Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Pass the Conch

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

Pass the Conch

The chefs have a Survivor moment while catching their own protein and cooking on the beach.

Hello my little conch shells! Was I right about this week's episode or what?! It was impossible! But before we get to the ridiculously hard Elimination Challenge, let's dish on the Quickfire Challenge with guest judge of NBC's America's Next Great Restaurant, Lorena Garcia. Yay corporate synergy! The show is not only on NBC but is produced by the fabulous Magical Elves and features our Masters host, Curtis Stone (who I had the pleasure of meeting the other week, and he's a tall drink of water.) The chefs divide into male chefs vs. females and have to create identical plates for their guests. This challenge is all about consistency. While the women seemingly take the "easy way out," the men make pasta. The women win. And the men were bitter. I have to say I think the women were just smart. Just becuase something is simpler to make doesn't make it any less flavorful, and I was actually surprised at Mike and Richard for making something that could have gone so horribly wrong, since they're usually so strategic. Their bitterness felt more like "Damn, we shoulda done that." Are we sure they shouldn't  have made equal portions of crow and not pasta? Oh! Zing!

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs schlepped to an island, close to Gilligan's in fact, and frantically chose their proteins from crates. But, they were told they'd be making a conch-centric dish. I will say that the only time I've ever eaten conch was at the Brooklyn Diner, and it was in fritter form, and they were delicious. Sooo, where's the chefs' conch?! Oh, it's still in the water. So we watch these poor, poor chefs "fish" for their own conch. I felt so bad for them, and as I've never snorkled either, I'd probably have been the one flailing around like Richard. (Although I'm an excellent swimmer.) Fortunately, though, they are all successful to varying degrees. Then the actual cooking begins. Cooking on a beach ain't easy -- and if I may say so, neither is eating. I always end up with sand in my turkey wraps! Let's break down each dish, shall we?

Mike Isabella wins with his banana-wrapped grouper with braised pineapple and warm conch vinaigrette. Unlike Elia's banana-wrapped debacle from Episode 1, Mike's fish was successful. I agree with Gail that the braised pineapple did sound good, but I will say that I have seen it before. You've actually all seen it before, albeit in sweet form. Yigit made braised pineapple in his own on Top Chef: Just Desserts finale, which meanwhile I should make because I'm just re-remembering how awesome it sounded. Mike is just killing it in the Bahamas. We'll see if he can ride the momentum.Richard made, what he considered, a boring dish. Thank G-d for Antonia who gave him some perspective saying that "sweet potato pasta" is anything but ordinary. Can we all just agree that Richard is "Piggie" in this week's little Lord of the Flies scenario? All he was missing was the glasses. Richard's "pasta" was apparently so well-executed that Gail had to tell Tom it wasn't really pasta! Although Richard was worried the dish was inappropriate for the venue, I thought it was fairly genius. Like Gail said, he took the ingredients and inspiration of the Bahamian location but married it with his Long Island roots. I actually forgot that Richard is from Long Island -- he's actually from a nearby town.

Antonia produced a solid dish -- the only criticism being that her dish was the same thing they always see from her -- four ingredients, simple food. I think Antonia's defense, turning around what was a valid point about playing it safe into a positive about her signature style of cooking, was sort of brilliant. I've always loved Antonia, but I think this season really showcases just what a smart competitor she is.

And finally we have Tiffany, who went home. Judging from many of your comments over the season, I don't think anyone's too sad to see her leave. Cold chowder -- that was meant to be hot -- doesn't sound like something I'd want to eat. And unfortunately it sent her packing. Tiffany's an absolute doll in real life, so I wish her all the success in the world. And, as she said, she has a lot to be proud of.

Next week's episode is also insane and difficult, but in a less physical way.

I've been eating out a lot the past couple weeks, and went to Dos Caminos Third Avenue twice in a week! Season 4's Lisa Fernandes heads up the kitchen there, and is doing great. I eat there fairly often anyway, but having her in the kitchen is an added bonus. My one tip would be to go there for brunch. I don't know if most people think to go there for brunch, but it's fantastic. Specifically, I recommend the Smoked Salmon and Avocado Benedict. It's served on cornbread, a delicious twist on the classic preparation. I'm so in a seafood state of mind with this Spring-like weather rolling through the city. It's getting so warm that I'm already thinking about my August birthday, and whether or not I should make my friends shlep to Maryland to eat at VOLT. What do you guys think?!

Anywaaay, as always tell me where you've been eating, and until next week, Have a Nosh!

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!