The Agony and the Ecstasy

Gail Simmons elaborates on the judges' agonizing final decision. 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 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! 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 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... 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. 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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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.

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