Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

My Pepperoni Sauce Moment

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

My Pepperoni Sauce Moment

Gail Simmons shares her finale highlights and lowlights. Finale! We start with Sarah and Paul selecting their sous-chefs. Were you surprised that no one selected Marco?
Gail Simmons: I thought it was great that they put him in the mix. I’m disappointed that no one got Marco because he is such a massive talent and would have been such an asset. But what was unusual about the way they did it was that they kind of put the chefs in our shoes for a little. They had to only judge based on what was in front of them; it didn’t matter if they knew people’s backgrounds, who they were, what they did before, it was just all on this dish and it gives people a chance. You don’t necessary know who you’re choosing based on one course. It doesn’t matter if you know they’re a great chef, and if it’s not great or you don’t like it at that moment, you make a very different decision. So, I thought it was really smart and there are so many factors that go into it -- all these chefs are talented. Were you surprised that Sarah selected Tyler because she thought that Heather made that dish?
GS: You can’t make that s--t up. Does she really have that dish in her restaurant? That’s so weird.
GS: It was a little weird, but you know there aren’t that many brand new flavor combinations. It’s possible. I felt badly for her because I know that freaked her out, but Tyler could be great actually and I think in the end he really did pull through for her. He’s young, we could tell, and he’s got more confidence than experience right now. This challenge, where all you want to do is win -- you aren’t there to mentor at that moment. So we go to their restaurants. You started at Paul’s. What was your first reaction when you got to Qi? Tom really liked the simplicity of the menu.
GS: I’m with Tom, Mark McEwen, Cat Cora and, Marco. Overall, I was excited for the menu because I’m always excited by Paul’s food. And I knew this was sort of his to lose. He had done so well over the course of the season -- I think he reached $45-50,000 in wins alone and that’s before he actually won the season. Obviously, whatever he does you’re excited to sample. There were a couple of questions I had on the menu. I thought it was an unusual menu and I wasn’t quite sure while reading it how it was going to go. The fact that he didn’t have any meat, the fact that he had two egg courses -- first the chawanmushi and then the congee -- was interesting, and they could be great or they could go wrong. I was a little nervous for him but also excited to see what he had in mind. Because you know that he did it for a reason, you just have to put yourself in his So your group’s chawanmushi was perfect, and the other group’s was not. 
GS: For both Paul and Sarah, there was one course where the two groups experienced very differently and that made it difficult to judge but also really interesting for the dialogue between us. Paul’s chawanmushi was perfect for us and trampled for Padma’s team. Then again, Sarah’s veal cheek dish did not go over well for Padma’s team and Sarah was smart enough to fix it for our team. Whether or not it was successful is another story altogether. But we had two experiences -- the dish had changed and evolved as the night went along. But what is kind of interesting about doing it this way, as opposed to how we used to do the finale where we ate everything at the same time, is that it’s much more like it is in a real restaurant. Next Paul had his grilled sea bass with the dashi.
GS: I thought this was the best dish that Paul made. Every single one of us, every chef and judge was blown away because it was perfect. It was balanced -- there were pickled radishes, the mushrooms, the crispy skin, the whole package. That broth. Every element was thoughtful, was delicious, was tasty, and just enjoyable. Then we have the congee where you thought maybe it should have been a meat course.
GS: It’s not that I needed it to be a meat. I got over that when I understood the feeling that he was going for. Obviously it had an Asian influence, and he didn’t need to put a big steak on the plate, and that he wanted to focus all on fresh seafood. Looking at that in the end, my question became: he really gave us two egg dishes, and I thought that was a strange choice. The chawanmushi, that smooth custard and then the scrambled egg with the congee, both with fish, which just was a little bit odd. Granted the congee was more rich, so you experienced it very differently, but it was my least favorite course on Paul’s menu. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t good, and I would still eat it again. Hugh apologizes in his blog for cutting you off at Judges’ Table.
GS: Really?! I actually thought that was great because I’m often asked if we ever disagree and why don’t they show more of it or how the conversation goes. I’m glad they kept that in because it shows we all have different opinions. For dessert, Paul served the coconut ice cream and it had this spicy element with the Thai chili foam.
