Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Miss Patti

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

Miss Patti

The chefs leave the drama in Dallas behind to cook for those that have inspired them in Austin.

(Sorry, just had to get a random Gilmore Girls reference in the title -- even if the spelling is different.)

Hello, tweethearts! Thank you all for your comments on last week's recap -- both complimentary and not-so-complimentary. I asked for arguments, and I got them! I don't want to dwell on the last episode because, well, I don't think any good will become of that, so let's move on to Austin, shall we?

This week's Quickfire was pretty awesome. Since I obviously work in Bravo's digital department and work closely with our social media peeps (I tweet from @BravoTopChef often.) I was psyched to see it used so innovatively in the challenge. Like Tom said, we always get a ton of ideas for challenges, and this was a chance to use them. Seeing Tom on his iPhone calling out tweets made me giggle. The first selected instruction was to use bacon. Yes! Love bacon. My editors actually bought me bacon floss for Chanukah (which I think might defeat the purpose of using floss, but whatever.) Next, the chefs are instructed to make a hash, and finally hand one of their competitors a random ingredient. This cracked me up. "You take sriracha!" "No, you take sriracha!" if it's one thing i've learned over nine seasons, it's that chefs love sriracha. I think the chefs handled their ngredients pretty well. Ultimately, my man Paul Qui came out on top. His use of seemingly unrelated ingredients showed a real confidence -- he did anything but play it safe.

Let's talk about Paul Qui for a moment. We learn on the car ride over to Austin that he used to sell weed. Whaaa?!?! Although maybe that explains his calm demeanor -- har har -- I honestly would never have guessed that in a million years, but I'm glad he stopped doing that and turned his energy into something productive. We also learn that Heather has a crush on John Besh (who doesn't?), and that Chris needs to go to the gym.After the Twitter Quickfire Challenge, the chefs are told they can relax and enjoy a drink at the hotel bar. Riiight. After a few moments of merriment, the chefs enjoy a serenade by none other than Ms. Patti LaBelle! Padma mentions that Ms. Patti is a cookbook author. Her cookbooks are actually for light living as Ms. Patti lives with Diabetes -- something she didn't bring up this time and wasn't part of the challenge. Although Patti LaBelle is obviously most well-known for her legendary singing career, she will always be Mrs. Wayne to me, Dwayne Wayne's mother on A Differe World. Calling Kadeem Hardison "chipmunk." Making prune cobbler. Mmm such a classic show. YouTube "Patti LaBelle, A Different World" -- you won't be sorry.

Anyway! This challenge has nothing to do with prune cobbler -- it has to do with those that inspired our chefs to cook. After hearing the chefs' stories about their grandmothers, parents, etc. and seeing adorable photos of them all growing up, they get to cooking. The kitchen was fairly drama-free this time around (Thank God.) The only mention of last week's Beverly/Heather debacle is really Beverly talking about karma, and how it will come back to bite Heather in the tush. Methinks it's starting to be true, since Heather knows her meat is bad, and says she's in rescue mode. Unfortuantely, in the end, she can't save it, and goes home. Karma's a bitch apparently. Heather's off to Last Chance Kitchen to compete against Nyesha, who is determined to beat Heather at her own game.

Sarah pulls out a win with an amaaaazing pork sausage stuffed cabbage. Not gonna lie though -- this dish could've ended disastrously, but it didn't! Way to go, Sarah!! Also, special mention to Edward Lee for taking what he considered a chance on a vegetarian dish. That's another thing we get tweeted about a lot, so I'm happy you all have another winning vegetarian recipe to add to your repertoire (sorry, Vegans!)

What did you think of this week's challenge? Do you believe in karma? Top Chef is off for the holidays, but let me know and let me know what you've been eating and what you're preparing for the holidays. Until 2012, Have a Nosh and Happy New Year!


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!