Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Plating Personal History

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

Plating Personal History

Tom Colicchio reflects on the chefs' personal and emotional cooking.

If you’ve ever been to the Statue of Liberty, you surely remember the letters in the exhibit hall, the hundreds of letters from first-generation Americans telling their stories of coming to the United States, of seeing their first glimpses of Lady Liberty following long and arduous voyages, and of moving through Ellis Island, being inspected for medical issues, being questioned, and, finally, being granted entry into the United States.

Nearly everyone in the U.S. has a story, whether of his or her own journey or of that of a forbearer, and whether their ancestors came of their own volition or, as with those forcibly brought as slaves, they did not pick this land but their descendants have made it their own. Ellis Island saw 20 million immigrants pass through its portals between the years of 1892 and 1954, when it serves as a federal immigration processing center (before that, it was a base for oyster fishing and then the site of a fort). Did you know that prior to Ellis Island’s tenure as an immigration station, immigration matters were handled by the individual states? Neither did I –- my sister-in-law just told me that. Corruption was rampant, so the feds stepped in. Not that they were nicer, though. They would hand out bananas at Ellis Island to the wan and starving immigrants right after their grueling voyages across the Atlantic and would snicker as the immigrants, who had never seen the tropical fruit before and didn’t know what to do with it, would bite right into the astringent peel. Nice. The first immigrant processed at Ellis Island was fifteen-year old Irish native Annie Moore.  She and her two brothers were finally joining their parents, who hadmade the journey two years prior. And the rest, they say, is history. Personal history.

Which is why I really liked this challenge. It was a chance for our chefs to show how very personal cooking can be. Grounding the challenge at Ellis Island felt organic. We wanted the chefs to cook food from their pasts, and this was a very good way of connecting them to those pasts, to their people and their own customs, while also linking the challenge to place: Regardless of the dispute over whether Ellis Island belongs to New York or New Jersey, it is an iconic part of New York’s own story and history and, thus, a great challenge for a season happening in New York.This challenge had a very emotional component to it, and as you saw, our chefs embraced this and allowed themselves to “go there.” I think each one of them was teary at some point in this episode. Partly, this is because they were so tired by this point in the competition that their seeing a beloved family member released the waterworks. But there’s more to it than that. They were asked to tap into their childhood and create food memories by creating food, and they did so brilliantly. Picture Mike, who puts forth such bravado and swagger, and who jokes his way through challenge after challenge. It’s incredible to realize that this Italian-American never ever cooked Italian food professionally because it reminded him too much of his beloved grandmother and he didn’t want to constantly be reminded of how much he missed her. Cooking the food now was meaningful to him, and he embraced the opportunity to feel pain about missing her and to cook his dish in homage to her. Here, in action, is Carla’s theory about being able to “taste the Love in the dish.” I believe this is why Mike nailed the challenge and did his grandmother’s memory such justice. This is deep, deep stuff.

Given the level of cooking, coupled with the great emotional work they each did, how could we send any one of the chefs home? Normally, something in some dish somewhere stands out to all the judges as the flaw that breaks the camel’s back, that gets someone sent home. Here, while we mentioned that one element was a tad salty if eaten on its own, it wasn’t intended to be eaten on its own…and it worked within the larger dish. Etc. We were trying to seize on something to send someone home, but we just didn’t have enough grounds to penalize any one of the chefs for what they delivered that night. Everyone did an outstanding job and it was such a great evening that it was just unacceptable to send anyone home.

So it’ll be a longer finale… but it’ll be great. Stay tuned.

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!