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

Nobody's Perfect

Gail discusses the best of this week's dishes, and why Orlando was ultimately sent home.

Bravtov.com: We skip a Quickfire and go straight to Elimination this week!
Gail Simmons: We threw a little twist at our chefs. For this Elimination Challenge, I'm sure that they picked countries they thought they were going to have to make pastries from, but we had them instead create a dessert that looks like a savory course from that country -- a savory food in disguise. It totally threw them off. I mean, French/Italian/Spanish seem doable. But, I will admit when Sally chose Cuba I tried to get her to change. I asked her three times "Are you sure?," but she wasn't budging. So we let her keep it and then I think she got worried when she realized what she was being asked to do, and had no idea how to accomplish it using Cuban food.

As much as it seems like a challenge that's out of the blue, it actually was a great way for all of us to separate the four of them stylistically and give them all a final push before the finale to see what they are capable of. It made them think in a whole new way. Not that they aren't capable of doing it; it just requires them to step out of the box a bit, and I think they all really did a good job overall. We were impressed by their creations and it was a great challenge. I was very skeptical when I first heard about it -- I didn't think it made any sense, but once we sat down at that table and the dishes just started coming out, I realized it was a really, really telling exercise for our chefs.

Bravotv.com: Were you thinking at all that Carlos actually would have been good at this challenge because it’s sort of what he did with his hamburger and fries?
GS: We all thought of Carlos' hamburger and fries for this challenge, and I'm sure he would have been great at it. However, remember: his hamburger and fries looked great, but they didn't taste great, which was the problem. But, yes, we all miss Carlos, and Im sure he would have excelled.

Bravotv.com: What was it like sitting at the table with all these savory chefs? Did they bring a different perspective?
GS : Yes, the savory chefs bring a different perspective than pastry chefs do. But keep in mind Hubert is a savory chef, and I always work with him, I mostly work with savory chefs on Top Chef -- the pastry world is just one component of my TV life. But it was great to hear savory chefs talking about pastry because they rarely do. It was a nice change. I've known a lot of them for a long time. I know Michael Cimarusti from Top Chef Masters, Sang Yoon is a good friend, I'm crazy about Suzanne, and it was so great to work with Cat Cora and John. They were just a great crew because they all cook very different styles of food, John is more Latin, and Sang has a burger place but he also has an Asian place, Michael Cimarusti's restaurant is fine dining seafood, Suzanne is California with European influences. It was a great discussion because everyone brought their own taste and their own ideas to the table and everyone had very particular ideas about dessert as well.

Bravotv.com: I think some people might have a problem with the fact that Chris didn't make his own puff pastry.
GS : It's tricky. First of all, we did reprimand him a bit, but it's true that we've sent people home before when they have not made their own puff pastry. In those cases it was because the dessert that they made was a terrible dessert because of it. We thought about this a lot, but there was so much other technical skill that went into Chris' dessert beyond the puff pastry. The puff pastry was one of so many beautiful components, not by any stretch the most complicated piece of the dish. So, we could see past the wrapper. There were three or four other layers that he constructed inside that puff pastry. We showed how he did it, how he baked the pastry around those ring molds, then cut the molds and rebuilt the layers inside. I mean, it's extraordinary that he was able to do that. The truth is that making puff pastry takes a lot of time and he just didn't have it. Even if he had done it right from the beginning, he wouldn't have had time to do everything he needed to do. Would we have liked better if he had used his own puff pastry? Yes, possibly if he had used his own puff pastry he would have won. But, the dessert itself was so fantastic in every other respect, the layering of the 'meat' as chocolate mousse, the different grades of chocolate, the raspberry jam which gave it acidity, the crunchy, flaky, buttery dough, and then this almond cream he used as mashed potatoes with a caramel sauce that looked exactly like gravy, it just embraced the challenge so wholeheartedly that we could look past that one layer.

Bravotv.com: Matthew, with his manicotti was kind of in the middle.
GS : Matthew actually did very well. We were very impressed with Matthew's when it came out. It's just when we started tasting everyone else's, there were others that were better. I actually really loved Matthew's dessert. Visually he really went for it, and I thought was very creative in his ability to construct the manicotti, make the sauce, and the basil gelée was the perfect addition. It was just a bit monochromatic. I mean, there was more than one color -- but texturally it was all very soft: there was a soft mousse, soft cake, soft jam, soft gelée. It kind of just mushed and melted in your mouth. There needed to be one more element to give it a little complexity.

Bravotv.com: That tomato would have been interesting.
Gail: Definitely! The tomato would have been interesting, or if he had done some sort of textural component, a crunch, within the mousse, if he had maybe put some sort of Rice Krispie or chocolate nib in the mousse, it would have helped a lot. It was very large -- you had three bites and you got the picture and you couldn’t eat any more. But, I was impressed with how visually stunning it was.

Sally's was so fun. I wonder if people will be upset or think that because she got it together at the last minute, she shouldn't have won. But the truth is, it doesn't matter to us. We don't know when we're sitting around that table what she went through to get there and what her process was, as long as it tastes great, looks great, and embraces the challenge. So, Sally was able at the last minute to really pull it out. I mean, she made us a full Cuban sandwich experience! She didn't stop at just the sandwich -- she made beautiful plantain chips that were sprinkled with sugar and lime, so they were also sweet as opposed to usually when they're sprinkled with salt. She also made this beautiful Asian "potato salad" that was really a fruit salad -- it was so fresh and bright and crunchy. And then there was her actual sandwich; she made her own baguette, she simulated pickles, she simulated ham, pork, mustard, I mean all of it! And the layering of flavors actually worked really well together. Her one drawback was that mousse she used for the pork at the center, because it was so soft and there was so much of it, when you bit into it, it sort of oozed out the sides, and made is a bit messy. But, again, that didn't detract from the experience. And everyone's dish had a drawback of somekind, so really this is the perfect judging conundrum: we had four people left and we really had to weigh everyone carefully against each other, because they were all good, but NO ONE was perfect. So how do you make the most informed decision? That was our challenge. I think Sally showed us that she was able to be completely creative and give us a fantastic experience based on what we asked her to do.

Bravotv.com: what went wrong with Orlando's dish?
Gail: Orlando had a great outlook. He had this idea that was really smart and beautiful -- paella, which has rice that can translate to dessert easily, sweet rice exists in a lot of cultures, not only Spanish. But he went about it in the wrong way. The first issue was that he didn't cook his rice properly. The rice tasted alright with the saffron, but he cooked it in a rice cooker, it was overcooked, mushy and broken, which was disappointing. His other major issue was that he cooked all his other components separately, so it all ate totally separately. It wasn't cohesive. There was no melding and mixing, it felt like he had put down a bowl of rice and placed three pieces of beet on top, three pieces of plum, and a little tuille to make a mussel. It felt disjointed and not like a fully developed idea. His flavors were great -- plum, beets, vanilla, saffron, that all worked. The tuille that he used looked really great, but when we picked it up it also sort of fell apart because it had been sitting in the warm rice. I bet if he did it again he would do it a lot differently. Perhaps if I had eaten it alone I might have enjoyed it more, but when we sat and ate it with the other three that were so spectacular, it did not measure up comparatively.

And then there were three! Our finale is next, which is so intense and amazing! I’m so excited for everyone to see it. It’s different than any finale we’ve done before on Top Chef. Period.