Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Inevitable BBQ Challenge

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

The Inevitable BBQ Challenge

Tom Colicchio explains that the errors made had little to do with the chefs' inexperience with BBQ.


You knew we’d be doing a BBQ challenge.  \We're in Texas. So, yeah, you were right – it was only a matter of time.

Don’t be surprised that six of the nine contestants wound up on the bottom of this one. This was a very, very difficult challenge. How difficult?  Let me recount the ways (sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning): The mere fact that the chefs were asked to do three different meats and two different sides essentially overnight was in and of itself a lot to contend with. Factor in that the chefs were working outdoors on unstable tables of the wrong height at which to comfortably work. Factor in, too, that the chefs were cooking over an open pit and had to keep the fire going the whole night, watching that the temperature and the smoke stayed at just the right levels.  My restaurants send a team to Memphis for the world championship of BBQ, and I can tell you that open pits have hot spots to be accounted for, particularly when one is cooking with BBQ sauces with sugar in them, which can easily burn. The chefs couldn’t just pop the food into an oven, set the temperature and a timer and come back after catching a nap. Now also factor in that it was at least 95 degrees AT NIGHT and that there was a heat index of 115 degrees during the day, making it at least 135 or 140 degrees near the open pits and making this a challenge of endurance in addition to one of skill. This was a tough, tough challenge.Not one of our chefs traditionally cooks this way, so it’s not surprising that they all had a hard time, between the environment, the challenges, and being tired. The stress got to a lot of them. I am surprised that they didn’t make greater use of the smoker, perhaps because one rack fell early on and it may have spooked them. But you can get a great deal of smoke over the pit, too, so that doesn’t explain why so many of the proteins didn’t have more smoke to them.

All of that said, though, many of the errors that were made were really simply errors of cooking not attributable to inexperience with BBQ. Ed’s decision to start slicing the meat early was a gaffe that yielded steamed-up cafeteria food. By my way of thinking, a long line of people waiting for good food is better than a short line of people waiting for bad food. It wouldn’t have killed the people to wait for their food; they may even have appreciated it more. The biggest error of the challenge, however, was not Ed’s steamed food or Sarah’s less-than-crispy chicken skin or Beverly’s playing it safe and tame. The excessive saltiness of the brisket and ribs was by far the biggest problem, and Chris C. was responsible for that. On a brighter note, though, the Blue Teams’ food was excellent. That chicken Paul made was phenomenal, and the other meats and sides were fantastic, too, and it wasn’t just us judges who thought so. It was pretty much unanimous among the crowd of dyed-in-the-wool Texans that attended that day that the Blue Team’s food was best. It just goes to show you that having a point of view and carrying it through is important. Many places and cultures have their own variations of BBQ. Texas is all about brisket. In Kentucky, the BBQ is more vinegar-based. BBQ can be found in South America, in South Africa, in India, Japan, Korea, Russia… you name it. BBQ requires a dry rub -- usually salt, some sugar and seasonings. Paul and his team decided to use flavors that he really knows -- curry, coriander, mustard -- figuring that the flavors were probably going to taste good… and it really worked. Furthermore, you’ll note that the team worked exceptionally well together. There was very little tension among them. They were OK with one person taking the lead, and no one was snotty about it. Lindsay even said, essentially, “Paul’s been doing really well, and I’m comfortable working with his vision for this.” And, in fact, the team did support Paul’s vision and did so in great spirits, whereas there was a lot of backstabbing and second-guessing going on among the members of the other teams. They were tired and stressed out, which is inevitably when things start to break down.

You may be asking why we had the first chief technology officer at Microsoft as a judge on Top Chef. Simply put, he’s an expert at BBQ and a great choice for this challenge. I’ve known Nathan Myhrvold for years… since he was at Microsoft, in fact. He has a very, very bright and inquisitive mind and is a real Renaissance man, excelling in all he does. He started college at age 14 (not a typo), has worked on quantum theories of gravity as a postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge under Stephen Hawking, and his areas of expertise range from paleontology to technology to barbeque to applying scientific principles to cooking, to geoengineering. Geoengineering? He’s figuring out how to reverse global warming. Really. Oh, and he’s also figuring out how the creation of clouds at will can ameliorate drought and hunger. Meanwhile, his barbeque took the top prize att he world championship of barbeque in Memphis. He brought his trademark enthusiasm and intelligence to our challenge this week, and it was an honor and a pleasure to have him with us.



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!