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.

 

Grande Finale

Hubert Keller explains why Chris ultimately edged out Sally for the win.

 

So here we are, at the grande finale, as they say in France. This is where the culminated talents of our chefs are put under a microscope and the strongest overall performance by the most confident chef prevails and wins the competition! This is the final round, the final challenge, and finally, we will have a winner!

The stage is set, and Matthew, Chris, and Sally are waiting nervously to hear what Gail and Johnny have to say about the final challenge.

The challenge: to prove that they are the most complete pastry chef by creating a show-piece, an entremet cake, bonbons, a form of savory bread, and a dessert that focuses on a special person in their life!

Wow!  So much to think about, so much pressure… and just after Johnny shared an emotional moment, expressing the joy he has knowing that he was able to present his mother with a home-made birthday cake he baked for her just before she passed away; and you could start to see tears well-up in the cheftestants' eyes. Suddenly, their frowns became overwhelmed with a surprised excitement. They were all astonished to see MOFs Jaques “Mr. Chocolate” Torres, Sebastian Cannon, co-founder of the French Pastry School in Chicago, and Stephane Treand, owner of The Art of Pastry, walk into the kitchen to help assist in their final challenge! Gail informs our competitors that our guest pastry legends would be sitting down as diners when all is complete to taste and help critique their final presentation. With their jaws dropping to the floor, they quickly scurried over to meet these pastry icons and without hesitation, and the competition began!

Sally confided in Sebastion Cannon and admitted that she was uncomfortable with the showpiece element of this competition. She went over her plan, which seemed well thought-out and moved forward with her ideas, determined to use assertive, exotic flavor combinations and the inspiration of her mother and sister, to win the hearts of the judges….

Matt told “Mr.Chocolate” that his wife and daughter would be the motive for his dessert presentation and he would try to impress his way into the winner’s circle by choosing to take risks and using combinations of items and ingredients he has not really worked with before, such as sugar as the base of his show-piece. Matt hoped to prove to the judges that he is not afraid to gamble, and to get out of his comfort zone and push himself to new-heights! A gutsy move, but would this come back to bite him in the sugar-bun, at the end of the challenge?

Chris went over his plan with Sebastian Cannon. Chris wanted to have a clean and well thought-out presentation, that connected his showpiece idea with the rest of his dessert. His theme: mechanical, industrial, and impressive. Would he impress enough?

So, after one day of putting their ideas together, and getting input from their culinary heroes, they were back to the grindstone to continue the final round, only to find out that all the eliminated TCJD2 cheftestants were in the kitchen waiting for them!

What was this new curveball going to be? Come to find out, our final three chefs had to pick a number, and whichever of the previous cheftestants had the number, taped to the back of a very large un-edible cookie that they were holding; that person, randomly, would make up part of that chef’s team. They got to choose one more former cheftestant to make up teams of three individuals… the plot thickens, and the cookie crumbles!

The Teams:

Sally chose Orlando to help her with her showpiece; a great move! She got stuck with Van as an assistant by drawing the number he was holding. He made a nice cheerleader in the kitchen while the other two were hard at work! Sally discovered that her entremet-cake had been layered incorrectly and had to re-do it with time running out. She put the gas on and was able to produce one of the most beautiful desserts of the whole competition! Orlando, with Sally’s vision, pretty much built that show piece on his own, while Sally got caught-up from her mistake from the day before. A great effort, Orlando built an elegant, towering showpiece out of chocolate. Sally had a chocolate mousse, mango vanilla cream, caramel cremeux, lime, and almond sponge as her entremet. Parkerhouse rolls with bacon, green onions, gruyere, and bay leaves, for her savory bread, and salted caramel milk chocolate bonbons. She killed it! Everything was bursting with flavor. I love Sally’s work! 

Matt drew Megan and called upon Carlos to be his wingman in the kitchen. They put out a hazelnut dacquoise, passion fruit gelee entremet, focaccia with olive oil and malden salt with fresh thyme for the bread loaf, and keylime ganache and speculoos bonbons. Great flavor, great passion… nice job, Matt!

I must say, I was surprised that Matt didn’t go for a spectacular chocolate showpiece since that is his forte, but the light, playful color of his sugar piece did show well!

Chris had Rebecca from the pre-challenge draft, but with both arms available, he still didn’t really let her participate; and he picked Amanda, someone who seems to be very helpful and takes orders well historically throughout this competition. His entremet was delicious: a chocolate mousse with vanilla cream and raspberry jam. His bread was a classic brioche with a maple butter and bacon and salt, and his bonbons were coffee infused ganache with a very thin crunchy shell. Chris and Sally had the best bonbons!…And now it’s time for the plated desert!

The plated dessert was very important and really showed us who put the whole package together!

Sally’s plated dessert was a white chocolate espresso mousse with chocolate cremeux, cashew nougatine, and ice cream. Inspired by her mother and her sister, the flavor’s that Sally put together were again, simply put, the best! Unfortunately, the presentation was missing the glaze, and her dessert, to the eye, wasn’t as alive as it was on the palate. She lost a little of that finesse that had become her trademark in this competition. In the last round, we saw that Orlando edited himself and by doing so, he shot himself in the foot. I thought by not glazing her dessert for the final Judges' Table, Sally did the same. 

Matt was inspired by his wife and daughter and made a whimsical playground of chocolate chip cookie with raspberry ice cream… if it were a piece of art, it would have been Picasso; colorful chaos on a plate… very cool and edgy, but maybe not the right choice for the grand prize. And as "Madame Chocolate” mentioned, I think some people at the Judges' Table really wanted a chocolate chip cookie.

Chris did well! He made a very vibrant butter almond cake with mango sauce, banana ice cream, and continued his structural design from the showpiece as an accent on his plated dessert… a cool touch. Johnny was right, our whole table devoured his dessert. The flavors were well balanced; a home-run!

It was a tough decision… flavor-wise, for me it was Sally; although I thought Chris deserved to win. It just was unfortunate that Sally fell a little short in the final, but I’m sure she’ll move on to be quite a success anywhere she decides to go!Matt brought some exciting ideas to the table and put some wonderful flavors in our mouths, but it wasn’t his best night either. The way he sets his high standards for himself, he too will be a star in someone’s kitchen, maybe even his own!

Chris deserved to be crowned the winner. He was Mr. Consistency, always impressing with ideas, skill, creativity, and managing ability in the kitchen, a true Top Chef! Bravo, Chris! Congratulations!

I think that these contestants in TCJD2 raised the bar to a new level this year. It was fun, exciting, dramatic, and electrifying. I was proud to see how these guys came together and grew throughout these episodes and challenges.

I hope that watching and supporting our program gave you the inspiration to have a sweeter time in the kitchen and perhaps be our next Top Chef!

Thank you!