Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Cruel and Unusual

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

Cruel and Unusual

Gail Simmons comments on the amuse bouche challenge twist! For this week's Quickfire we have Wolfgang Puck. How was it working with him?
Gail Simmons: How hilarious was he? He's just awesome. He's so enthusiastic and fun, and he knows so much about food. He's the perfect chef for this challenge, because he has such a legacy in the food world. You could argue that Wolfgang Puck was the very first celebrity chef. They each have to pick a classic Quickfire, and Antonia felt like Mike was sticking it to her especially, did you agree with that?
GS: Yes, I did get that. Although I would argue that they all had their pros and cons, it wasn't like there was a good one that was super easy. Especially when the second twist came in. Antonia had to use canned food and work as one person with Carla, Mike had to use one pot and no utensils, and Richard had hot dogs and could only use one hand. It was ridiculous. I think they all had their work cut out for them, but they all did a good job. There was one point though when they showed a shot of Richard's food that looked really unappetizing. I was nervous! Mike actually won again.
GS: I know! Come on, Mike, it's getting rude already! So they all go into the Elimination Challenge, and they're presented with three great chefs – Wolfgang Puck, Michelle, and Morimoto – and they're cooking them their last supper. What did you think of this concept?
GS: Well, I loved the concept. We've done it before with Jacques Pepin and Lydia Bastianich. I think it's really fun. It's great insight into the mind of a chef, and inevitably all of them go back to something nostalgic. They like the comfort and security. I think it's very humanizing, and it forces our chefs to think in a different way. But of course you can't just make any old childhood dish, you have to make it different and special, because you're cooking for these great chefs. Melanie Dunea, who was on the episode with us and is a very dear friend of mine, wrote the book My Last Supper, which is very inspiring. She's in the middle of shooting the second book now, and every time I look at it I get really excited. It makes me think about my favorite foods and nostalgia for food, but it also makes me think about what all of the greatest chefs in the world would eat if they had one meal left. What would your last meal be?
GS: People have asked me this before, but I never really know.  It would involved mashed potatoes though. And probably chocolate ice First we have Richard who gets Wolfgang Puck, and he has to make a goulash, spaetzle, and strudel. I thought this was one of the most difficult because strudel is very hard to make.
GS: Strudel is very hard to make. In fact we did an episode of Top Chef Just Desserts where they had to make it, and it took hours even though they were pastry chefs, and they couldn't get it right, stretching the dough and rolling it with the apples. It's very hard to do, and the dough needs to be so thin. But Richard seemed to do a really great job, although he didn’t use traditional strudel dough. It was a lighter, flakier dough. But that's fine. He took a lot of artistic license. They don't have recipes, and this is not food that he makes all the time. He certainly braises meat, but spaetzle and goulash and apple strudel is certainly not something Richard is known for. He did a great job of incorporating the classic flavors that would satisfy Wolfgang's nostalgic yearnings, but at the same time made it his own. I think that really embodied the spirit of this challenge. Richard did exactly what we hoped all the chefs would do. The other two tried to some extent, but their dishes were not as fully realized as Richard's. Richard's flavors were that of a pure goulash –- paprika, beef, sour cream, spaetzle – all of these flavors that really go together well for a reason and are indicative of Austria. That was delicious. But he put his twist on it. He did a dehydrated sour cream, and he cooked the goulash in a pressure cooker. The strudel had this dehydrated tarragon cream, which was similar to the dehydrated sour cream, it was crumbly and dry, but when you ate it with the apple strudel and it melted in your mouth, it became really creamy, and had lovely texture and flavor. The tarragon I thought was really inspired and fresh. It was a modern element that elevated the strudel itself. The apples were cooked as they should have been – brown and caramelized and soft and juicy. It was a successful, smart way to approach the challenge. So it was obvious that he was moving on.
GS: Yes, it was. He did the best without question. Then we have Mike and Antonia. At first they kind of tied. We had Mike's fried chicken, and Michelle said that she gave him a lot of creative license with this.
GS: Yes, and he chose to take it, which was smart too. He knew he couldn't do biscuits, although I have to tell you biscuits are not that hard to make even if you haven't done them before. But certainly it was smart when you don't have a recipe to veer off and channel her Latina roots with the egg yolk empanada. Then there was that play on the chicken and the egg. There was a pea puree with it and a mustard gravy which also was sort of different, certainly not traditional or Southern, but really tasty. He used whole mustard seeds. This was the second time mustard has come into play in the Bahamas, and I did say two weeks ago to remember the mustard. Mustard seeds were in a sauce Richard did in the first challenge in the Bahamas. The thing about mustard that's great is it adds a sour acidic note that kind of cuts the fat of the egg yoke and the fried chicken and brightens up the dish. The idea for Mike's dish was smart, but unfortunately it wasn't executed perfectly. Because he chose to sous-vide the chicken first and not fry it the old fashioned way, the skin slid right off and didn't adhere very well. Mine was a little soggy. There were two pieces, and the under piece was a little soggy, which is the last thing you want with fried chicken. You want that crispy, salty, crunchy skin. I don't know why he chose to sous-vide. Why do you need to? I'm sure some chef can give me an answer as to why it's great. But in my opinion if it ain't broke, don't fix it. It's not like it takes that long – cleaning, battering, frying, that's it. You fry it on each side for six or eight minutes and you're done. Did you think Mike had the easiest dish? Even Tom seemed to think so.
GS: Well in theory yes, but it depends on what you do with it. It was American, so it's definitely something that most people are familiar with. I would be surprised to find a top chef in this country who hasn't had fried chicken at some point in their life. It was certainly the most familiar. I don't think it was the easiest, because clearly it wasn't perfect. Boy, do I wish Carla Hall was around for this challenge. She would have nailed that fried chicken.

