Top Banana

Gail Simmons gives a behind-the-scenes explanation for the overwhelming use of banana in the chefs' Quickfire dishes. This week we have Pichet Ong as a guest judge. How was it working with him?
Gail Simmons: Pichet is a fantastic pastry chef. He's a lot of fun, and really, really creative. He's worked at some of the greatest restaurants in New York -- Jean Georges, Payard; he was the opening pastry chef at Spice Market. His desserts are beautiful. For the Quickfire, the chefs had the opportunity to make their own candy bars. What do you like in a candy bar?
GS: I love texture in a candy bar, and I also like flavors that complement the chocolate. My preference is dark chocolate, but I am open. I always want there to be a contrast of textures, so you break through that outer shell and there's something gooey and something crunchy. That way when you eat it all together it's a complete candy bar experience. You don't want it too liquidy and you don't want it too sweet. You need counterpoints so that you're not just getting all sugar and cocoa butter. There were three different banana offerings. Did it surprise you that so many people opted for banana in their candy bar?
GS: I kind of loved it. I'm a huge banana fan myself. What you didn't see was that behind the scenes we had running banana jokes all season. The banana you see when they do the close-up on Carlos' shoulder pocket was actually a fake banana that he kept as his good luck charm all season. The chefs were constantly playing practical jokes on us and on each other with that banana. So it certainly didn't surprise me that Carlos used banana. Banana is one of those hard flavors that when done well really complements milk, dark, or white chocolate, but you have to be careful, because if you add too much sugar, banana becomes very grainy and sticky. Bananas also need to be at the right ripeness or else they're either too sweet, or if they're under-ripe, they have this sort of tannic quality adding a "green" flavor that you don't want. I liked that so many people tried to incorporate it. Were you surprised that Orlando helped Rebecca?
GS: We weren't surprised. Everyone talks about Orlando being the villain in the interviews, in the kitchen, and in the house, but we didn't know any of that while we were shooting. When he came to Judges' Table, he was always perfectly well-behaved. I didn't know any different. And that's what a good pastry chef does. He was done, so it didn't involve compromising his own dish. He had extra time and was completely finished, so there was no excuse for him not to help her. And I'm glad he did, because her candy bar turned out really well. I like that he acknowledged he helped her, but he didn't complain that it was his work that allowed her to be on top that day. What were your thoughts on Sally's winning candy bar?
GS: Sally's was great. As Pichet said, it encompassed everything you'd want in a candy bar. There was an exotic, interesting flavor, the chocolate was tempered beautifully, the forbidden rice added a crunch and a great textural component. I'm a huge Ovaltine fan; it's something I drank growing up all my life, because my father is from South Africa, and it's very common there. It's a malt drink, which helps you sleep. For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs had to break up into groups to create desserts at a water park. Let's start with the group people may have thought would win -- Chris, Matthew, and Orlando. What were their fatal flaws?
GS: They were a really strong team, and they're all really great pastry chefs, but I think they may have become a little too arrogant about their capabilities and they didn't think outside of the kitchen. They didn't create desserts that were easy to eat; they didn't create desserts that were appropriate for their environment. They made summer desserts, which I would be happy to eat in a restaurant. It's not that their desserts were bad, but they certainly weren't perfect. Chris' dessert was a little sticky, Orlando's wasn't root beer float-y enough, it was sort of dry, and Matthew's was piping hot. If we were sitting in an air-conditioned fine dining establishment rather than a water park, they'd be great. But we were in a water park -- I wanted to pick it up and go, I didn't want a plate and a spoon with different components. I just wanted something fun, easy, and refreshing to eat before I went down the slide. Unfortunately they didn't really do that.

Then we had Amanda, Sally, and Carlos. They each had problems with their desserts individually. Their issues were very different than Matthew, Chris, and Orlando's. The problem with this team's dessert was their execution rather than their concept. Their desserts were perfectly appropriate for the venue -- funnel cake, ice cream pop, a smoothie. These were all things that seemed great in theory, but they failed in the details. Carlos' ice cream bar, which looked beautiful, had no counterpoint. It was completely sweet and fatty. There was white chocolate with thick, rich ice cream, and Fruity Pebbles. Great idea, and kids would like it because it was so sweet, but there was nothing sophisticated about its flavor at all. If he had done raspberry sorbet or really any kind of fruit sorbet in the center, it would have been absolutely perfect. But because it was so dense and rich with no balance, it wasn't refreshing at all. Sally's smoothie: I mean I can make a berry smoothie in three minutes flat, and it wasn't as if hers was so exceptional. She froze Cap’n Crunch with liquid nitrogen and blended it with a bunch of berries and yogurt. I make that for breakfast every day, minus the nitrogen. That's hardly six hours of work. I know she did it so she could help the rest of her team, but it seemed as if there was very little effort. Which is fine in a way, because that's how the game is played, its her choice if she has immunity. She could have tried to win again though, but I guess that's not her M.O. She literally decided that she was not even going to try to win, which is unfortunate.  In our opinion, Amanda's dessert had the greatest flaws. Her coconut sorbet was fantastic, her pineapple jam was delicious -- it all worked together really well. The idea of a funnel cake is so fantastic especially in terms of an amusement park, a carnival, a fair, a water park – it all works. But she just didn't make a good funnel cake, in fact, she made a terrible funnel cake. It was over-fried and sat too long, so it was cold, which made it hard. Because the funnel cake drizzles were so thin when she poured them in, they crisped up too quickly. You want them crisp on the outside but, with a doughy center. It wasn't like that at all, and because she gave it to us in a bowl with ice cream and jam with only a spoon, you couldn't cut it, you couldn't pick it up with your fingers and eat it. When I tried to cut into it, it flew out of my bowl. That was a risk she took when she chose to fry something on site, but it could have been handled differently. If you're going to take that risk, you need to follow through with it. All she had to say was, "I'm going first. My stuff is ready first, and you need to eat it right now," when we walked up to their table and it may have been a different experience. If she was worried, she didn't speak up so we didn't know it. I think Amanda is extremely talented, and she's a gifted pastry chef. She has an amazing attitude and an amazing understanding and knowledge of what she does. She was just being too much of a team player and not asserting herself, which is too bad because I do think she went prematurely. It just goes to show, if you make one mistake you go home, it doesn't matter who you are. All it takes is one challenge for you to be out of the game. Last but not least, we have the winning team.
GS: What Carlos, Sally, and Amanda lacked, Katzie, Rebecca, and Megan really excelled at. They created desserts that were completely appropriate for where we were and executed them very well with their own professional pastry chef spin. Like Johnny said, they all would have worked perfectly on an ice cream truck. Katzie had something on a stick, it had crunch, it had flavor, it had acidity from the cherry ice cream, it was rich, but it was fun to eat, and she bruleed that meringue right there, which everyone loved. Rebecca created an ice cream sandwich, which was perfect, simple, straightforward, with good ingredients. She made perfectly chewy snickerdoodle cookies, lemon ice cream, which gave it a tang but was still rich, also it was wrapped in paper so you could take it on the go. Megan made that strawberry float which was a little too sweet for me, but all in all, still very sophisticated and very fun. In addition to all of this, they also made lemonade and essential oil spritzers of cold water that everyone could spray on themselves to cool down. They really thought about the whole experience and it felt very organic to where we were. Plus, everything tasted good. Period.

Next week brace yourselves for the Beastie Boys. It's time to get ill...

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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!


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