Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Vim and Vigor

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

Fin, Found, Floundering

What Danny Meyer Taught Gail Simmons

'Top Chef' Goes to Hog Heaven

Gris Gris Boucherie Ya Ya

Brian and Travis' Dud Spuds

Vim and Vigor

Gail Simmons explains why she was almost happy to see Jennifer Carroll react the way she did.

While shooting our seventh season of Top Chef in D.C. last spring, Padma, Tom and I were given the unique opportunity to attend the White House Correspondents Dinner, which happens to take place in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton Hotel, where our show was headquartered. After dinner, Tom and I attended a party at the French Consulate. As I was entering, I felt a tap on my shoulder and, turning around, came face to face with teen heartthrob and musician Joe Jonas (known to me up to this point only from my two young nieces’ screams of delight while watching Camp Rock 2: Final Jam). We immediately launched into a heated discussion about food, our favorite restaurants, and the politics of the Top Chef Judges’ Table. I was impressed by his knowledge of and passion for the subject, as well as flattered by how much he said he enjoys watching our show. So it was no surprise that the Top Chef cast and crew welcomed him to our All-Stars set just a few months later. Unfortunately, I was not able to be at the Night at the Museum Quickfire Challenge that day, but was thrilled afterward seeing his enthusiasm come through in the episode.

Tiffani Faison won the Quickfire, in which our chefs were asked to prepare midnight snacks for about 150 tweens (a.k.a. the quintessential Joe Jonas audience) at the American Museum of Natural History, as part of a giant sleepover under the museum’s famed Blue Whale. Exhausted and beaten down by the onslaught of miniature sugar-addicts, our chefs received their next Elimination Challenge: sleep at the museum and cook an early-morning breakfast for the children and their chaperones. In the shadow of looming dinosaur skeletons, Tom explained that the two teams must execute a meal inspired exclusively by the diet of either the carnivorous T-Rex (meat, dairy, eggs) or the Brontosaurus, a herbivore (fruits, vegetables, grains). Tiffani, the Quickfire winner, got to pick the diet her team would use. Knowing that T-Rex was at the top of the food chain, she chose the carnivore option. Spike, captain of the opposing team, was left with the humbler vegetarian diet.

After what must have seemed like a mere few minutes’ sleep in the Hall of American Mammals, our chefs discovered exactly what ingredients were available in each team’s pantry. As much as T-Rex may have ruled the animal kingdom over 65 million years ago, Tiffani and her team actually found their breakfast choices extremely limited, with no herbs and few other flavorings.Their menu definitely had repetitive elements, but when they presented it we were happy to see that they managed to serve a relatively varied, savory breakfast, as heavy as it may have been.

Spike’s team jumped head-first into the diversity of the produce they were given, providing us with a lighter buffet that was certainly more colorful and imaginative. That said, even though it may have had many more components, our young diners were skeptical, to say the least. The line for the carnivore buffet was twice as long as everyone scrambled for what they liked best. At least at first impression, meat and cheese were more familiar, desirable and alluring, proving only that perhaps our human instincts are still quite primitive. Unlike the Quickfire, in which we allowed the kids to decide a winner, we judged this challenge ourselves. And here is where I feel the need to explain a few points in our decision-making process. I hate to think we need to justify who we chose to send home, but I have a hunch this dismissal will incite more than a quiet outcry from our dedicated viewers.  

First among our guidelines, the food must be appropriate to the audience eating it. But, as cheftestants have discovered, our top priorities are always what tastes best, and what is made with the most efficient skill and precision. We surveyed our diners that day, as we always do, to gain insight into what worked for them and what didn’t. Often our opinions differ greatly from those of our guests, but after tasting all the options, this was not the case. It was absolutely unanimous as to the dish everyone liked least (personal preferences, like a child’s refusal to try tomatoes or aversion to fish for example, aside).

