Like Family

Johnny Iuzzini elaborates on his relationship with the owners of L&B Gardens. The guest judge this week, Pichet Ong, also works for Jean Georges. Do you work with him? What can you tell us about him? 
Johnny Iuzzini: Actually he worked for Jean Georges years ago. He was the pastry chef at the restaurants 66 and Spice Market. We never worked directly together -- all the restaurants are quite separate. Pichet focused on Asian-style desserts as that was the theme of those restaurants, as well as his personal heritage. Although, he didn't know how to make a fortune cookie and I, the Italian/French kid from the Catskills taught him how to do it. Go figure. Pichet has a unique approach to desserts, often reflecting Asian techniques and flavor combinations. He tends to reinterpret classic dishes, often with a more modern style. For the Quickfire Challenge, what do you think were the most important elements to remember in creating a candy bar? 
JI: A candy bar is meant to be a snack on the go. It should be portable and easy to eat. It should not be messy or incredibly fragile. Normally a short shelf life or requiring refrigeration would be a deal killer. Candy bars should pack a flavor punch. In my mind,  its about big payoff in every bite, since the portions are usually quite small compared to a plated dessert. If I were making a candy bar i would focus on strong pronounced flavors and unique textures to set my candy bar apart. What’s your favorite candy bar?
JI: I have always liked candy bars with a crunch or texture. I am a big Snickers fan, Milky Way, Krackle, Aero bar, Chunky, Twix, and Kit Kat. Just to name a few favorites that is. A lot of the chefs used bananas — is that trendy now? Or, did that surprise you? 
JI: Yeah, a banana definitely wouldn't be my first choice. I think the chefs were thinking of familiar flavors that lend themselves well to being in combination with chocoate. Banana is a no-brainer. Bananas are always a popular choice on dessert menus. I was surprised we didn't see more caramel and more outrageous flavor combinations. I thought Sally's forbidden rice candy bar sounded great. Totally out of the box. Water parks! Did you go to them a lot growing up? 
JI: I was an amusement and water park fiend as a kid growing up. I loved them. My brothers and I would go whenever we could. We liked all the super steep/fast slides and flumes where you would get completely soaked. Our absolute favorite was the tubes though. We would all go at the same time and spend the whole time trying to knock each other off our tubes. Wrestling and double-teaming each other all the way to the bottom. I think we got kicked out of the water park almost every time we went for rough housing and being crazy kids. Can you tell us more about your connection to L&B Gardens? 
JI: My families roots after coming to America from Italy are primarily in Brooklyn. L&B has been around for a long time. It started out as a horse-drawn buggy business of selling the spumoni around the neighborhood. My dad went to high school not far from there and would always go there. I didn't grow up in Brooklyn, but every time we went fishing or went to see friends and family we would try and stop by L&B for a square slice and spumoni. We would sit there and my dad would tell stories about the neighborhood and how it has changed and of the trouble he and his brothers would cause. I love it. It is a family-run business since the beginning. They have slowly expanded over the years and now have a pizzeria and restaurant as well as an outdoor seating area. It's funny, you know, growing up, you are always introduced to people as your uncle this or your aunt that or your cousin this. By the time I was in my 20s, I had no idea who I actually was or wasn't related to. It's kind of a running joke in the family. So Camille Barbati, one of the actual L&B family members was introduced to me as one of my "family" members a long time ago. So ever since then I have considered her family. We see each other at holidays and they come to visit me at the restaurant from time to time. So as far as I am concerned, THEY ARE FAMILY. What do you think the biggest mistake the teams made was? 
JI: I think the teams made some crucial mistakes. First of all, on a hot day, the last thing you want to eat is a hot dessert. Another major flaw that some of the chefs made was that their desserts were too sweet and not refreshing. Also, did the chefs really think about who their customers were? When they choose the flavors and combinations, were they thinking families and kids at a water park or judges in a competition? Another issue was that some of the chefs didn't think about ease of eating or drinking it. Which dishes stood out to you, for better or worse? 
JI: I loved that Chris made an ice luge for his drink. It was a great idea to incorporate some fun at the park. Unfortunately his drink was a bit sticky in my throat. Plus, ginger, passion, and cilantro aren't great flavors for kids. Orlando made a mistake by calling his dessert a root beer float. A float is something very distinct that requires soda -- hence the ice cream floats on top. His idea once he explained it to me seemed fine. His dessert didn't taste bad, but once you have an idea in your head, you immediately compare. He would have been better off just telling us what it was rather then what is was a play on. Matt was thinking restaurant-style dessert, not water park-style. None of the judges liked that a) they had to wait for him to saute strawberries and b) that he served us warm sauteed strawberries. It wasn't a bad dessert, although I did think his ice cream was a bit gummy, but the idea of making a yellow cake ice cream was pretty cool.

As soon as we walked up to Rebecca's team, they tried blinding us by spraying us in the eyes with lavender water. Rebecca made a lemon snickerdoodle ice cream sandwich. It was a great texture and had great lemon flavor. I liked the presentation too. Megan's strawberry basil float was a bit sweet, but had nice flavor. Katzie's spumoni on a stick was interesting, and had strong flavors, even though it was a bit difficult to eat.

Again, Carlos is making  a cereal-based dessert, this time i don't think it was so successful because it was just really big and really sweet. I wish he would have gone in a different direction this time and given us something more refreshing. Sally's smoothie seemed pretty tame. I liked the idea of a refreshing fruity smoothie. but she ended up making it just too much like a liquid dessert with chocolate coated Rice Krispies. Wasn't much to it. Amanda fried her funnel cake too far in advance, and it was really dry and hard and difficult to eat. The whole idea of friend dough is soft and steamy and moist and it frankly wasn't any of those things. What ultimately sent the eliminated chef home/made her team’s dishes worse, than the other team on the bottom?
JI: It came down to who prepared the dessert best suited for a water park, for families, that was easy to eat, refreshing and creative.  I really didn't think that Sally did much considering all the time she had to create her dessert. She had immunity and played it safe and safe doesn't win challenges. Had she not had immunity, who knows if she would have gone home? The rest of the chefs desserts on the bottom weren't great but they weren't horrible either. Amanda in the end went home because her dessert was cold, the funnel cake was hard and crispy like a pretzel and hard to eat. There were no redeeming qualities to the main component of her dessert. It just didn't taste good. 


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.