Bravotv.com: How excited were you to hear about the Willy Wonka challenge?
Gail Simmons: It was sort of extraordinary. Willy Wonka is a seminal childhood movie. I don't think there's anyone who can watch it and not get swept up in the beauty, the music, the story, the Oompa-Loompas, and those hilariously adorable kids! And don’t forget the genius of Gene Wilder, and of course all that chocolate. It was this amazing world based on Roald Dahl's classic book, and it's one of the few examples when a movie really captures the spirit and the beauty of the story in the book. It was done so well all those years ago that it still holds up watching it again today. Having the chance to meet the original cast 40 years later was pretty amazing. Obviously the movie meant a lot to me growing up, but it meant it even more to our pastry chefs. For many of them it had a big impact on why they became pastry chefs in the first place.
Bravotv.com: Were you surprised none of the chefs realized that they were sitting next to these people?
GS: I just don't think it would have ever occurred to them. It was so out of context. They walked into a random movie theater, the room was dark while the movie was playing, so it's not as if they were staring at them in the face. And they're 40 years older! Of course you can see the children in them when you know to look, but they're adults now, and 40 years is a lot of time.
Bravotv.com: For the challenge, the chefs had to create this world of “pure imagination,” and it was Chris' idea that they split into two teams -- the creative team and the production team. Do you think that was a good strategy?
GS: I don't think it was a bad strategy. They had so much to do. The amount of production that needed to happen was almost unfathomable. It wasn't just making little treats that go on plates; they were building and constructing the physical space. They were building fountains and displays and contraptions that allowed them to hang desserts on trees and on walls. It was such an enormous amount of work. They needed to divide and conquer in some way, and this was as good as any way I think. Also they all needed to make their own individual desserts and take responsibility for something in terms of the final products, which played into their strategy for the challenge as well.
Bravotv.com: A lot of the chefs thought that Chris and his team promised to do all of these things, but did not hold up their end of the bargain. Is that how it looked to you?
GS: It's hard to say. Being there only for the end result, we didn't know who was responsible for what in terms of construction, and that was a risk they took. I just can't see how they could have done it otherwise. If it had been every man for himself, they would have never had it done in time and it would not have been organized. They needed a production team in the room and a production team in the kitchen. The problem then was that when something wasn't finished for one specific person's dessert, even if it wasn't their fault and it was supposed to have been done by the production team, we didn't know that. All we knew was that it wasn't completed. Part of it is about communication more than anything else. Using the example of Melissa: yes, it was the production team that was responsible for creating the tree, which was the base for her doughnuts to rest on, but she should have been communicating with them all along about how she wanted it. She was the one who chose to do the doughnuts in this way and it was her responsibility. If she envisioned it, she should have made sure it looked how she wanted, but by the time she realized the piping was unfinished, it was too late. When Johnny saw the exposed pipes during his walkthrough, he noticed immediately that more people took doughnuts off of the stem, the uglier it was going to be as it exposed unfinished plastic. In truth, we were willing to forgive some construction flaws, in the name of great desserts, so perhaps some of them got too caught up in the construction. I could have probably found it in my heart to forgive that really ugly piece of PVC pipe if Melissa's doughnuts were delicious, because I was more concerned with how the desserts tasted and how the finished desserts looked than the method they were delivered in. But neither was done well.
On the flip side, Katzie created this beehive, which was one of my favorite things in the room that day, even though it sort of fell apart construction-wise. She had constructed a hive with spun sugar around it from which hung a bag full of dripping honey. The bag didn't drip very easily, and it sort of fell out while we were using it, but it didn't matter much because the idea was so imaginative and so beautifully presented. And, when we did get the honey on our cake pieces, was just fantastic! It really translated well even if the construction was not perfect.
Bravotv.com: Katzie also made those carrot cakes in the carrot patch.
GS: That was genius! Hers were really two of the most imaginative elements in the room, they really contributed a lot. I love that neither of them were from the original movie, but that she took that same spirit and made her desserts completely interactive. There was a little garden made of chocolate wafer cookies where you pulled up your carrot cakes. Each was dipped in chocolate so it didn't get soggy and was protected in the “soil”. Inside the chocolate was that classic carrot cake that everyone loves and is such a childhood favorite. It was executed so wonderfully, was super fun to eat, and just worked well. It really looked just like a garden!
