The Dream Team
Top Chef judge Gail Simmons dishes on her 'Masters' experience.
How is it judging Master’s rather than regular Top Chef?
Judging Masters is super fun, especially because obviously I know a lot of the chefs. Many of them have been guests on our show before as guest judges. It was really exciting to see them cook and of course, really exciting to eat their food. It was also very interesting because I don’t know what they thought it would be like, but it was interesting to see how hard it was, even for the Masters. I think they overall did an extraordinary job over the course of the whole season. I think it showed all of them, and us, that what our regular top chefs do everyday is not easy on the show at all, no matter how good you are. You can be a master in your own kitchen, but when you’re thrown into a kitchen you’ve never been in before, with time constraints, and you don’t have your sous-chefs with you, you don’t have your menu plotted out and you don’t have time to think, it’s really difficult. And we kept them on their toes, but it was really exciting and overall, I think, really successful.
For this challenge we had Mark Peel, Doug Rodriguez, John Besh and Anita Lo and their quick-fire challenge was to cook an egg with one hand tied behind their back. The whole basis was “cooking an egg is a true sign of a chef’s ability.” Would you agree with that comment?
I do agree with that. It’s sort of legendary when a chef would audition young cooks for jobs on their line, they would ask them to cook an omelet, because it’s a lot harder and it takes a lot more finesse than your regular diner omelet. Cooking an egg and cooking it properly and making sure it has flavor and the proper texture, not overcooked or undercooked, is a very difficult thing. And now doing it with one hand tied behind your back is an extraordinarily difficult thing. So it was really fun. I felt for them. That is a really difficult thing to do, but they managed to do it. Three of the four of them managed to do it and do it relatively well.
Well, Anita won with her soft scramble and John kind of stumbled. Did that shock you?
It totally shocked me. I’m a huge fan of John Besh and I know he can cook better than that. He just, I think, froze and wasn’t really thinking. He didn’t put the eggs in long enough to bake, and probably I don’t even know what the temperature was on. Clearly he had some problems. Also, there was a strange taste to the one egg he did bring to the table. I think we remember having tasted fat burnt grease. I’m not quite sure what he did, or how he did it, but he really just didn’t give himself enough time and that was it or it would have otherwise, I’m sure, been a delicious dish. So he really lost out there and I was sad to see it. But, Anita’s was beautiful! It was not necessarily the most inventive thing. It’s a beautiful presentation. We’ve seen it before but it never loses its appeal; soft scrambled eggs with mushrooms and fresh herbs that she re-stuffed into an egg shell and set this egg shell in this beautiful dish with rice on the menu. It looked great; it tasted great. I would’ve never even known that she had one hand behind her back. That was an impressive feat I believe.
Were you nervous at all because half of John’s egg was raw?
I’m never really nervous about that I have to say. Eating a raw egg. People eat them all the time. It’s very rare, especially these days that you’ll ever get really sick from raw eggs. Athletes put them in drinks and very original protein shake. You eat steak tartare or people eat raw eggs in a lot of things. Marange is raw egg white. Of course you want to be careful and make sure they’re coming from quality places. It’s just not that appealing. You certainly don’t want to present that to your diners at a restaurant. That’s unacceptable, and it’s unfortunate that happened.
They each got a card for the elimination challenge that was related to magic. Are you a fan of magic?
I never thought that much about magic in my life. I certainly enjoy it. My brother loved it when we were kids and he used to have a magic set and do magic tricks for us. That was 25 years ago. I didn’t know too much about magic before the show, but I learned a lot about magic on this episode. It was one of the most fun episodes I’ve ever filmed for all of Top Chef and Top Chef Masters. It was in such a unique location. I’m not from L.A., but everyone there apparently knows something about The Magic Castle. I had no idea about it and I was totally blown away by its history and its secrets and mystery. It’s just an amazing place that has tricks around every corner. It was totally wild and fun to be there with real professional magicians. We had so much fun with them They showed us tricks, they gave us a tour, and really showed us about the foundations of magic and why each elements are important and combine to make a magic trick successful. I didn’t know that Neil Patrick Harris is a huge fan of Top Chef, and that his partner David had taken a break from acting to go to culinary school. The two of them were real foodies, knew a ton, and they were really into magic. Neil Patrick Harris has been a member of The Magic Castle for many years. He is a magician. He was into magic first. I don't want to get this wrong, but it was sort of his foray into Hollywood. He did a ton of magic and befriended Ed Alonzo.
Did you recognize Ed Alonzo?
He was on Saved By the Bell at the diner! Oh yeah. He's Max from Saved By The Bell. The coolest thing is that he was part of Britney Spears’ Circus tour. I was not fortunate enough to see Britney’s tour, but apparently it’s a circus theme and there’s a magic show. I believe the magician saws her in half or something, and that’s him! He’s been on tour with Britney. That was just super exciting to hear about that. These guys are all serious professionals. The way our chefs are chefs, they are magicians. They are so skilled. I loved talking to them. We had so much fun at that table. In between each course we were talking about magic. It made a great dinner party. That’s for sure.
What did you think of the food?
