Everybody Likes a Fried Chicken Skin

Gail extols the virtues of fried chicken skin and shares just how giddy everyone was to work with Ad-Rock.

Bravotv.com: Let’s talk about the Quickfire first. We have Jordan Kahn as guest judge. Can you tell us a little bit more about him.
Gail Simmons: Jordan is a young chef whose career is a little counter to what most chefs do. He started in the pastry kitchen -- he was Michael Mina’s pastry chef -- and he opened his own restaurant where he is in charge of everything - the savory food and the desserts. His food is very, very beautiful. Very artful. Very creative and cutting edge in its design and its flavor combinations as well as its use of ingredients. I think that has a lot to do with the fact he blurs the line between ingredients for the pastry kitchen and ingredients for the savory kitchen. He doesn’t believe that certain ingredients only belong in one kitchen or the other, and he loves to experiment. But that’s not to say his food is sweet. There are certainly more sweeter elements to his savory food than most, but he’s not using these ingredients to make everything taste like a dessert. He pushes the boundaries of how you think of different dishes. He also uses an enormous amount of fresh herbs and vegetables, fruits and greens that I’ve never seen before, and a lot of really unique, hard to find ingredients, that he incorporates in unusual ways into his food.

I ate at his restaurant Red Medicine just a few days before we shot this episode, and I was truly impressed. It’s rare to see someone doing something totally new. And the food felt really fresh, different. It made me think. This style of plating is modern and interesting. It's unlike anything else I've seen. So we thought he'd be the perfect chef to introduce our contestants to the idea of bringing savory food in desserts.

Bravotv.com: You were saying that he works with a lot of ingredients that you’ve never even heard of, and the chefs seemed sort of lost with a lot of these root vegetables. Were you surprised?
GS: I understand if they had never seen Burdock root before as it is rare to see in its raw state. But I was surprised that a lot of the chefs hadn’t seen celery root, which is something I’ve eaten my whole life. I’m not saying it’s everywhere, but I didn’t think it was that obscure. It doesn’t surprise me that pastry chefs, get into their own sort of tunnel vision in your kitchen and forget to look at the larger culinary world around them. However, the fact that Rebecca said she can’t cook for her life, and she’s a pastry chef was really weak. I know that as pastry chefs they do not sear meat all day but it shouldn’t excuse them from understanding the mediums that they’re working with in food, learning and keeping up on the techniques and ingredients of both sides of the kitchen. I think in most cases pastry chefs have a stronger grasp of cooking than savory chefs have of baking and pastry, but there’s certainly a discrepancy there. And that's what Jordan is trying to undo -- bridge that gap. 

Bravotv.com: I think people might wonder how good Chris' dish was, even though he wasn't eligible for the win.
GS: I remember that Chris’ dish tasted good, but we had to penalize him -- you can't finish plating after time is up. That’s not fair to the other contestants. He knew it, but he had forgotten. He didn’t put the chips on until the end because he didn’t want them to get soggy, but then he shouldn’t have know better than to have made those chips. It not like he was forced into incorporating them. He should have thought of that because that’s part of the challenge. The only thing we let people plate later ice cream or something that is super temperature-sensitive, which once it goes on the plate, will ruin or completely change the rest of the dish if it is not eaten immediately, but this wasn’t the case with his chips.

Bravotv.com: The winner was Sally with her mango pudding with turmeric. She’s kind of like killing it now that Craig is gone.
GS: True. It could be that she’s a little less hampered. I also remember thinking while we were shooting that for the first few episodes that I didn’t really notice Sally. She didn’t do anything that made me think she was a really strong competitor. She was on the bottom the first few challenges, but she’s now come into her own. She’s doing really well and she’s won two Quickfire challenges in a row, which means twice the immunity. Bravotv.com: Is there anything else you want to say about the Quickfire?
GS: Both Sally and Matt’s dishes were great, but Sally’s texture was better. She really thought about the play between texture and temperature and ingredients. Although it was a mango pudding, it wasn’t too sweet, and she did this great brittle on top -- all the flavors worked really well together. It didn’t feel like she was stretching at all. It felt like a very organic dish, which was the point of what we wanted them to do with Jordan there, to prove that you can use traditionally savory ingredients in delicious desserts.

Bravotv.com: Alright onto the Elimination Challenge, what was it like having Adam in the kitchen with you guys?
GS: More than for any other guest judge or celebrity or chef that we’ve ever had on the show, we were all giddy the couple days leading up to the episode knowing Adam was coming. Even more so than when we’ve had movie stars or other great musicians on the show. I guess because we felt that the Beastie Boys music, which was the inspiration for the challenge, and Ad-Rock himself just wanted to have a really good time, and it was all about just having fun and being silly. The Beastie Boys have been making outstanding, trail-blazing music for over 25 years. They’ve really changed the face of hip-hop and rap. But, in a way, they’ve always done it with a wink and a laugh, and you can hear it in their lyrics. You just know you’re going to have a good time when they’re around. And we did.

He told us that when he, MCA and Mike D are recording an album, they sit around and talk about food all the time, which is why there are so many lyrics about food in their songs. They’re all really into food. They all you love eating, love going out. They’ve travelled all over the world touring for the last 25 years, and he is a fan of Top Chef and of good food in general. It felt like that day someone just turned our kitchen upside down. Between the Quickfire challenge with Jordan and then AdRock, we really challenge and shook up our chefs. But I do think they had a lot of fun with it, even though this was the most ridiculous challenge we’ve ever done. Adam was game to do everything. He was just having such a good time.

Bravotv.com: When you saw the ingredients were you guys nervous about actually eating them?
GS: We were. I wish we could've shown our viewers the pantry more closely. Our production teammade the most amazing Beastie Boys display. They included over 100 different items of food originally mentioned in Beastie Boys songs, and it was just extraordinary. But we had no idea if the chefs were going to be able to pull off what we were asking of them. Of course, some of them did and some of them didn’t. Bravotv.com: Well let’s start with the people who didn’t. . .
GS: In a cruel but needed twist, we brought out our least favorites first. We didn't want them to get too comfortable, too used to the routine of always calling the winner out first. I really think we threw them all off a little bit, which is part of the game. But they were all thrown off equally so it was completely fair.

Rebecca again had problems and a few excuses about her falafel panna cotta. Johnny may have been the most vocal about how much garlic was in it but I completely agreed with him. I understand that Rebecca tried to recreate the flavors of falafel in her panna cotta but the dish didn’t work. That’s the risk you take. We want them to reach a little bit and to use ingredients and flavor combinations that they would never otherwise think of in their lives, nor should they. Sometimes they are able to do it very well and other times, their risk taking fails. Some of it’s luck, but some of it’s also experience and skill at understanding textures and flavors together and using them in a way that’s appropriate. Rebecca couldn’t make falafel. She claims she can't cook, so she decided to take a different approach. And the panna cotta just didn’t work out, the flavors were way too strong and not balanced at all.

Bravotv.com: I think some people might wonder why Katzie didn’t go home.
GS: Everything that Katzie made was perfectly edible. Nothing that she made tasted bad, in terms of her individual components. Her French fries were perfectly fine, but they were just French fries. Where Katzie failed is that she made these three sauces so that she could highlight the other ingredients that she was given -- the provolone and the gorgonzola and the hot butter -- and her idea was a good one. But the flavors weren't strong enough. And then as another layer, she added three seasoning powders that we also put on the French fries, but that had nothing to do with the flavors that she was given. So they really muddled the whole dish completely. And because she left it up to the guest to do themselves, you kind of put everything on and all the combinations together didn’t work so there ended up being too many different flavor combinations in one dish. It became sort of a mess with no distinct direction. Even she said it in the episode: sometimes we actually want be told how to eat a dish, so that it tastes as the chef envisions it. But because she didn’t know how she wanted it to taste herself, it just appeared as if she had no clue what she was doing. That said, individually nothing was off. Nothing was bad. Nothing was unappealing or tasted terrible when we ate it. I think she just got this idea in her and didn’t adapt it appropriately. She went too far and she couldn’t back out by that point.