Bravotv.com: We already talked about Melissa a little bit, but where did she fall short?
GS: Melissa made wonderful whoopie pies that day, but those doughnuts… I mean she just wasn't thinking. First of all, she chose to make a cake-based doughnut which is heavier and often more dense than a yeast-based doughnut. She knew they were going to be sitting out during the entire time of service. With this type of doughnut you really want to eat them hot and fresh, so you're taking a risk when you let them sit out for three or four hours. But forgetting all that, the look of those doughnuts was terrible! Why did she paint them green? It was just food coloring, it had no flavor, and it wasn't even glazed well. They were so messy. If you're going to glaze me a doughnut, fully glaze me a doughnut. It was upsetting because I know that she can do better, and she knew it too. She made a really poor decision. Her doughnuts felt like an afterthought. Again a lot of this could have been forgiven if they had tasted good OR if they had looked beautiful, but they didn’t.
Bravotv.com: And then Craig also went home this week.
GS: Oh poor, sweet Craig! He finally fell on his own sword. He had been in over his head from the start. I mean he is a talented young pastry chef, he has great ideas, and he has a great spirit, but he needs practice. He was never in the same realm as everyone else, which is unfortunate. Craig would never ever have gotten those gummy bears accomplished at all if it weren't for Sally. And even when he did, they didn't come out well. I don't think watching the show you could really tell just how difficult they were to eat. They were so soft and grainy and mushy. They just fell apart when you picked them up, because of the ratio of too much sugar to stabilizer. You want the form firm and you want it to have a chewiness to it. I know he was making pate de fruits, which should be slightly softer, but he needed to get out of his own head and just make it work. It was still going to be elevated from the original gummy bears because he was using passion fruit and mango and all these great flavors. But it was texturally totally off, and it seemed like the only thing he did all day was make 18 gummy bears, which didn't work out, while everyone else worked on so much more. He couldn't take on the same amount of work as everyone else, so it was his time to go.
Bravotv.com: How close was Sally to going home?
GS: It's interesting, Sally was pretty close to going home, I have to say. Her dessert didn't taste very good. Her financier was fine enough, but the execution wasn't great. However, the skill was there to do it. And we know that she did so much else that day to contribute in the production of everything, so certainly her flaws were not as grave as the others.
Bravotv.com: Megan did a lot to help also, and Carlos spoke up for her. Were you guys surprised he did that?
GS: I wasn't. I think it's just a testament to Megan and Carlos, and I was proud that they stuck up for each other, because we wouldn't have known all she did otherwise, and that's the point of Judges' Table. Most of the time we don't care what goes on behind the scenes, but sometimes there is so much work being done that really does play into the end result. Although the end result is what we care most about, if Megan's contribution was so integral to some of the most successful desserts, then that has a lot to do with what she did that day as well and how we judge her. I liked what Megan made. The bourbon pops were great, if a bit inappropriate for children. Although to be fair, I'm not sure if we told them there'd be children there originally so it wasn’t her fault. Her creamsicle curd was great, and the idea was lovely, but there wasn't enough lavender in her shortbread unfortunately. Her work had flaws, but again, nothing as grave as Craig and Melissa’s. The discrepancy was clear between what the two of them did wrong that day and everyone else.
The whole episode was a real thrill, it was a life highlight to spend two days with the Wonka kids. The funny thing is we kept calling them “the Wonka kids,” which is hilarious because they're all 50 years old if not older, but we all still referred to them as the Wonka kids the whole time they were with us. What's interesting was to see how the movie had impacted their own lives too. Hearing their stories was pretty amazing, how their relationships developed, and what they are doing now. Charlie Bucket brought his daughter to the set because she's a massive Top Chef fan, and it was sort of wonderful to watch them together. I mean, her dad was Charlie Bucket -- my god, what a legacy! He was so humble and lovely, very much like his personality in the movie so many years ago.
Get more of Gail's thoughts in the Extended Judges' Table: