Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

All in the Game

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

All in the Game

Anthony Bourdain comments on this week's challenge, Jennifer's elimination, and Elia's public comments about Tom Colicchio.

Omar Little, street philosopher, almost-superhero, stick-up man extraordinaire -- the most memorable character on the best dramatic series in the history of television, The Wire, articulated the Code of the Streets perfectly. While gleefully sticking up a drug dealer, he takes time to explain the brutal logic of what's happening.

"It's all in The Game, yo! It's all in The Game!"

What Mr. Little means, presumably, is that in the day to day ebb and flow of his victim's chosen profession (in this case, slinging dope on Baltimore street corners), one must anticipate
the occasional unpleasantness. Like Mr. Little shoving a large caliber weapon in your face and taking all your money and product. Nobody is more aware of the rules than Omar himself. He lives his life knowing full well that in all likelihood, he too will fall. And that when it comes it will be fast, unexpected, probably from behind -- and decidedly "unfair."

Yet in a harsh, insecure world of constantly shifting loyalties and great danger, Omar has chosen to live by certain hard and fast rules. He doesn't curse or use bad language. He doesn't hurt, kill, or otherwise victimize anyone not "in the game" like him. He never explains, complains, snitches, blames, finger points, or whines. When his own end comes on the floor of a convenience store, shot from behind by a small boy, one is certain that had he a few seconds left of consciousness, he would not be griping about how "wrong" or "unfair" or undeserved it all was. 

Compare and contrast to the first two weeks' eliminations on Top Chef All-Stars.

My heart went out to our gastro-gladiators this week. Highly trained, experienced professionals, all of them looking for an opportunity to cook their asses off, do their best, give us their best game, hoping, hoping for nothing less than a clean shot at redemption, perhaps a challenge in their comfort zone, a few good swings at the proverbial plate.

It was not to be. Instead, they found themselves toiling in the 9th circle of Hell , surrounded by squealing, sugar-jacked children, struggling to comprehend (and feign enthusiasm for) the inexplicable appearance of Mr. Joe Jonas. Dale Talde said it best. "I thought he was a pastry chef."

In trying to understand what the Deep Thinkers at Bravo Central were thinking, one can only imagine an urgent desire to appeal to that vital demographic of potential car buyers in the age 8-13 group. I would have thought it past their bedtime when Top Chef airs. In fact, I'd guess that about 99% of the people who even know or care who the Jonas Brothers are would be long asleep in their jammies by the time Top Chef comes on.   But what do I know?  At least many of these young people will be, in time, making heavy use of the Glad Family of Bags -- as I did as a tween. Good to start early building that kind of brand loyalty. You could actually see the chef/contestants' expressions cave, their spirits slump -- as it became clear that whomever was going home today would be doing so covered in a sticky sheen of Twizzlers, Silly Bandz, and crushed Ritalin. It was apparent which among the chefs had any familiarity with children as some actually wondered out loud whether the kids would prefer salty or sweet.

While it may be morally dubious to feed kids raw sugar out of a bag -- with a chaser of chocolate syrup? -- that would have probably been a crowd pleaser.

After a weird, cruel, pointless, and degrading night of being pelted with juice boxes, our heroes no doubt looked forward to falling into the arms of Morpheus -- or Oxycontin -- to sleep deep, to forget -- Lohan-like -- the indignities of the night before. But this too, was not to be. In a monstrous turn of events, a final twist of the knife, they were informed instead that they would be spending a few fitful hours on army cots -- among the dioramas and dinosaurs -- only to rise at the crack of ass and make breakfast for the same adorable rug rats and their parents.

But not just any breakfast.

I'd describe in detail how each chef rose to the challenge (or fell). But I am myself a sufferer from Post-Traumatic Brunch Syndrome, having spent way too many dark years in  the culinary wilderness scraping batter from waffle irons, roasting home fries, flipping ----ing omelets, poaching eggs ----ing Bennies, plating French ----ing toast with requisite orange twist and strawberry fan.  So, no one empathizes more with the victims of this challenge more than me.
That said? I don't have a lot of sympathy for Jamie -- who deserted the front lines (all too happily, it seemed) in order to have TWO stitches put in. Just about any line cook I ever knew would have gone for the Vince Lombardi option of "spit on it and run a lap" -- at least until the end of the shift. And when you're competing for a quarter million dollars?  Most would  cauterize even a sucking chest wound with a hot spoon.

