Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

808 and Heartbreak

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

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

808 and Heartbreak's Senior Editor works herself up over the Quickfire Challenge.

Hello my little bandanas. (Bandanas of course being a reference to Quickfire guest judge Isaac Mizrahi's signature schmatta.) Before we get into this week's episode, let us catch up on the first seven episodes, shall we?

Did you spot my Tarantino-esque cameo? Its' embarrassing, but awesome, and is the handiwork of Ms. Courtney Pollard, the video's editor.

OK, now that we're all caught up, let's start with this week's Quickfire, which was literally all about presentation. We actully had a similar challenge on Top Chef: Just Desserts  if you recall. I remember thinking then that some people might not "get" the challenge because flavor is paramount in cooking, and I have a feeling fans might feel that way even more so with this series, but I'm prepared to defend it (y'know, if it were my place to do so.) Presentation is important, and I thought it was appropriate to have Isaac Mizrahi, legendary fashion designer, to judge the challenge. Would he even want to eat the food based on its looks? Although I have a feeling most of our viewers, and probably the chefs too, prepare their dishes for a restaruant setting, there are a lot of food services, especially outside the restaurant business, that rely on appearance. For example, if you go to a restaurant and order something, chances are you don't know what the actual dish will look like, but you probably wouldn't send it back based on its appearance. However, it's more likely that you stop at an eatery daily where apperance matters. Are you going to scoop yourself up some of that gross-looking soup? Probably not. This challenge obviously wouldn't have worked as an Elimination Challenge, but it wasn't, so let's move on! (Don't you love how I just spent a whole paragraph defending a challenge you may not have had any qualms with in the first place?)

Either way, Richard won. I wonder what Isaac would have thought of Hung's Mushroom Fantasy from Season 3. Hmmm.
Onto the Elimination Challenge with the guys from Rao's! Honestly, every episode this season has just astounded me with the guests our producers have been able to book, and this week was no exception. In fact, I was blown away! Anyone who knows anything about Rao's knows how exclusive it is, so for the guys to not only be on the show, but to say what an honor it is to appear, was pretty special.

And of course, the challenge was an Italian one. I remember in the early days of Top Chef, and even amongst the foodie world, exclusively Italian cooks were looked down upon because making Italian food was considered easier. Just as Rick Bayless hoped to do with his Masters win with Mexican food, my hope is that the same happens for Italian food. Places like Eately, in my opinion, have done a lot for the visibility of Italian food culture in New York City at least, and hopefully that momentum will only continue.

What we learned first and foremost is that Italian food is all about simplicity -- that the ingredients have to shine, which has, appropriately, been the foundation of Tom Colicchio's Craft businesses since inception. I was a little worried we would get a comment from Tom that he was offended as an Italian-American by the cooking again, but fortunately that didn't happen. The chefs were broken up into three groups, serving three different courses: Antipasti, Primi, Secondi. Despite Mike Isabella's nonsense that Tiffany's dish wasn't an antipasti (I really would have liked to try that dish by the way), and that Carla's dish could be found in Wisconsin, all those ladies got a pretty warm reception. The meat guys did pretty well too, but alas, it was the pasta course that fell flat. And honestly? I think any of those guys could've gone home. But, it was Tre's day. Or rather, it wasn't his day. Tre has been a bright spot this season, not only is he nice to look at (ahem), but his laugh, his charm, and honestly his cooking skills have been a pleasure to watch. I think we've seen a stronger Tre this season than in Season 3, and I know he will only continue to grow as a cook and a chef. We'll miss you, Tre!It could very well have been Dale or Mike Isabella going home. I was a little happy to see some people comment on Mike's arrogance at the top of the show -- I felt like it vindicated Marcel a little bit. And although I know I'll continue to get comments not understanding my irrational affinity for Marcel, I still adore him.

Anyway, Antonia won with her mussels in white wine. This is a random recommendation, but for anyone who is near midtown should try Pazza Notte's mussels. They're kind of amazing. The other chefs were cold towards Antonia after her win because mussels are simple. But that was the point of the challenge right? Restaraint won. And, mussels can be bad -- when you've had bad mussels, it's horrible.

Next week, the chefs cook for Jimmy Fallon. Love him. I hope you are as excited about the episode as I am. Until then, tell me where you've been eating for Restaurant Week. (I've visited Resto twice in the past week!) Happy noshing!

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!