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.