Second, remember this: The outcome of any previous challenges or seasons, as well as what we think the chef may be capable of, can never come into play. We must judge on what is in front of us and what we tasted that day only. Otherwise, we are basing our decisions on their previous accomplishments and not on the results of the challenge at hand. This defeats the purpose of having new challenges at all and diminishes any incentive for the chefs to cook in the moment.

We all agreed the dishes from Team Brontosaurus were stronger, more creative, and all-around more delicious than their competitors’. Fabio and Stephen’s Gnocchi was pillowy, moist, and light; their spinach and mushroom garnish was flavorful too. Carla and Spike’s Fruit & Vegetable Gazpacho was bright, fresh and balanced, while Dale T. and Mike’s Corn Grits were creamy and satisfying, with just the right amount of stewed peppers and salsa verde on top. The silky smooth Banana Parfait with Seasonal Fruit & Tandoori Maple, by Marcel, Angelo and Richard, was crafted beautifully, despite its simple appearance. It had rich, layered flavor and so many perfectly placed pieces of both raw and carefully roasted fruit that it almost looked too pretty to eat. Almost. For all of that, we decided the Banana Parfait was the challenge winner!

In contrast, Team T-Rex’s preparations had several noticeable flaws. Tre’s Shrimp & Apple Smoked Bacon Sauce, served over Casey’s delicate pan-roasted salmon, was intensely over-reduced and salty. Antonia and Tiffany D’s Mini Frittatas were inconsistent in doneness—some runny and undercooked, others tough and rubbery. Most troubling was Jennifer’s Braised Bacon with Hard Boiled Eggs—something I would not want to eat again. It was texturally unappetizing, with no contrast in mouthfeel between the fatty bacon and the scant crumbles of hardboiled egg. Unfortunately, the bacon was also incredibly strong in flavor, to the point of overpowering the weak jus and egg garnish around it. The kids did not like the dish. And as much as we tried, neither did we. After a tense exchange at Judges’ Table, Jennifer was asked to pack her knives and go.

I assure everyone who feels this was an injustice that it was not a decision we took lightly, nor one that could have gone any other way. By all accounts, hers was the least successful dish, or even component of a dish, in the challenge—and that is how the game must be played. For what it is worth, all of our diners were in agreement with us. No amount of yelling or posturing would have changed that, or made her dish any better. When such clear faults undermine dishes on the bottom of the pack, Judges’ Table can only serve to help us understand how that chef made the dish, what they could have done better and whether their intentions matched our taste experience. In this case, they simply didn’t. I must add that we all were strangely pleased to see someone defend their food with as much vim and vigor as Jennifer did, as angry and disrespectful as she may have been! No one, in my memory, has ever had the gumption to do so and it was actually refreshing to know she was not willing to leave without a fight. I just wish that fight could have taken place in the kitchen a few hours earlier. It might have made her food taste a little better.

I know Jenn was devastated. But I also know this dish will by no means define her, moving forward. She is a gifted and committed chef, a fierce competitor and a courageous leader in her field. Regrettably, even the brightest stars have a bad day or, in this case, present an ill-conceived dish once in a while. It keeps your ego in check, humbles you in the face of obstacles and allows you to come back next time, stronger than ever. I wish her luck, although she doesn’t need it. She already is a great chef and I hope she knows how much we all value her.

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

So she's going to take more time shopping at Whole Foods -- and ask for the best of Melissa's basket and Adam's shrimp.

Bravotv.com: Let's dive right in. How did it feel to go shopping?
Gail Simmons: Shopping at Whole Foods was fantastic and hilarious. It made us realize that you need to be strategic, which was the point of the exercise for us. They gave us 30 minutes, but we took a little longer. We didn't let the producers push us around! We’re not contestants and we weren't going to stand for it! So, you realize how little time you have, and how big Whole Foods can be. You spend a lot of time running around.

 

My strategy with my pantry was to get a lot of fresh, delicious food that you can cook in lots of different ways. A good balance of proteins, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, fresh herbs, grains. But I didn't want to get too much. Everyone has different strategies; Padma got a ton of different ingredients. Tom's pantry was very pared down. Richard and I were somewhere in the middle.