I had enormous sympathy for Jennifer, who (as she knows all too well, apparently) was one of the strongest challengers in the field. In a perfect world, she deserved a lot better than to fall from this particular challenge. One would have hoped -- again, in a perfect world -- that a chef with as much talent and experience and pedigree as Jennifer would have had a cleaner shot at the gold to succeed or fail at.

But it is -- as Omar reminds us -- NOT a perfect world. 

Her behavior at Judges' Table and after Elimination was petulant, visibly contemptuous, unprofessional, and frankly -- appalling. That's no way to go out.

The only worse way to go out, as I see it, would be the Elia Option: Leave rude. Whine later. Blame your elimination in the press on a conspiracy theory involving Tom Colicchio's possibly mind-addling use of Diet Coke. Suggest that the judges were not fit to evaluate a specimen as magnificent as you. Mention your prior experience with Robuchon as evidence of your perpetualinfallibility.

I have spent some time with Monsieur Robuchon. Not as much as many of my friends, but have a pretty good idea what he would have said about that fish.

I suspect it would have been a LOT less diplomatic than what was said at Judges' Table.

And whether you believe -- as I do -- that Tom Colicchio is one of the most important, pioneering chefs in American gastronomy -- and a fair and incisive judge ... or whether you think he's a high-fructose swilling, gas-guzzling enemy of locavores, Satan worshipper, tormentor of small animals, possible JFK conspirator and television whore -- as Elia seems to believe -- you know what?

He STILL knows what a raw piece of fish is.

And that fish was not medium rare. It was was not even rare in the center. It was ----ing raw on one side. Period.

When one embarks on an enterprise where one can reasonably anticipate coming face to face with Joe Jonas, Paula Deen, or Elmo at any moment, or be asked to grill satay in the back of a moving Toyota Highlander, it is useful to have a sense of humor about oneself. And when one is a professional, facing other professionals, and the chop comes down, it is always useful to comport oneself with dignity -- and a measure of grace. Regardless of what one might think -- or what pain and heartbreak may boil inside -- one thanks one's executioners. One stands tall and proud. One leaves this world -- to whatever degree possible, looking GOOD.

The true business of television, as I have learned painfully over the years, is not to make you look good. The business of television is to create drama. That people want to watch.

Many have learned this lesson at great cost and over many years. 

Apart from the judging, which has always, always been straight and uninfluenced by the production side from my experience, the editing will always come down on whatever bit of raw meat the participants care to throw them. Snarling, snapping and sneering at Judges' Table is guaranteed to end up in final cut. One would have thought these veterans had learned this lesson already.
I draw your attention to the famous "Death of Snoop" scene from The Wire -- a show which might well serve as a field manual for appropriate comportment. Young Michael, on his way to his execution with Snoop, figures it out, turns the tables, and gets the drop on her. (I quote from memory. Apologies to fellow Wire nerds.)

"You always was smart." says Snoop, knowing it's the end for her. She looks in the side view mirror, checking her hair.

"How do I look, Mike?"

"You look good, girl," says Michael.


THAT'S the way to go out.

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Hugh Acheson wonders about the health of the kids at Emerson College and debates the cost of roasting that much foie gras.

In this, the tenth episode of this 12th season, we open in the kitchen of the chefs super secret lair. Katusji has taken his wit, wisdom and wherewithal back to his Kosher Japanese Cal-Mex empire to work on a masa matzoh ball taco. He is described as "the most loveable dick in the entire world," which seems pretty on point. These remaining five seem saddened because Katsuji provided respite from the drudgery of competition. They mourn as well, because all understood, though it was never talked about, like a solemn vow, that they could all beat Katsuji in this cooking game. He was the San Diego Padres of Top Chef, the team that all the other competition knew would be an easy beat when the time came.

So the quintet of Mei, Gregory, Dougeeeee, Melissa and George remain. They are all have the stuff that could allow them to win the dough, but Mei and Gregory have really shown that if we must have hierarchy then they are the top two contenders.

Quickfire begins with Andy and his college roommate. Andy just told the roommate that those "games" they played late at night in their bunkbeds WILL be talked about in his next book, so Dave, you have some explaining to the wife and kids. Andy, we are told, is "known for his antics." That he is.

Andy exorts the contestants to hook up with each other and I immediately think of Dougie spooning with Georgie. I then have to wash my eyes out with steel wool and bleach to remove the image. This hurts and still the image remains.