Then there was Megan. Her cake was dry. It didn’t taste enough like whiskey, and she had these caramelized onions that she was given by Katzie that looked and tasted like an afterthought. Nothing on her plate tasted bad either, not at all like the way Rebecca's garlic actually made us stop in our tracks and not want to eat another bite.

And by the way, I have to say Megan’s Brass Monkey sorbet was amazing to eat and a fantastic idea. I didn’t even know what Brass Monkey was before the challenge! I only knew the Beastie Boys song about it. It’s an orange-flavored malt liquor. It was so smart of Megan to make it into a sorbet. It worked really well. It was one of the smartest things we ate all day. It was just that the rest of her dish didn’t come together.

Bravotv.com: And then we have our top. First we’ll start with Chris. Do you think he had the hardest ingredients in total?
GS: I do think Chris had the hardest ingredients, and he wasn’t on top because of that. He was on top because it also was one of the best that day, and that shows an amazing skill set. Chris had Chef Boyardee ravioli, pork and beans, and pizza – and he chose two of those ingredients himself. I have no idea why. I guess he wasn’t thinking and he got excited, then realized he had to tackle them. But he did a great job. He made a fresh sweet ravioli, a brownie that incorporated the pork and beans (you actually did get the texture of the pork and beans when you ate it, although there wasn’t quite enough of their flavor). And then he made a pizza stick as a garnish, which somehow all worked together. I swear when you ate it all together, it wasn’t abhorrent, which is pretty incredible. There was a lot of work that went in to what he did, and it showed.

Bravotv.com: And Sally's dish?
GS: Sally's was absolutely delicious. She made a prosciutto cake, which was basically a cake dough with pieces of prosciutto in it, which you tasted clearly. She also made cheddar ice cream, which had a cheesiness to it that I actually liked. And her chicken toffee sauce really made sense. She used chicken stock to make the caramel that became her sauce, which had this essence of chicken, but was mild, just slightly salty and savory, and went well with the cake. Then she had this genius idea to put a crispy piece of fried chicken skin on top as a garnish, the way somebody would normally put a cookie or tuille. Everybody likes fried chicken skin. I mean, you can’t not love fried chicken skin, right?

Bravotv.com: And finally we have our winner, Matthew, with his cheesecake and his gravy foam which you were all about.
GS:We all loved it! The thing that worked the most about Matthew’s, was that of everyone, his really felt the most like a typical dessert. It didn’t feel like he was stretching or including random ingredients just to complete the challenge. It was smart to make a cheesecake using mashed potatoes. And then he added the gravy which he used as a foam, genius! It was mild, but still flavorful and he added some sweetness to it so it didn’t taste like a turkey dinner. Finally, he made a whisky caramel with his Jack Daniels, which is also really smart. If I had been presented that dessert in another situation, say at a restaurant, I probably would have been OK with it. I mean it certainly would have been a little bit out there, but it didn’t feel like we were eating garlic panna cotta for no reason or fries with 17 toppings or onion jam that didn’t work with the rest of our food. It was subtle. You tasted everything he used, but it came together in such a way that it still felt very much like a treat.

Bravotv.com: Anything else?
GS: Adam did such an amazing job at Judges’ Table -- I thought you really got a sense of his personality; he was so funny. He didn’t try to be a food guru, he just spoke honestly. We all laughed ourselves silly. The funniest thing, the one joke he kept making, was that he wanted to try to find a judge’s costume -- the black cloak and the white wig -- and wear that to Judges’ Table, so when the contestants walked in, he would just be sitting there in a black cloak and white wig. We couldn’t get

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The Agony and the Ecstasy

Gail Simmons elaborates on the judges' agonizing final decision.


