Glaze Me a Doughnut

Never, ever give Gail a doughnut that isn't fresh and well-glazed. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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! 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. 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. 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. 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:


Nobody's Perfect

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