Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF


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

Lunchable?'s Senior Editors remembers the horrors and highlights of her school lunches.

Hello my little juiceboxes! Thanks for all the comments on my first entry for this season. I was particularly interested in those that expressed concern that this season might get too political. I might not be in a position to say this, but Top Chef is all about the food, and only the food. So, I think partisan conflict will only arise when discussing who's more liberal or conservative with his/her seasoning!

Thanks also to those that have shared their latest eating experiences and friended me on Foursquare. Since my last entry, I had the good fortune to attend Saveur magazine's 1st Annual Summer BBQ at The Frying Pan here in Manhattan. Editor in Chief and Top Chef Masters judge James Oseland was kind enough to invite me, and it was pretty spectacular, even despite the torrential downpour towards the end. Some of the country's best chefs including Tom Colicchio, Jonathan Waxman, Wylie Dufresne, and Tony Montuano cooked up BBQ fare. Everything was obviously sensational, but the highlight for me were Jonathan Waxman's grilled scallions. I have no idea what he cooked them with, but they were awesome. Also, there was a Ben & Jerry's rep there, and you must go buy some Peanut Brittle ice cream now; it's ridiculous! The BBQ was the first time I'd actually met James Oseland — can you believe that? We e-mail back and forth almost daily during Masters, but we've never met! This actually happens with a lot of our talent, which makes my job kind of bizarre. I have to say, though, that James is an absolute doll. I also had the pleasure to meet legend Gael Greene, and of course, her outfit/hat combo was as sassy as ever! Hopefully you will all have the good fortune to eat as well this summer as I did at the event. On to this week's Quickfire!

In perhaps one of the oddest challenges we've ever had, we tasked the chefs with teaming up in pairs to create sandwiches. At first many of them balked at the seemingly easy challenge of creating a tasty "sammy" in 30 minutes. Not so fast! They then learned they had to share some odd one-armed apron contraption with another chef. Things. Just. Got. Interesting. This challenge kind of reminded me of the one-handed egg challenge during our holiday all-star special a few years ago (the one Stephen Asprinio won with his perfect omelette.) Ed and Kenny lucked out that Ed was left-handed. It was particularly amusing how nervous Alex was that Timothy would cut him. Tracey seemed pretty happy to be attached to Angelo and kind of didn't wnt to let go. In the end, the latter team won with a fish sandwich. Angelo does own a sandwich shop, so seems fitting that he would win. He was probably pretty relieved for his business too!

This week's Elimination Challenge provoked a lot of sensory memory for me. School lunches and the cafeterias in which they were eaten had so many different smells for me ... many of them unpleasant. School lunch for me was a mixed bag. Sometimes, it could be amazing, like when I started bringing a thermos filled with Campbell's Double Noodle soup in middle school. Other times, it was fairly gross, like when I bought it. The men and women that worked in my middle school's cafeteria could be a surly bunch, but they were familiar. They worked hard and we knew it. It wasn't their fault the food left much to be desired. And because the main dishes were not the best, I snacked a lot because it was packaged. Note: Cool Ranch Doritos (changed to "Cooler Ranch" for a brief stint during my middle school days.) Whomever invented the Cool Ranch Dorito is a genius. And I mean that with all sincerity. As is the person who invented Hi-C Ecto Cooler (an elementary school staple.)As it is Healthy Week here at NBC Universal (check out our Healthy Week goodies here), the chefs not only had to create a school lunch that fit into their $2.68/student budget, but was also nutritious. Nutritious and delicious. First, we'll start with the top two teams. Kelly wowed with her pork tacos. Although I thought tacos were a good idea, I thought the pickled onion was an odd choice. I would never have eaten that when I was in middle school. It seemed that the kids liked it though. These kids seemed to be very open to new flavors — something I wasn't very open to until much later in life. The judges were impressed with the rest of the team's offerings too, especially Tiffany's sweet potato and sherbet, somehow working a veggie (a tuber, really) into a dessert. Although the team, and ultimately Kelly, won, their victory was a bit marred because of a bit of conflict between Kelly and the rest of hte team, most vocally Arnold. It seemed Arnold thought Kelly was taking credit for the team's work. What was interesting is that Tom seemed to be in favor of the chefs taking individual credit. I honestly don't know what to think — did you agree with Kelly or Arnold?

Alex, Andra, Tim, and Kevin were also on top providing what I considered to be the most obviously kid-friendly meal with their mac 'n' cheese, BBQ chicken, cole slaw, and fruit skewers. The yogurt as whipped cream was simple and genius, and the substitution of yogurt for mayo in the slaw was a smart move too. The only thing I can say is I hope none of the kids were lactose intolerant or this meal would have put them in a world of pain!

Now, for the bottom: although I can't decide if Angelo purposely sabotaged his team, it seemed he — at the very least — didn't try his hardest His celery with peanut butter mousse was a safe and odd choice, and I swear I saw a "gold" leaf in the presentation, but then again, I'm losing my mind. Did anyone else notice that?! I love love love peanut butter, but this didn't look too exciting to me. The main complaint about the complete dish, however, was that there was no vegetable, and this was blamed on Ed and Kenny for not speaking up. Can I just take this moment to say that Ed is really growing on me? When I met him he was kinda quiet but he says the funniest s--- in his in-show interviews. He just seems like such a New Yorker to me — and I honestly don't totally know what I mean by that, but New Yorkers, let me know if you agree! Finally, we have Amanda, Tamesha, Stephen, and Jacqueline's mess of a dish. The most horrific elements were the sherry-braised chicken courtesy of Amanda and Jacqueline's losing banana pudding. Say what you will about "serving" children alcohol, sherry just didn't make sense. It's something Frasier and Niles drink, it's not something you would or really should see in school lunches. Besides its total impractiality, it's pricey, and used up a lot of the team's budget. Apparently though this wasn't as big an offense as Jacqueline's banana pudding. I kind of love banana pudding, and although it's known for its cupcakes, Magnolia Bakery's banana pudding blows the cupcakes out of the water. The only thing is it has a TON of sugar in it. Seriously, you can literally feel the sugar in your body. Jacqueline valiently tried to create a fresh banana pudding that was healthy, but it was starchy, so she added sugar to break it up. And then she added some more. 2 pounds worth in fact, which is, gross. I have no idea what she could have done to save this dish, and apparently the judges didn't know either becuase she went home. Jacqueline is a sweetheart so this was a shame, but the competition is definitely heating up!

What did you think? Aee you ready to claim memership to either Team Angelo or Team Kenny? Would you create a recipe for children with sherry? Did you tear up like I did when that adorable student said, "Imagine if we had this every day for lunch. That would be cool."

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!