Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Hostess with the Mostest

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

Hostess with the Mostest

Gail Simmons describes the chefs' new environment in Dallas. How was Dallas different from Austin? 
Gail Simmons: So here we are in Dallas, and it has a totally different feel and vibe, especially this episode because we were in a very “schmancy” part of town. Dallas just felt like a much bigger, shinier city. 

Many exciting things happened in Dallas when we were there. The first thing was that we were staying at the W Hotel across from the American Airlines Center. Well, we had a night off and a bunch of people from the crew and I -- about 10 of us -- went to see a Rihanna concert there. This was her infamous show this past summer when the stage caught on fire and we were all evacuated from the arena, in the middle of her show! There were fireworks as part of one song and the stage literally caught on fire, No one was injured, but it was really pretty amazing. So that is my first impression of Dallas.

While I was in Dallas, I had some really great meals, and went to an amazing gay cowboy bar one night with like 40 members of the crew where we learned the two-step. 

Anyway, on to the episode: I got on a plane to Dallas instead of driving like the contestants did, but the one thing I remember everybody telling me after that Quickfire was that the field they were in was not supposed to look like that. It was not supposed to be a field of mud. They had scouted the location and made all the preparations and the morning they got there, someone, presumably the farmer, had plowed and tilled the land by accident and turned it into an entire field of mud. Yuck! After a difficult Quickfire, we’re onto the Elimination!
GS: Yes! On to Highland Park Village. Another interesting note is that we got ready for that whole day in another house. There was a fourth house, a friend of one of the guests let us use her family’s home. I think it was her brother-in-law’s house that she uses sometimes, which was right in the neighborhood, to get ready. This house was incredible; it may not have been as big as the others but it had the most beautiful modern art – Damian Hearst, Koons, all the big guys. As I got a closer look at the house we realized there were all these pictures of George Michael with another man and a few really good-looking dogs. And then we found out that it was his and his partner’s house! I guess his partner is related to one of the girls that was on the show, and they’re from Dallas and this is their house. Let me tell you, George Michael has aged well. He was looking good. I’ve never heard of a progressive dinner party before. 
GS: It seemed like a fun idea. I had never attended one until that challenge though. I imagine you need a staff if you’re having one. If you’re at someone’s house having appetizers and your house is where the main course is supposed to be, it’s hard for you to be eating in one place and cooking in another. Which is why we had the chefs do it for us!

I think the funniest moment in the whole episode was when I jokingly asked, “Oh did you have like 700 people at your wedding?” and one of the ladies said, “Actually 1,200.” And she wasn’t joking! “Who knows 1,200 people?”
GS: Right?!! I will say they were the sweetest people. We had a really nice day with them. Kim Whitman is the bomb. She was awesome. I loved her. She is smart as whip, and I really enjoyed talking with So let’s start with the appetizer house, which actually had the winning dish which was Paul’s, and Sarah’s, which was in the top as well. 
GS: Yes, Paul’s was the winner because it had so much texture and he used ingredients that the diners didn’t know they liked, but when they tasted it they couldn’t help but fall in love with it. It was the right size for an appetizer. It was appropriate. What Paul said at the beginning I think was so right on: “Listen to the woman of the house.” You are catering an event for a dinner party, and especially a dinner party for a woman like Kim Whitman, who is very particular, entertains a lot, and is considered somewhat of an expert on the subject. Do what she says -- not too little and not too much. The guys will go along with it. And he was right in this instance. He did something that the ladies enjoyed because it had great vegetables, it was light, but it had some depth. The grilled prosciutto was delicious. It was the right size. It was easy to eat. It was absolutely delicious.

I loved Sarah’s artichokes too, and I really liked Lindsay’s salad, but we thought Paul’s just embodied what we asked them to do the most and was done with the most… finesse.

So then we went to the main course house. And the main courses were mostly disappointing. Beverly’s was pretty good. Nyesha wasn’t bad either, but a lot of them were just way too big, way too bulky and clumsy. If there was just one main course or two that would have been one thing, but no one scaled his/her dish to be appropriate for the venue and the challenge. Not a single one of them scaled back the size of their portion or the scope of what they were doing to accommodate for the fact that we were eating four or five main courses. Of course you want it to feel like a main course, but, especially Ty-Lor’s and Chuy’s, were mammoth. I mean they were bigger than massive. Bigger than Texas-sized portions even. And because they were so big, they felt sloppy and disproportionate to everything else. That was our first issue. Our other issue with Chuy’s was ultimately, exactly what Tom said, the dish just didn’t work. If you have to overcook the salmon to make the cheese work, then something in the basic concept of the dish should be reexamined. Salmon should not be cooked that way. It was totally dry, so it was really unappealing. And the goat cheese! I mean, goat cheese and salmon? When you think of cured, cold smoked salmon it could work. Maybe that’s what he was going for. But it was not successful with hot salmon at all. Not only did it not work from a flavor perspective and a texture perspective, but the goat cheese took on this mealy, sort of curdy consistency, which made it even more unappealing. It actually didn’t feel like the rest of the food I’d eaten from Chuy to date. So in the end, we felt that Chuy had to go. Chuy is awesome. He’s like a little ball of fire. He’s super high energy and really skilled. He is really young, and I know he’ll have a long, excellent career, but he made some bad decisions that night. 

And just to touch on the desserts because well, that’s my sweet spot: I liked Dakota’s and I like Grayson’s. Edward’s was just mediocre. But Chris’ was exactly what we all said – overdone, no consistency, and no underlying thought to it. It felt like he just threw everything onto that plate without thinking it through. You don’t need 17 flavors. They don’t go together. There’s no dialogue. It kind of reminded me two dishes from the past. Ilan’s “gluttonous” dish from Season 2, and Stefan’s finale dessert.
GS: Stefan’s dessert in the finale was better than this. It wasn’t good enough to win, but it was better than this. 
And just one note about the other Chris and his appetizer cigar: I want to say that I do applaud him for taking a risk and trying to give us something new and innovative, but he got stuck in the trap that a lot of chefs get into when they are trying to push a modernist concept on a dish. There needs to be a purpose for it. I always say if it doesn’t make it taste better, if it doesn’t make it more efficient in the cooking process, or make it look more beautiful, why are you doing it? Do it not just for the sake of doing it. I think Chris got caught up in the idea of it and lost track of the challenge because of it. It did not fit any of the criteria that we asked for, and it was not appealing or enjoyable to eat at all. But I get his inspiration and appreciated that he challenged himself to do something different. He just was listening to what was in his own head instead of to our clients. 


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!