Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Conch Artists

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

Conch Artists

Tom Colicchio breaks down the chefs' variations on this week's star ingredient -- conch.

This week’s Elimination Challenge was not an easy one. Fair enough, it’s the finale –- it shouldn’t be easy, right? I’m not referring to the chefs diving for their own conchs from the ocean floor, but cooking them well on the sandy and windy beach and finding a way to feature them for a table comprised largely of Bahamians –- who know the protein quite well –- posed a challenge. Even just getting the conchs out of their shells was difficult. While conch is available in the States, it isn’t available live, so even Richard, who had practiced cooking with the ingredient in preparation for the finale, had not had practice at removing the conch from its shell. The closest we come up in the Northeast is a whelk (looks similar, but they’re different; a whelk’s a carnivore while conches are herbivores, for one thing.)

I love conch. I typically go to the Bahamas once a year to fish, and I always ask the cab driver to stop off on the way to the hotel for conch salad. They mix the conch with peppers, onion, scotch bonnets and what they call sour orange, and let it all marinate. Sometimes some scallions, as well. The only thing that would make it better would be the addition of some olive oil, but they don’t use it. Still, it’s really delicious. I always have the obligatory conch fritters that everyone in the Bahamas makes, as well as cracked conch, in which they slice the conch very thin and grill the whole thing. It’s also quite delicious. I look forward to all three dishes when I come to the Bahamas.

So I was looking forward to a challenge in which conch was the featured protein. All in all, our chefs did a nice job… once they got the things out of their shells. Once you do, the meat can get tough on you pretty quicky, so it’s usually best to marinate conch. I hoped in this challenge to really taste the conch in each chef’s dish -– I wanted the conch to be an integral part of the dish, though we judges still had to take into consideration the whole dish when judging.Mike’s dish not only best featured the conch, it was one of the most successful dishes of the season. Gail couldn’t say enough about the savory pineapple, for good reason –- it was seasoned so well. The banana leaf lent a satisfying smokiness to the dish and gave it a flavor that was hard to put your finger on. The conch vinaigrette was absolutely delicious, and the fish inside the banana leaf was very nicely cooked. All of the components came together beautifully, and as good as each one was, the whole was even greater than the sum of its parts.  It was a terrific dish.Mike was on a high going into the challenge, having won the last one in addition to besting Michael Voltaggio in that Quickfire Challenge. Contrast his mental state with that of Richard, who spoke at length about hating all of his dishes. He called it an “artist’s thing,” this urge to smash his dishes the moment he’s completed them. I disagree. A chef could never put together a menu if s/he hated his/her dishes. I like the dishes I create to greater and larger extents, and put the ones I consider most successful onto my menus. I know that psychologically speaking, people often fluctuate between feelings of inadequacy and grandeur, counterintuitive as that might seem, but if Richard hates all of his dishes, why does he always think he should have won with a dish that he hated? Just asking…

Richard’s dish was solidly good, and that sweet potato pasta even had me fooled –- I thought at first that he’d made homemade pasta on the beach. Had Mike’s dish not been so fantastic, Richard would have won with his. Antonia didn’t feature her conch as well. And, as Tiffany herself stated, Tiffany was outcooked by the other three chefs. Her placing the cold ceviche into the bowl with what was supposed to be a warm chowder was a strange choice. Chefs have made soups where one spoonful is hot followed by another that’s cold, but that was not what Tiffany did here –- the whole dish was just lukewarm. Further, the dish was not as well seasoned and the flavors not as well developed, and the overall dish was a bit sweet in a way it should not have been.Not that Tiffany should feel bad for a moment. Tiffany is young and doesn’t have a strong resume or a lot of experience. She makes up for that by doing her style of cooking well, and she came a long way in this competition on that strength. Having made it to fourth place in the company of eighteen accomplished chefs is a reason for her to hold her head up high. She is opening a restaurant in Dallas soon. When I’m down in Dallas, I’d love to come by and eat some of her food.  It’ll be a treat to do so in her own place, as opposed to on our show, where she was comporting with and conforming to our various challenges.

There are three contestants left, with two episodes to go. It’s anyone’s game at this point.

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!