Fair Fare

Gail Simmons explains why Craig's win and immunity says a lot about the fairness of the competition.

Bravotv.com: So let’s start with the Quickfire Challenge with the gum. What do you like in gum flavors?
Gail Simmons: 
I want gum to wake me up and refresh my mouth. My favorite flavor of Extra Desserts Delights gum is Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream. It has a great balance of minty-ness and chocolatey-ness. 
I thought this was a fun challenge! We weren’t actually asking them to make gum, but it was to get them making desserts that were truly tiny, with the idea that they could be translated to a gum flavor. I have to say I think they all did an exceptional job. Their desserts were absolutely beautiful. They were beautiful little miniature desserts, even more so than a petit fours is, as these were truly full-blown desserts. Craig did really well! His flavor was thought through and very balanced. I was impressed with many of them that day, especially Carlos’ and Nelson’s as well.

Bravotv.com: Were you surprised that Craig won? Craig seemed surprised himself.
Here is why I liked that he won: besides the fact that his strawberry-lemon pancakes are a very viable flavor for a gum, it proved what people sometimes ask us, and the reason the guest judge is so important on the show -- they come in having never met these chefs before, having not spoken to them at all, and after 20 minutes, they have to choose a winner. They have no preconceived notions. They don’t know that Craig has been struggling. They didn’t know who was on the bottom of the challenge the night before. They have no idea. So it’s really proof of how fair the competition is. Every day your slate is wiped clean and it’s anyone’s game. How each chef has done in the past has no bearing on how you will do the next day. And that’s why it was so great that Craig won. Because Hugh had no preconceived notions and no idea of anyone’s skill level. He honest to goodness just liked Craig’s dish the best and chose him as our winner.

What did you think of Hugh as a judge? He’ll be joining you in Texas.
I think he’s great. He’s so much fun. We had a great time on this shoot together. And we certainly had fun in Texas together when we shot Top Chef Season 9 over the summer. I think he’s a great addition to our team. He’s adorable. He’s funny. He’s smart. He’s snarky! He definitely doesn’t pull punches. He’s direct, and I think that was good for the show. He’s a good chef. He’s a Food & Wine Best New Chef from 2002, so he’s definitely part of the Food & Wine family. And more than all of that, he’s a fellow Canadian!Bravotv.com: 
On to the Elimination Challenge, we had the Real Housewives invading Top Chef.
It was crazy and amazing. I have to say I had so much fun with this challenge! I was skeptical as the Real Housewives are not known for their love of food necessarily, and I had never met the Beverly Hills ladies before. But they were excellent judges. They took their job very seriously. They were a lot of fun to hang out with on set. They weren’t divas at all. They were game for whatever we threw at them. And I think our chefs did a phenomenal job presenting Lisa with beautiful dessert tablescapes. Lisa is a serious player in the L.A. restaurant industry. She knows her stuff.

They were basing what they did on what Ken told them were her likes, pink, Giggy, etc. What do you think maybe they dwelled on too much?
I don’t think the issue was that they dwelled on what Ken said too much, I think it’s how they chose to translate it that got some of them in trouble. They had meld what they perceived her personal style to be with their style of pastry and dessert making. While both teams did a few beautiful that day and both teams tables looked absolutely gorgeous, the final decision was really about capturing Lisa’s aesthetic and the elegance of Villa Blanca. Craig’s team’s table looked slightly too childish. It was a beautiful table for sure, but it would have been more appropriate for a 10-year-old girl’s princess birthday party. The desserts they served were sophisticated, but the presentation, which was such a big part of this challenge, was tipped a little bit in the Chris/ Amanda team direction because they really captured a more modern elegant feel with their design and their desserts. I think it was much more “adult.” Also some of their desserts were better executed.

Bravotv.com: Johnny kind of made a point to tell Craig that he would have gone home. 

GS: Yes, that was true. But again, it was a great instance of how the game is played.  And that’s what makes it fair: Anyone can win the Quickfire, and if you do, and you get immunity, you can’t go home. That’s the game. I thought it was great that Craig should have gone home, but because he had immunity (and he won that immunity fair and square) he didn’t. He was safe. He really was in over his head, as he has been from the beginning. And his lemonade was terrible, but he had immunity and that’s the way the cookie crumbles… pun intended.
Bravotv.com: Any specific dishes you want to discuss?
GS: I loved Katzie’s macaron with the pipette. It was a pretty and creative addition to their table. Amanda was a great team leader, and Chris made a spectacular showpiece. Everyone on their team seemed to play their role and contribute well. Their dessert’s were clearly delineated and they seemed really organized, even if it didn’t appear that way behind the scenes in the kitchen. I know the other team thought that Amanda’s team was behind, but it doesn’t matter to us because, just like when you’re at a restaurant and you don’t care what’s going on in the kitchen as long as your food comes to you well-cooked, tasty, delicious, and beautifully-presented, that is how we feel about our challenges. That’s what care most about -- the end result. How they got there doesn’t really make a difference to us. I don’t care if they were fighting. I don’t care if they weren’t getting along. They did a great job and they should be proud. And the Beverly Hills ladies were happy too.

Bravotv.com: Anything else you’d like to add?

GS: Afterwards in our break between the challenge and Judges’ Table, we had just eaten all this sugar, but we were all still hungry for some real food. So we brought the ‘Wives across the street from our studio, to this awesome German beer and sausage place called Wurstküche, and I took a picture! Here is the picture of Taylor and Kyle digging into their sausages with Hubert! 

We had a lot of fun with them. They were just great sports all around. 

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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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