Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Deja Vu

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

Deja Vu

Jamie Lauren catches up on the first and second challenges.

Ahhh, so Top Chef is back, and so I am I ... here to write a whole new season's worth of blogs about our favorite little cooking show on television. First I want to apologize for not making an appearance last week on the blog writing circuit. I was swamped with work and didn't get around to watching the first episode until literally three hours ago, so, I got to watch Episodes 1 and 2 of this new season back to back, and I've already got some strong opinions. But before I get started on all that, please remember people, these are my opinions, and I'm just trying to put my two cents in, so don't give me a hard time until a little later in the season maybe?
Now, I got through about 20 minutes of the first episode and muttered out loud: "I'm bored," and I was, and I think within good reason. Um, did that first challenge not remind you of at least one past challenge? Anyone remember when I had to peel fricking apples in the scorching New York City sun? It was basically just like my season's first Quickfire but reversed. Oh, and that damn added bonus of 20 grand wasn't kicking around when I was on the show. These chefs get much better incentives as the seasons progress along! I felt like I was watching an episode of "Prison Chefs" or something — peel potatoes, check, dice onions, check, break down chickens, check. Then create uninspired dishes with the simplest of ingredients ... and again with the challenge recycling, I could have sworn that there was a chicken and potato challenge in Top Chef Miami, or am I making that up? I have to say, even though I found him a wee bit cocky, that there is a cuteness about Angelo that I never saw in either Voltaggio brother last year, and secretly I'm kind of rooting for him for some reason unaware to me as of yet, and I do think his dish sounded the most delicious. And the dude who put the giant rosemary sprig on his plate I wanted to smack. Forgive me, but I'm having a hard time remembering names as of yet, but the inedible garnish is one of my huge chef pet peeves. Who the hell is going to eat a sprig of fresh rosemary? It's like the Olive Garden is being represented on Top Chef. Oh, and one more thing before I move on: if D.C. is going to be Obama this and Obama that, I may scream. I voted for the dude too, but I have to believe there's more to D.C. than politics, right?
Now one more observation: Amanda is like a Leah clone. It's weird. Every time she comes on screen I keep thinking that it's Leah and she's on Top Chef all over again. Hopefully Amanda won't take a cue from Leah and myself and end up hammered on national TV, even though that was a TON of fun, and I have no regrets. It certainly helped getting through the long hours in the Stew Room. But, in terms of cooking I think there are a few chefs that are already ahead of the pack. Obviously the first being the aforementioned Angelo, Alex, and of course Kenny who right now seems to be Angelo's biggest competition. Then, a few of the girls are standing out for me including Andrea and Kelly. The rest of them I think might be too early to call. Everyone else is just sort of falling into the middle of the pack until chefs start going home and being weeded out. As for last week, is anyone else out there happy dread dude got cut? I think if I had to watch him for another episode I would have cringed. Just looking at that hair and imagining it around food made me want to gag. I'm not sure what he's like in his own kitchen, but I hope he wears a hair net! Being the first to go home must blow, but I think the right choice was definitely made this season, in terms of personality alone.Onto the Quickfire in Episode 2, which was basically a loose interpretation of cooking with your hand behind your back, but I found it very amusing. There were a few times I literally laughed out loud, especially watching Amanda with the food tucked under her chin shuffling like a penguin every time she walked ... funny stuff. I definitely agree with the judges that team Tracy/Angelo and team Kenny/non-descript-guy's-name-I-can't-remember had the best-looking sandwiches, but all in all I was unimpressed with the creativity on the challenge: a couple of chicken sandwiches, and a prosciutto sandwich? I really think they could have done better than that, and then the Elimination Challenge is announced ... school lunch, again? I'm detecting a pattern here Bravo....
The biggest part of the Elimination Challenge was clearly the budget. Even when shopping at Restaurant Depot, which is relatively inexpensive, it must have been hard to create four items on a plate for $130, and with the shopping time constraint thrown in, it really trips them up because they're forced to make hasty decisions that can potentially ruin a dish. I think that's what may have happened to some of the contestants. I already felt that blond girl was in trouble when she decided to add extra sugar to her healthy dessert, but it's too bad her and little Leah couldn't have made a compromise between the chocolate and the booze. And speaking of booze ... sherry? For kids? Hmmm ... maybe we will see Amanda snockered at some point this season, that is, if she makes it to the next episode. I loved Team Taco's ideas and was a fan of the chicken burger team as well. I think those two teams really tapped into what kids would enjoy eating, and they were smart about their choices. And, as readers of my blog know, I have no idea who won or went home so this is all speculation, but I'm thinking blond girl might be making her departure, and it's too bad that I never really got to know her name, but I guess it doesn't matter much unless she lives to see another Top Chef challenge.
Oh, and P.S.: Padma calling Gail luscious? That was an amazing moment on television.

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!