GS: There was a little bit of an issue because the other team had a little bit overcooked puffed rice, and they didn’t like it as much as we did. And then the four of us at our table thought it was a stroke of genius. This to me was the perfect Asian dessert because it encompassed everything that a great dish should have: it had sweetness, salty, bitter, sour, spicy. Every bite had a crunch and I adored it. It was so fresh and light. Thank God we had Paul’s meal first because Sarah’s meal was a lot heavier, in a good way, but I’m glad the tables were not reversed. Did you find it amusing at all that it took a second for Barbara Lynch to kind of step back and not be the head chef?
GS: It’s totally normal, but I think in the end it ended well. I loved that that Sarah had to deal with Tyler and that sort of set of circumstances in her kitchen and Paul had to deal with the opposite set of circumstances. Paul had a way more experienced kitchen whereas Sarah had to sort of babysit Tyler. On the other end, Paul, in contrast, had to deal with coming to a real ground with a chef who owns multiple restaurants and has been cooking for probably ten years longer than he has. That was another big lesson I think. On to Monte Verde. So this was a heavier meal overall. Starting with the spot prawns and coconut over the pasta.
GS: It was a tartare. She chopped up spot prawns raw and treated them with the coconut and the chili. I thought this was Sarah’s masterpiece. I’ve never seen this before, a raw tartare you fold it into your pasta. I was incredibly impressed. That hit home and it really was a killer dish, one that I think about all the time, I crave. I’m going to Chicago next week, and I really hope it’s on Sarah’s menu. It was just an inspired creation. Her pasta was perfect, as it always is, the spot prawns -- you can’t get anything more fresh and local than that. The spices were so cool. Was this your pepperoni sauce moment?
GS: This was a pepperoni sauce moment! Next she did the rye-crusted steelhead trout with the beets that were undercooked/under-pickled.
GS: This was Sarah’s least interesting course, not that it wasn’t good -- it was very nice, the rye-crusted trout was beautifully-cooked -- it was just not interesting. It didn’t have the same inspiration that the other courses she made did. The fish was lovely, the beets were raw. It was seasoned well it, but it just didn’t excite me the same way that her first course did. Were you guys surprised at all to see her bring in other influences besides Italian?
GS: Yes, as I said on the show I really think she took more risk in that way because as she told us when she was explaining her dishes and her menu concept, that not only did she want to show us her Italian and German roots and what she loved to cook, she also wanted to show us how much she learned over the course of the season and give a nod to the flavors that she’s been introduced to. So she really took a risk. She brought in that dashi, which was really a nod to Paul. Which I thought was generous and courageous of her. That said, as much as I applaud her for doing it, and as much as I thought it was a very interesting course, it was the least delicious course that she made. I didn’t love the flavor. I thought the dashi was an interesting thing to do and I respected the reasons she did it, but I personally didn’t think it worked. I was the odd man out. I didn’t like the dashi -- it had a brininess that to me didn’t fit well. I don’t really want a fishy flavor with my meat. I think it was better for us than it was for Padma’s team. This dish, although it was her riskiest , boldest dish, I think it was the least successful, for a number of reasons. Everyone seemed to love her dessert.
GS: Yes, her dessert was fantastic. The roasted white chocolate was super-cool, beautiful hazelnut cake, delicious flavors, very similar flavors actually to the dish she cooked in the Whistler challenge. That final dish that she made with the rabbit with cherries and the hazelnuts. It was a very similar flavor profile if you can imagine rabbit and hazelnut cake. It sounds weird but there were a lot of similar flavors and elements there. It was spectacular, I was very happy. I would be happy if I ever got to eat that How long were you deliberating?
GS: We were there until almost 6 o’clock in the morning. It was a really long one, it was seven or eight hours, as it should be in the finale. We wanted to take our time and we really were split, we had some frustrating moments -- and not because we disagreed and were angry and arguing but because we all were proud and excited by both meals. We didn’t want to have to make this decision. But that’s our job, good problem to have. So Paul won.
GS: In the end, we chose Paul because overall in his menu we just thought the tiny details he managed were a little better and the dishes flowed a little more, and by a hair, by a measly hair, we thought his meal was a little more complete, a little more mature. That said, Sarah is a stupendous talent and I know it was hard for her because she put everything, and I mean everything, into this competition. And she deserves an enormous amount of praise and celebration and lots of success. 


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!