showcasing the abilities of the remaining chefs.

Michael and Bryan upped their own stakes: because they had both worked for Charlie before, they felt they had to perform well to impress him, and thus they put themselves under a great deal of additional pressure. With his root beer braised pork cheek, Michael was clearly going for the various notes in the wine and was introducing them into the dish. Kevin also turned the heat up under himself, feeling that because he had put himself forth to in this competition as “the pig guy,” nothing short of the win would be acceptable. Luckily for them, these three are good competitors; not only do they not buckle under pressure, they actually do perform better.

I think you’re seeing by now, as evidenced by Kevin’s win this week, that when we judge the Elimination Challenges, we’re not getting snowed by the “fancy” cooking of the two brothers. Kevin has made consistently smart and strong choices in his approaches to the challenges in this competition, and he did so again here. Kevin had drawn the leg of the pig to work with. There are a few things one could do. For example, one could have roasted the whole thing, or steamed it out and then sliced it into cutlets and made a schnitzel. Kevin went very simple: he chose to grind up the whole thing and make a pate, a terrine. It was kind of risky, actually, as a terrine really needs to be made well in advance to let it cure and let the flavors blend. Another potential pitfall is that while a terrine seems like a simple thing – basically a cold meat-loaf – you need to make sure that everything (and I mean everything) is very, very cold when you’re grinding it – the pork, the blade, everything – so that you’re actually cutting it and not just making mush. And, finally, a terrine needs to be seasoned well from the get-go; you can’t cook it and adjust the seasoning at the end. It is thus deceptively simple while actually requiring finesse and skill in execution on several levels to pull off well. Kevin had that skill. Further, Kevin knew from having visited the Sokol Blosser Vineyards that there were hazelnut trees on the property. As wine grapes can often take on the flavor of something they’re growing near, and there may have been a very slight hazelnut note in his wine, Kevin very smartly incorporated hazelnuts into his dish. He also used just a tiny bit of cherry, just the right amount to be in balance with the wine.

Let’s contrast this with Laurine’s dish. Laurine opted to make a pork butt rillette, but the problem was that she didn’t know how to make it. She thought it was a braised meat. No, no, no – you confit it in pork fat first, so that the water is forced out and is replaced with fat. After you’ve completely cooked the meat over several hours on a low temperature submerged in fat, you take it out, whip it up with a fork (or a mixer with a paddle), slowly incorporating more of the fat with which you cooked it, and you end up with very lush, rich, unctuous meat. By just braising it, Laurine wound up with a stringy, watery dish. She really screwed up. Charlie and I both hit on it right away, asking her, “You braised it, didn’t you?” At least her chutney and salad were quite good.

As for why Ash’s dish was even worse (which it was … even if Dana did say that she thought the texture of Laurine’s dish was like cat food … which it wasn’t), at least Laurine managed to get some flavor out of her dish. Ash had a prime piece of pork – the loin – and while I’m all about simple food, that loin was barely seared, slightly overcooked, and barely seasoned. All in all, in Ash’s, we wound up with a dish that we did not expect from this competition. Plainly put, it was just not good. Just because Mike Isabella suggested that Ash cook something cold ...? C’mon. Ash could’ve roasted the pork loin whole with herbs, wrapped it in bacon, and served it with polenta and bitter greens, and it could’ve been a great dish. Instead we were served something very bland and not very pork-y, that didn’t work at all with the wine with which he was supposed to pair it. Ash spent his time in this competition telling us that he had not yet had a chance to cook “his own food,” yet looking around at all times to see what everyone else was doing instead of just presenting his own style. He’s been very unsure of himself, has second-guessed himself throughout, and that lack of confidence has come out in his food; his cooking has not only been tentative in feel but in flavor. And never more so than in this challenge.

From here on out, we are almost at a point in the competition where you’re either in the top or the bottom; there’s almost no middle left. At this point, any mistake could really get you sent home. You almost have to hope that if you’ve made a mistake, someone else has made a bigger blunder. Remember that anyone could go at this point … this isn’t a cumulative competition ....


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!