Padma gets Andy back on task and she introduces the Quickfire. It is a collegiate showdown of ramen proportions but the catch is that they must use the contents of the fridge of some poor frosh. Out come the stoner, the nerd, the sorority girl, the lady who should have graduated in '05 and one other innocuous soul. Their fridge contents make me worry about a scurvy outbreak at Emerson College.

We are regaled with stories of the craziest things they all did in college. Melissa built a 24-story beer bong. I went to school in Montreal so my craziest times were hanging out at Biftek on St. Laurent and getting drunk playing pool. Oh wait, I DID THAT EVERY NIGHT until I dropped out of college. Luckily I had some cooking skillz.

Gregory concocts a bacon, Doritos, leftover pizza broth, and I am immediately worried about the future of our country. Dougie has made a Cobb salad ramen with a "coconut-pineapple" broth, and I start looking for my Canadian passport. George, who has no idea what ramen is, 'cause Mike Isabella has never let him out before, is cobbling together a version of SpaghettiOs 2.0s. It has a hint of hot dog, but so does Andy, so this may be well liked. Melissa is making a "Crunchy Carbonara Ramen" which is probably already dispensed out of a coin machine in Tokyo and actually sounds pretty tasty. There is hope. Mei makes a smoked tomato miso with upcycled sushi. Sounds okay, so I stow the passport back and the "go bag."

There is no immunity but the winner gets 5K. Not bad for fifteen minutes of work/fame. Bottoms are Mei and Dougie. Tops are Gregory and George with Melissa winning this murky challenge.

They go to the little room of stewage and watch Julia Child. Then Jacques Pepin stops by and everyone gasps in amazement. I do too because if you don’t love Pepin you are not a nice person. He da bomb.

The Elimination Challenge is to come up with a dish inspired from Julia's cooking. Three hours to cook and one hour to finish on site tomorrow. They chat with Jacques for a while to learn the secrets of Julia, other than the fact that she was totally a CIA spy.

Doug is silent because of where he comes from. Texas shrugs as he says, "I grew up in East Texas and here I am meeting Jacques Pepin." Then he follows this ode to the state of Texas with, "I am from Texas so I can't pronounce things very well." C'mon Doug, your state gave us that Rick Perry character! He's fun to watch!

Doug is insistent on making a whole roasted foie gras. George is braising some veal and presenting it with some vegetables and pommes puree. There is some French going on around here. Melissa is challenging herself with shortribs. Mei is making duck a l'orange but you know it will show off some of herself. You can't spell Mei without ME. Gregory is making Coq au Vin. Tom wanders in during cooking to advise them to channel Julia and then they all try to sound like Julia. None of them will ever be known for their impersonation abilities.

We eat. It's outside. It's beautiful. The diners, or the we, are Dana Cowin, Jacques, Alex Prudhomme (related to Julia), Tom, Padma, Boston chefs Barbara Lynch, Joanne Chang, Mary Dumont, and little old me. I am hungry so don't talk much.

The food is really good overall. There were some issues like drier ribs, monotonous veal, raw foie, and maybe some flabby duck skin, but pound-for-pound they did the dishes well. Tops are Gregory and Mei, and the verdict is an interesting one. Gregory nailed a classic, but it was like he channeled Julia too much and did a textbook version, while Mei nailed a riff on a dish with her duck a l'orange. It is arbitrary who should win but Mei pulls it off and wins a just decision.

Not so arbitrary but still close is the bottom trio of Melissa, George, and Doug. Melissa erred in rib cookery. George cooked stunning veg but it was the veal that was a yawn. Alas, Doug bows out with his dish, a dish that he had never done but dreamed about. You don't just do roasted whole lobes of foie at the restaurant you work at, cause the owner chef would probably stab you if you ruined the 300 bucks in product. But this is TV money so he took a chance. The problem is that cooking whole foie is tricky. You can''t sear it too much or you will render away the beauty, and then you need to temper-roast it in a medium heat oven. Then it comes out and you rest it on a wire rack. It is pretty much served just warm. He did all of those steps, but over-seared it and then cooked it a hair hot, and not long enough, resultingin a greasy, yet raw internal. Funny thing is that the rest of the stuff on the plate was awesome. Well Doug, you were a favorite of ours and I wish you much success in Last Chance Kitchen.

And now we are four. Until next time.

For a good time, follow me on Twitter @hughacheson

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