 

Bravotv.com: Let's start by talking about the two dishes that came from your pantry?
GS: Katsuji and Melissa. They used the same protein, but their dishes were very different. They both used shrimp which one of the proteins that I bought. I bought something else too, something that I know has given people trouble in the past (which is why I specifically chose it) -- chicken wings. And I really wanted people to use them. Instead, they chose the easy way out because shrimps cook quickly.

Melissa's used a lot of fresh vegetables, which I was hoping she would: dill, mint, artichoke. I was so excited about all of it. I think it was beautifully done, a lovely salad with that little shrimp on top with spiced yogurt. But it was just a salad with a quick-cooking seafood. It was so similar to what she had done in Restaurant Wars when she made a scallop with grapefruit salad. I believe she could have done so much more. Melissa keeps saying she wanted to focus on her knife skills, and, of course, your knife skills have to be precise. But I need to see more than just knife skills. I want to see cooking skills, I want to see roasting skills, braising skills. I want to see her hands get a little dirtier and her dishes not be as superficial. It was a light, lovely dish. I was happy to eat it for lunch. But when you're competing against six other really talented chefs, we all want to see a little more depth. Katsuji on the other hand went big. He used his ingredients in a really powerful way. The potato salad, the poached shrimp had bold seasoning and I loved how they went together. It was a great dish. It may not have been the best of the day, but I was actually really happy with what he chose to make.

 

Bravotv.com: So for the rest, let's talk about who was on top and who was on bottom.

GS: At the top there was Gregory who really was going for Padma's heart there. He did great with his coconut milk curry. A really balanced, powerful dish. But it's something we’ve seen from Gregory many times in the past. In fact, in the first challenge he made a similar spicy curry dish with chicken. As much as we thought it was a delicious bowl of food, it was so typical of what we expect from Gregory. George's food was really exciting for us. This was my first time tasting his food and meeting him on Top Chef. He did a great job. The kebab was moist, seasoned really well, and the lentils were beautiful too. My only small issue with the dish is I couldn't understand why he separated the lentils from the kebab in two separate dishes. Why not put lentils on the plate and the kebab right on top, with a dollop of the yogurt? It seemed a little bit disconnected to me. But all-in-all, a really strong dish. Doug had the winning dish of the night. He used Richard's crazy pantry in a way that I thought was smart, clear-cut, and creative. The chorizo and mussels and peppers, just how Tom said, go together well, as do the cauliflower and the garlic. There was sweetness, there was spice, it was light and fresh but had a soulful, rustic flavor we all loved. You could see use of technique. On the bottom were dishes that tried to stretch and didn’t come through. Mei did a great job overall, except her lamb was undercooked. You want lamb medium, medium rare, but the center of that meat was raw to the point where the texture was chewy and almost cold. It would have been better if she had been able to cook it five minutes longer. We talked about Melissa's mistakes already, which also landed her on the bottom. I totally applaud Adam for trying to make a quick-flash marinade. He's been in the middle for so long and he thought "I gotta go big or I gotta go home." He tried to go big and unfortunately, he went home because of that technique. I get the idea of what he was doing, I don't doubt that it could've been successful if it were perhaps done in a different setting, with a little more control. But the flash marinade of his shrimp did not cook it as needed. It was still grey, it was still raw, and the texture of raw shrimp is not appealing. It's squeaky, it's squishy, and it becomes sort of mushy. We wanted it firm and cooked through. It's not like fish that you can eat sashimi-style Unfortunately Adam's hard work, his big risk sent him home.

I will miss him. I think he's an incredibly articulate, clever chef. I think he has an extraordinary career ahead of him. I'm excited to see him back in New York City. I can't wait to eat his food again. Also I want to say of this entire episode that was it was thrilling to see our superfans in the kitchen. We've never let people come into the kitchen in that way before, even though people ask us all the time. It brought so much good energy to have basically a live audience with us for the day. Everyone was so psyched. It was amazing to be around people who really love the show, to let them eat food from our talented chefs. SO much fun!