Three of the four I really liked. Mark Peel’s was a classic presentation, and a beautiful way to steam fish. It had tons of flavor. It was slightly overcooked. That was our unanimous criticism. It was a little bit mushy, but the flavor was beautiful. I thought it was whimsical, playful, and a really smart way to illustrate surprise. Great job. The beautiful sake went with it and this really bright sauce on side. It really showed a lot about him .I've eaten as his restaurant. It certainly felt and tasted like Mark Peel’s food.
The next was John’s. I thought John’s was beautiful. He had this great show. He made this crème fraiche sorbet table side, which was super fun. It looked very magical with the dry ice pouring out of it, which I thought was cool. It was also really playful. He really got into it which I loved. It didn’t set up perfectly, but in the allotted time it got the idea. I still think it was a smart thing to do. I really liked it. People were complaining about that cauliflower that had been flash frozen, and I thought that was really good. Yes, it was very cold, but that was the whole surprise and play on texture. You didn’t know what to expect. I thought that was great. His flavors were subtle. They were not incredibly bold, but they were delicate. They certainly had a gentle hand. Of all the four dishes that day it was certainly the most refined. John’s food is very sophisticated. He did a great job.
Anita’s was definitely my favorite. It was so out there. It really was an illusion. She took a daikon and made it look like a scallop, but when you flipped it over it was steak tartare. It was this bloody, red, visceral, incredible experience. She had this random seascape underneath. It made these snap crackle sounds with the shells. This broth also went with it. The one thing is that we weren’t sure how to eat it. Do you put the broth on the scallops? Do you eat it separately? I ate it separately, and someone else ate it together. I’m not quite sure. Maybe she left it up to us. It was just a shock. It was super bold. Everything tasted great. It can be a spectacle, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be great food. She did a great job of getting the challenge and really thinking about the challenge and making something outlandish and shocking and playing a trick on the eye, which is what magic is. At the same time she still thought about seasoning, flavor profiles, combinations of vegetables and meat and how that would go together, and it really made a great plate. She really did a fantastic job. I was really proud of her. She’s the strong silent type. She’s the one nobody sees coming and then she just kicks your ass.
I don’t know what happened to Doug. He did fine in the egg challenge. There were so many problems with his dish, unfortunately. Forget about the coconut that was on fire. I understand that would have been a spectacle, but it made absolutely no sense. I didn’t think the soup tasted really good. It was really muddled. It had flavors and it tasted like so many things I couldn’t clearly figure out what I was tasting. Then there were duck empanadas. They were cold and a little heavy. Then there was oyster with duck, which was fine, just not my favorite combination. I don’t think that anything on the plate was perfect in itself, so it’s hard when you put them together. You’ll never get something great out of three things that are only okay. It needs to add up to something better than itself. Then there was the flaming coconut.
The thing was, I was in Asia just a few months before we filmed the show. My very last night in Vietnam we ate a famous market, the Ben Thanh Market, and we ate this dish that I’m determined to learn how to make at my house and I'm working on that. It consists of a young coconut that sits in a bowl that has salt on the bottom so it's grounded, but the salt is soaked in alcohol. The young coconut has been opened and carved out and there’s all the coconut water in the center, and they fill the water with fresh herbs. They take fresh shrimp and set then coconut on fire. This was almost exactly what Doug wanted to do, but did not do. But they use alcohol in the base of salt to set the coconut on fire around the edges, which heats the center, and in turn boils the shrimp in the coconut water. When you pick the shrimp out of the coconut you dip them in salt and lime juice and eat them. It was one of the most incredible dishes I’ve ever had. So when I saw him trying to get this coconut on fire I was thinking, I know exactly how to do this correctly! He wiped the gel all over the coconut and did it unevenly and it just seemed rushed. The idea was great and I know the idea can be pulled off, because I’d seen it done in a random market in Asia. I’m sure he had gotten the inspiration somewhere. It was not done properly. No pun intended, it really just fizzled. The flame died. Some people had these weird little flames coming out of their bowls and it was disconcerting. It wasn’t a very practical way to serve food. Some were on fire and some weren’t, and it left a terrible smell.
I love Douglas and I think he’s a really talented chef and has been working in the food industry for years with many successful restaurants across the country, but this was not a good day for him. He had an idea that he couldn't execute. It was fun. More than anything, I think the chefs had a blast doing it. It’s for charity. I mean, there’s a great friendly spirit of competition, and this particular episode was just pure fun and silliness. It was great to see how their minds work.
When you're competing against friends and for charity it's not just straight cooking. This was absurd. We put them in absurd circumstances. We tie their hands behind their back and put them in a castle. It's totally out of your element, and you're just getting it done and it proved to all of them how difficult it is to do the show. I think a lot of these chefs will be humbled and have a greater appreciation for what our contestants do on the show.
After this show it will be Hubert Keller, Suzanne Tracht, Rick Bayless, and Anita Lo competing. What do you think of the competition so far?
I think it’s fantastic. I love that it’s equal men to women so far. These are all amazing chefs. This is the dream team. That’s what’s so cool about the show. It’s also in the spirit of fun. It just gets better.