Bravotv.com: So we’re at the finale, and you introduce the three MOFs. What was the reaction in the room?
Gail Simmons: I should explain what an MOF is, because we keep calling them MOFs, but I don’t think we actually say what it stands for! MOF stands for Meilleurs Ouvriers de France. In France, it is the highest honor, the highest award given in a number of different occupations, for being the master of your craft. For a pastry chef to become an MOF, you have to do very rigorous training, and then you have to compete. Chefs train all year for it. If people want to learn more about it, there’s a film called Kings of Pastry, about Jacquy Pfeiffer’s preparation for the competition, and the incredible lengths he goes to reach this goal. In France, it really is considered the greatest height of someone’s career. 

So, we wanted to emulate the competition for our chefs, but obviously they don’t have any way to prepare for it and it was on a much smaller scale. Similar to how on Top Chef we did the Bocuse d'Or challenge, this is sort of the equivalent in pastry. We asked them to make a sugar sculpture, a bread, a plated dessert, a bon bon, and an Entremet (a layered mousse cake). We brought the three MOFs to the Top Chef: Just Desserts kitchen to assist us and to assist our finalists, and then Jacquy and others were at the final tasting, which is sort of amazing. They really are the gods of pastry in this country. Another interesting thing about MOF status is, once you’re honored with this award, you are no longer ever allowed to compete again. You cannot enter competitions, you cannot be competitive because your job is now to teach and mentor, only. That is why we didn’t have the chefs specifically assisting one contestant or specifically competing against each other. Instead, they alternated between the chefs and just gave their overall, general help and assistance any way they could. I wish there was more of a chance to explain all the things the chefs were doing in more detail because their work for this finale was really quite extraordinary. I mean you get to see a little of it but the process is so fascinating to watch. 

Then the second day of their work they were given two sous-chefs from eliminated contestants, one that got picked at random through a number system and one that they chose themselves.Bravotv.com: What was it like hearing their backstory, because you guys never really hear that until you watch the episodes later, but these pieces were supposed to be pretty personal, so they finally kind of exposed themselves?
GS: Yes, they were very personal, and actually I don’t think the way it was edited the viewers heard even close to what their full stories were, especially Chris’. They were all so moving and it really showed how personal the process or cooking and baking can be. When you create something unique and artistic, that creative process takes so much out of you emotionally and physically, and it really is such a personal expression. All three of them did a great job. 

Matthew took on an extra challenge because he’s a restaurant chef, always has been. He’s never really worked with showpieces, but he chose to do it all himself, regardless of his sous-chef. Plus, he made it out of sugar, which is a very difficult thing to do. It’s very delicate, and temperamental, and temperature-sensitive. He used very warm, bright red tones that stood out from everything else in the room, all for his wife and his daughter. I also loved his Key Lime bon bon. His bread was a focaccia. It was lovely and delicious, but in the spectrum of bread dough and bread-making, focaccia is a pretty basic dough. Although he did a very good one and certainly there is a difference between a bad and a good focaccia. It was moist, and it had a great olive oil flavor, and tasty coarse salt on it. But it was not anywhere near as complex as either of the doughs for the bread items that the other two chefs made. His entremet was very good too. It looked great and tasted great, but it was not as precise as the other two either. His flavors were excellent though, and the passion he has for pastry was literally oozing out of him. You could just see how hard he worked. It’s an amazing feat that he accomplished all that he did with such thoughtfulness and creativity. I hope he's proud of it!

