Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

OK, So Jamie’s Gone: NOW What are You Mad at Me For?

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

OK, So Jamie’s Gone: NOW What are You Mad at Me For?

Tom Colicchio reveals that he's been asking for a fishing challenge for years.

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows anything about me that fishing is one of my grand passions. I’ve been campaigning the producers of Top Chef for a fishing challenge for ages, and I was so excited to finally get one this season, in Montauk, no less, where I love to fish. I can’t tell you how lucky we got that day. It was a perfect day to fish, as perfect as it gets. You must understand that when we set up a shooting schedule for the season, that’s it –- it’s set and unmovable. If the weather had been nasty and uncooperative, or had there been one or more of the various factors such as the phase of the moon that adversely affect whether the fish will eat, the challenge would have failed the chefs.

We lucked out. As I said, the conditions were perfect, the chefs caught a variety of fish, and they caught a lot of them. As for Dale’s fish, I don’t think the editors quite realized what a big deal that catch was. That fish weighed 37 pounds. It was a trophy fish –- the catch of a lifetime! When folks have a good day on a boat, the captain justifiably considers the catches his/her catches, too, and believe me when I tell you that folks throughout the area heard about that fish –- the captain of Dale’s boat spread word about it!

Kerry Heffernan was the perfect guest judge for this particular challenge. My friend of 20-plus years and my fishing partner, Kerry probably knows more about fish than just about any chef out there. He’s very, very knowledgeable about the various species, about fish conservation, and, of course, about their preparation. It was a treat to have him judge this episode.

As soon as we were through introducing the challenge and the chefs had gone out on their two boats, Kerry and I headed out to a different area to fly fish for false albacore, which you don’t eat –- you throw them back unharmed. And periodically we would head over to the chefs’ boats to see how they were doing. Some of the footage of them was shot from a crew on our boat.When I’m fishing for food, though, I am sure only to keep what can be used. One of the reasons I wanted a fishing challenge is that when you catch and then take the life of what you eat to feed yourself, you have a very different respect for it than you might have had previously. You realize that something shouldn’t die and then go to waste. You also realize that conservation is so important. Back when I was fishing with my grandfather in the '70s and '80s, striped bass such as the ones caught by our chefs were in such decline. Ironically, it was the rise in PCBs in the Hudson that helped bring them back here. General Electric was dumping PCBs in the Hudson to the point where the level of PCBs in stripers was too high for them to be eaten. Robert Kennedy, Jr. was very active in bringing about the reduction of PCBs in the Hudson by prosecuting corporate polluters.   The striped bass continued to proliferate all the while they weren’t commercially viable, though, and their numbers came back. Meanwhile, regulations were put in place to further protect them.  In New York State below the George Washington Bridge, you’re prohibited from keeping anything under 28 inches long. So we just don’t keep the smaller ones. I personally will keep one striper, knowing that I will keep some for myself and my family and will give the rest to others.

I thought the challenge was great and that the chefs overall did a very good job. Did you notice the chefs’ enthusiasm about the farmer’s market? They were so excited to be buying produce that had just been picked that morning. This is Chef Geekdom on display –- this is what jazzes us. Angelo was on the mark when he said that the market’s offerings were dictating what dish to create. Once you’re an accomplished cook, this is how you cook. Chefs don’t work from recipes; they’re just cooking. It’s not about the recipe –- it’s about the produce, about what’s in season. The yield will speak to you, and if you know what to do with it, a great dish will emerge.

Part of knowing what to do with your options is knowing what you’re cooking for. This was a beach challenge, with the very freshest of fish and produce. The dishes need not have been overly complicated, as Richard, Marcel, and Fabio’s was. The dish was overly complex, to its own detriment. With fish that fresh, you want to highlight the fish.Jamie professed to want to do that, but when you’re cooking with minimal amounts of ingredients, everything has to be really good. The food must be seasoned perfectly –- you can’t hide behind anything, can’t mask anything with a saucy sauce. The fish was pristine; it must then have been properly fileted, cooked, and seasoned. Jamie’s was just bland; it was waterlogged. The cucumber water didn’t do anything for the fish. She needed to add some sharp acid, and to brighten it up with some herbs. The fish wanted it, but she didn’t do it.

Tiffani’s dish just disappointed. It went too far in the other direction: Far from bland, it was far too fishy because she left in the bloodline. I tried to point out her mistake to her during my walkthrough, asking specifically, “You’re leaving that in there?” but it went right over her head. This is probably why most people don’t like bluefish –- most places that serve it probably mistakenly leave in the bloodline. I’m surprised that Tiffani is gone so soon –- I thought she would have gone a lot farther in this competition. I did think her comments in her exit interview were very gracious and showed real growth, and I know she will continue to do very well as a chef as she goes forward.

Contrast with Richard, Marcel, and Fabio’s overly complex dish with Antonia’s Po' Boy. It was my favorite dish of the evening. It was just what you’d expect from a great fried fish sandwich, with beautifully fileted and prepared fish and a good amount of acid and relish. Once again, a chef in this competition has proved that if you give us a great rendition of a simple dish, it will resonate with us. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just good. As Richard, Marcel, and Fabio showed, fancy but less than good doesn’t fly. It wouldn’t have, even had we not been on the beach, seeking beach-appropriate food.Dale’s taco was conceived in the spirit of the circumstances, and, like Antonia’s Po' Boy, was beautifully executed. But Carla’s clever take on New York’s smoked fish and a bagel edged out Dale’s taco. Bluefish has enough fat in it to carry the smoke flavor –- smoking that fish was a smart way to go, and then Carla took a smart idea and elevated it to witty… and her perfect execution cinched the win.

For more about Top Chef and other topics, follow me on Twitter:  tom_colicchio.

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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

 



Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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. . .

Bravotv.com:  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!