And then there was Antonia. She had a tough challenge because she had to appease a great sushi chef with sushi. That's what he cooks for a living, and every element that he asked for were things that he makes in his restaurant. It was definitely far out of Antonia's comfort zone and Japanese cuisine, because it's so simple, really needs to be precise. It is a subtle cuisine, a very delicate type of food. Morimoto explained that his mother would sort the rice grain by grain, making sure they were all uniform, and would all cook together correctly. She had a big challenge for sure. She did some of it well; and some of it not so well. Her rice ended up coming out pretty well all things considered, and that was impressive. Some of the pickled items were beautiful, there were pickled mushrooms, pickled eggplant. There was a pickled Asian pear that was really nice. I'd never had that before and I thought it was a playful piece. Some things were strong and overpowering though. There were two flaws to her dish in my opinion: Her miso soup was not just salty, but to me had a distinctly off flavor. Not to say it was bad, but it was heavy handed in all of the seasonings. It was strong, it wasn't balanced, it just wasn't a great miso soup. And her tuna sashimi – she went overboard with it. Sashimi should be subtle, delicate. If you're going to put things with it, there needs to be balance, because sashimi is raw fish, unadorned. Nothing else. If you're going to add seasonings, you don't want to lose the fish, you want it to be fresh, clean, and simple. I don’t know why she mucked it up so much. It's not like her, she's usually good at stepping back when she needs to stop. For some reason she got ahead of herself. So then Mike and Antonia had to come up with an amuse bouche.
GS: It was so cruel. Not only were we making them do this when they thought they were done and could relax, but it was the moment that really mattered the most. They had to dig deep to find every ounce of energy inside and impress us. It was a challenging moment: Give us one bite to save your life. And you liked Mike's better.
GS: Yes, but it was really hard to choose. They both had good and bad qualities. Antonia did a piece of grouper with a very strong vegetable curry underneath, and it was good, but it was very powerful. The coconut lobster broth with curry, yam, dill and apple was very good, and flavorful, but there was a part of me that thought it could have been more focused. It didn’t need so many components. It overwhelmed the fish. Grouper is a pretty sturdy fish, it's meaty and it can stand up to a significant amount of spice. But I think it got a little lost. Keep in mind, we're talking about miniscule details. It was a good dish, and I would be happy to eat it again if I were served it. But if I had to choose which one to eat I again, I would go with Mike's. They were both good, and that was the only way we could choose. We were split down the middle. It came down to Wolfgang, honestly. Mike's dish with steak tartare, potato, lobster tail tempura, and chimichurri sauce was interesting because it had a lot of textures and temperatures. Cool, raw beef tartare with hot lobster tail and the spicy potatoes, which mimicked the texture of the beef. And then there were the two sauces, for me it was the two sauces, which brought it together. I didn't like the olive caramel at first, it was too sweet and kind of cloying. On it's own it didn't make sense. The beef tartare, and the savoriness of the olives, and the caramel implies that it's reduced down like you would onions to bring out those natural sugars making it sort of like a jam, which is really what it was. It was sweet, and it was sticky, and I didn't understand it when I first tasted it in relation to the rest of the dish. I thought it would be too strong. I thought it would be strange with all the textures. But when I took a bite of the potatoes, beef, and lobster with it, it totally worked. It balanced against them and enhanced their flavors. It felt right. And then the chimmichurri, which is a Latin American sauce that has a lot of garlic and parsley and chili in it, was a really good counterpoint. It added a burst of herbaceous freshness. And it was excellent. I don’t think either dish was perfect, there was a piece of Mike's that was totally bland. But when I took one bite I thought it was a smarter, more interesting bite of food. Last but not least, mazel tov on the James Beard nomination!
GS: Woo-hoo! I'm psyched. I'm actually hosting the James Beard Media/Journalism Awards this year, so I hope I get to accept one too!

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!