Bravotv.com: What makes the new season different?
Gail Simmons: Johnny and I were raring to get started with the new season, and right off the bat you’ll notice a number of differences: One, Johnny lost the pompadour. By choice. He looks fantastic -- although he always looks fantastic. And, the other thing you’re going to notice is that we demand a lot more of our chefs this year. The M.O. for this season is make it bigger, make it better, make it sweeter, make it taller. Although the first Quickfire might seem deceptively easy, the results weren’t that impressive. And the Elimination Challenge really turned our pastry chefs upside-down and made them realize this season is not just going to be about plated desserts. It’s about showing all your skills at a really high-level. And the talent this season is up for the task.
Bravotv.com: Well, let’s start with that disappointing Quickfire Challenge. The chefs had to recreate or make soda shop desserts.
GS: We met them on the pier in Santa Monica early in the morning. I had a bad cold and was wondering whether I may not sound like myself. And it was colder than I expected, which is why I’m wearing a jacket.
Bravotv.com: We loved that jacket!
GS: It was one of our producer’s! I was wearing a silk blue shirt underneath and we kind of got out there and it was freezing cold, so, I literally took that leather jacket off of Casey Kriley’s, our executive producer's, body, and wore it on the show!
Bravotv.com: But we digress…
GS: So, we thought this would be a fun way to start off. We put them in a very traditional soda shop atmosphere and asked them to create a dessert based on a classic soda shop treat, but using all of their creative skills, and their imaginations. What we didn’t want was seven banana splits. And what we got was five banana splits and two other desserts. A bit disappointing. We were so surprised that the chefs we know are so capable of blowing our minds, gave us pedestrian food. The first challenge, especially when they’re in this very cramped little space, is always very difficult. But we had a few desserts that we liked.
Carlos and Rebecca’s cereal bowl milkshake was fun. It had great texture, and it was different because they made a shake, so, it was just refreshing to see something in another format other than just on a plate or in a sundae bowl. Amanda and Nelson gave us the most interesting flavors, that’s why they won. Their chocolate sponge cake with pickled cherries was surprising and fresh. The cherries were quickly pickled, which really balanced out the dish. It made everything a little less sweet, it gave a tartness, and it didn’t seem pickle-y. It really added a brightness and a freshness and a little more acid to the dish, which really went well with the chocolate-y cake and the cream.
Bravotv.com: On to the Elimination Challenge, which was inspired by fairytales. They’re a lot darker than maybe people remember.
GS: The versions we gave the chef were Grimm’s versions, very dark versions of the fairytales, darker than the Disney versions I remember as a child. But I think we wanted to give the chefs as much inspiration and as much room to play as we could. For the most part, I thought their inspirations were great: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Hansel and Gretel.” There was certainly a lot to draw from each of the stories. The most important part of this challenge was that we asked them to make a showpiece right off the bat. We really wanted them to know we were serious about desserts, and we also wanted to get them using all the skills and techniques that a pastry chef should have in their back pockets, specifically chocolate and sugar work. Most of them did a pretty great job considering this was their first challenge, they had never worked in the Top Chef: Just Desserts kitchen before, which, by the way, looked incredible this season. Our kitchen was just unbelievable.
Most of them did OK. Certainly two were better than the other two. Just talking about the show piece, Little Red Riding Hood did the best job there, although Goldilocks and the Three Bears had a lot to it as well, used a lot of texture and beautiful chocolate and sugar work. Both of them drew some really great inspiration from the story and showed a lot of detail. Jack and the Beanstalk, and Hansel and Gretel, in terms of a show piece, were not that great. Jack and the Beanstalk, at first glance, looked beautiful, but when we started to walk around it, we realized they were very rushed, there was not a 360-view that we had hoped, and it was falling apart at the seams. The Hansel and Gretel team certainly had the most flawed show piece. None of the people on that team had great experience with show pieces, and you could see from the piece that they did work as a team. It was so disjointed, and they made a lot of decisions that didn’t make sense. Also, when you think of Hansel and Gretel, you think of a gingerbread or candy house! But the house they created was a sad-looking affair. If they didn’t want to use gingerbread, they could have at least covered it with candy, they could have done so many things to give it color and texture to make it appealing to the eye, and they just didn’t do that. Bravotv.com: Some viewers could argue that Craig could have gone home—was it because his team’s showpiece turned out better?
GS: Yes, absolutely, their showpiece and their desserts turned out better. To make the decision of who goes home, first we have to choose the team that did the worst. From that team, we choose someone to go home. And, overall, the Beanstalk team’s show piece looked better, and their desserts were better. Their desserts had some flaws for sure, but were certainly better than the Hansel and Gretel team’s desserts. One we made the decision as to which team did the least well, we were choosing from those three people only. So, Craig was, luckily, bolstered up by his teammates. In this episode he got very lucky. He certainly did not show that he had the skills and the aptitude for what this challenge really required. I think he’d be the first to admit that.
For the win, it was between Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears for the flavor of the desserts, as well as for their idea, their inspiration and their execution. I think both teams did a great job, but both of the desserts the Little Red Riding Hood team made were really focused, really creative, especially the little bombolini, with the strawberry gel you injected into it. And they did a chocolate cake as well, which reminded me and Johnny of Amanda’s Quickfire Challenge dish from the day before. Similar flavors, but it made sense because it was sort of a Black Forest inspiration, and the Black Forest is this bewitched forest where a lot of these stories supposedly take place. And of course the work that Chris did on their showpiece was exceptional.
Bravotv.com: The only other point of contention between the groups was Orlando telling Rebecca that she shouldn’t make rice pudding for her porridge; he suggested oatmeal, which she ended up doing. Do you think if she had made rice pudding, that would have been a mistake?
GS: No, I don’t think it would have been a mistake if she had done it really well. If all the tastes were created properly and it had the right texture it could have been great. I mean, rice pudding is very, very simple. And oatmeal’s not that much more complicated. If you do a really delicious rice pudding with a lot of flavor and spices, perhaps, she could have done it with berries and cardamom, things that she thought the bears would have eaten, if you tell a good story, and if it tastes good, why not? She just needed to trust herself. Although, it wasn’t as abysmal as I thought it was going to be in the end, there were so many things they could have done, but at least they were on the right track. On the Hansel and Gretel team, it was between Lina and Melissa, but we could have made an argument for all three of them to go home because they just didn’t work together well at all. We also thought Van did the least amount of team work. But when we looked at what Lina did, we saw she made choices that just did not make sense at all for that showpiece. She couldn’t accept and understand the input of her teammates, she didn’t really contribute much to anything else and the things she did contribute, the drink that went along with Melissa’s dessert, it was sweet and so off-balance, it didn’t work with the dish. It felt like an afterthought, as if they threw it on the plate without tasting it. So, I’m sorry, Lina’s a sweetheart, and I know she cooks at a great restaurant -- Stephan Pyles in Dallas, Texas, and I know she’s very capable, but we all agreed that she just didn’t complete the challenge the way we asked her to.
And btw, I just want to note that I wore a cape for this episode.
Bravotv.com: I was going to say, did you and Danielle fight over the red cape?
GS: She was Snow White. She was in a blue cape. We had no idea that they were going to ask us to dress in costume. Literally only the night before we were told by our production team, that they wanted us to be in costume. Hilariously, the boys were all for it, they couldn’t wait to get all dressed up. Of course, Dannielle and I went kicking and screaming, wearing those capes. But it was fun -- I’ve never been asked to rock a red riding hood cape before!
Check out all of Gail's looks -- with a serious focus on her shoes -- this season in our "Gail Simmons: Fashion Plate" photo gallery.