Bravotv.com: His plated dessert was kind of abstract. . .
GS: His plated dessert was very abstract. It was a lovely concept. I just don’t think he was able to fully realize the idea in his head, and he wasn’t able to translate it properly to the plate. It was all for his daughter. He wanted to make it like a playground, where you jump around, go in one direction and then another, and you can skip from one taste to the next. But the idea of that hominess and childlike comfort that he kept talking about wasn’t there. Also the idea of the chocolate cookie he described wasn’t there. There were so many different components that you couldn’t figure out how they all worked together. It’s just one of those desserts that if he had more time to work out, he could probably make perfect.

I’m such a Matt fan, and I think he’s so talented. I’m a big fan of both of his restaurants. I think Matt is a really terrific pastry chef who has a huge career ahead of him.Bravotv.com: So then there’s Sally. . .
GS: The competition was so close! Sally did a fantastic job in many respects. Her entremet was magnificent. When I was watching the episode this week I thought that slice of her entremet they showed was drool-inducing: mango, chocolate, caramel… yum! Her showpiece was also beautiful -- I know that’s going to be a big issue with people, that she did not make her showpiece herself. She had Orlando do it as her sous-chef. However, she’s allowed to. That is the point. That’s why we gave them the sous-chefs. If we wanted them to make everything themselves, we wouldn’t have given them assistants. She was smart to assign people work based on their strengths and what they’re most capable of. It was her concept, and it went very well with the rest of her work and her vision. Her bonbon was well done. But in my memory, I think it was my least favorite of the three. It was very pretty, but just a little bit more ordinary compared to the other two. I’ve seen salted caramel, milk chocolate bon bons before. Her bread by far was the best. It was amazing and complex. You could see the skill that went into making it. Her plated dessert, flavor-wise was excellent. The coffee, the cream, the cashews -- those are all great in combination. The story about her mother and her sister, which you didn’t hear all of, was really inspiring, and she accomplished with it that sense of personal emotion that Johnny wanted them all to feel. But there were pieces of her dessert that were messy, and at this level, we just can’t accept that. The sphere that she made wasn’t glazed and wasn’t clean. There were a lot of layers to her dessert, so it was pretty dense and rich. Our final decision really was so close though. We agonized over it...

Bravotv.com: And there was Chris…
GS: Chris had very few flaws. Yes, a couple of pieces of his bread fell off his showpiece, but it did not detract from the immense amount of work and the stunning quality of that showpiece. It overwhelmed the room when we walked in. It was so powerful and strong, and then it had these delicate flowers on it. It really made a huge statement and told his story well, which he followed through with throughout his entire presentation, including his plated desserts. It had an industrial quality, which I loved. Reading into it, the story showed how he needed to be strong and separate his emotions so he could come to this challenge and not worry about his sick child at home. This idea of needing to be like these steel beams that he created so that he could muster the force to keep going every day he was away from his family. At least that is how I saw it. His entremet was spectacular. The textures, flavors ad layers were lovely. His bon bon was exceptional -- the shape, the flavors. His bread was good, but not as good as Sally’s. It was more interesting than Matt’s. He made a bacon butter with it, but I wish he had put that flavor into the bread itself. His plated dessert was by far my favorite of the day. It looked very simple. When I first saw it, I was surprised. I thought he would do something much more complex, much more over-the-top, modern, in presentation and style. But it tasted exactly how I hoped it would t. It had great texture. It had great flavor, and it gave me this amazing sense of satisfaction. It was warm and sweet, but not too sweet. It was balanced. Bravotv.com: And now, we have a new Top Chef.
GS: I was actually with Yigit this weekend, and I asked him if he was ready to give back his tiara, and he said, “No.” Hopefully we can make Chris an equally beautiful tiara. Chris is an outstanding pastry chef. From the very first day, he worked exceedingly hard to get to where he is. I’m so grateful that I had could work with all three of them. All three of them are so talented, but that day, judging from the three presentations that we saw and ate, Chris’ deserved to be in first place. 

Then, right after we shot this finale, I took off my cocktail dress, put on a pair of cowboy boots, and headed to Texas with Tom and Padma! And that’s where I’ll see you all next week! Thanks for a truly wonderful season.


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