Bravotv.com: What did you think of the Restaurant Wars theme and how each team approached it?
Gail Simmons: I thought the concept was perfect. Los Angeles is such a diverse city. Its easy to think of it as a superficial city where everyone is just dieting and doing yoga and juicing, and certainly there is a piece of Los Angeles like that, but there’s also a piece of Los Angeles that arguably has the best produce in the world. The farmers’ market, the farms, the fruits and vegetables – it’s really one of the best places in the world to buy fresh food. The diversity of food is astounding. At the same time, it has one of the most diverse ethnic populations in the country -- Korean and Thai populations, Japanese -- the best sushi in the country is by far in Los Angeles -- and the best Mexican. There’s also so much iconic Americana that comes out of Los Angeles. There are more burger shops per square foot than any other city I’ve ever visited. Things like the sundae, the Cobb salad… there’s so much interesting food history from the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and all these amazing old Hollywood places that invented some of the great food that this whole country knows and loves. The challenge this epiosde was genius. Clearly Busy Philipps knows her food and appreciates all that Los Angeles has to offer.
Bravotv.com: Let’s start with the winning team? It was 72 & Sunny with David, Sang, Douglas, and Sue, and they actually didn’t have the help of their sous chefs, which was interesting.
GS: The sous chefs were helpful -- it was just result we didn’t like as much. The ideas were already established by the time the sous chefs got in. All the more reason to be as impressed with the amount of work and the quality of the food that we ate at 72 & Sunny, which by the way is a great name for a Los Angeles restaurant.
I love that Douglas started us off with a nod to Los Angeles’ Japanese sushi culture. He was thoughtful enough to cook it so that Busy could eat it because she was pregnant at the time. Sue did a very simple salad. It certainly wasn’t the best salad that I’ve ever had, but it was fresh and light, and I think it was the perfect middle course. Then Douglas and David did the snapper together, which had a lot of ethnic influences and flavor, using corn and chorizo. The snapper was beautiful. It was a lovely collaboration, and it was something we were all happy to eat. Then came Sang’s strip loin with broccoli two ways, which was the star of the night. Maybe he’s not too nice to work with in the kitchen, maybe he’s selfish in the way he deals with his teammates, but the truth is that they’re not just teammates, they’re still competing against each other. And you can’t blame Sang for wanting to work really hard on his own dish. That dish was outrageous. It was so savory and creative – it really took ideas to a whole other level. Such fresh, bright broccoli. The steak was beefy – not all steak tastes deeply like beef – it had great umami flavor, and I think that was enhanced by the black bean ghee which is by far the sauce of this century. And I hate black beans! I couldn’t believe it, I wanted to sop up this stuff. It all tasted nostalgic, but it also tasted so modern and innovative. That’s what separates the chefs from the cooks.
Bravotv.com: And David’s panna cotta?
GS: It was very well done. Again, with David, there were 17 different flavors: strawberry, tangerine, honey, whipped cream, merengue…. But it was really tasty, and it was creamy which is what a panna cotta should be. The fact that he made that dessert and then did such a great job at front of the house made me fall in love with David that night. You can see why he’s such a great restaurateur.
Sue’s dessert was excellent, too. She did the salad and dessert, and she helped so much along the way. This was a great semiffredo. It was rich, and the marshmallow had the perfect toasted taste. Bravotv.com: On to the losing team, Artisan. Bryan was throwing out all these ideas and his team just wasn’t listening to him. What did you think about that?
GS: I don’t think anyone saw the challenge the same way. They came into it without a cohesive idea of what their restaurant was. That made a difference because when you aren’t all on the same page about the restaurant concept, it feels disjointed.
It seemed that Bryan understood how to take the idea of making a Los Angeles restaurant and modernizing it, making it fresh and reinventing it in a way that can bring all those flavors together under one roof. It didn’t seem like his teammates really understood that and didn’t feel the need to push themselves in that same way. But by nature, Bryan does that. That’s how his mind works; that’s how he works as a chef.
Bravotv.com: A diner on the show said that Jennifer’s front-of-house skills felt almost disingenuous. Could you feel that?
GS: For me, it seemed that she was stressed.
Bravotv.com: She took on a lot, kind of like last week with Franklin Becker.
GS: Yes, two dishes and front-of-house. Her front-of-house wasn’t great; no one can manage all of that and everything in the dining room. There was so much going on, and she seemed like the only one who had a handle on all of it. She was constantly trying to wrangle her servers, wrangle her chefs, wrangle Lynn and other people working on her dish, and I think that made her come across at the table as a little bit disingenuous. She just had too much to do.
Bravotv.com: Did it ever come up at Critics’ Table that Bryan actually executed her soup and Lynn did her salad?
GS: It did. But it’s hard to fault them – you don’t blame a sous chef for a chef’s dish. And I understand Lynn didn’t make the salad as pretty as she wanted, and that’s really frustrating. . But Jenn communicated to them what she needed from them The soup was made -- it just had to be put in a bowl and garnished. The salad was prepped it just needed to be plated cleanly.
Jennifer -- her front-of-house aside -- did a really good job. Her soup was very tasty. The idea of cauliflower soup is delicious. I had no idea what it had to do with Los Angeles. Not that it needs to scream California, but there was no context. And it was very thick. It needed to be a little thinned out, It just felt a bit heavy.
Her citrus salad was also lovely. But if it hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have missed it. As we discussed, the mushrooms were a little tough. The citrus, chevre, avocado, endive definitely felt appropriate. But it just wasn’t a memorable salad. It wasn’t as hearty as I wanted it to be. I believe that the best salads in the world are made in California. I live in New York, and I’ve always said that. You cannot get a salad in New York like you get in California, specifically in Los Angeles. Besides the Cobb salad, the chopped salad was invented in Los Angeles – that California Italian salad with the cut-up salami, chickpeas, vegetables, cheese – that’s an iconic salad. There are so many good salads, their vegetables are so extraordinary. A good chef should be able to make an amazings alad easily, this just wasn’t one of them.
Then there was Bryan’s Cobb salad, which, was one of the best dishes of the entire season. We all were completely floored by it. Now what is so interesting to me is that his salad stood out from the rest of the menu so starkly that it was on another level altogether. But because it was so good and so striking and so tied to California and so original, it made all the other dishes on the menu appear less interesting, appear less cohesive. It was so insanely good. It was a Cobb salad completely deconstructed and flipped around, reconstructed and made better. It had every flavor that Cobb salad has but in a way that you would never expect. Bravotv.com: Would Neal have gone home if he didn't have immunity or Lynn's dish was the worst?
GS: There weren’t any flaws in Neal’s food – the steak with the cavolo nero, which is kale, and the twice-baked fingerling potatoes -- they were sweet, they were beautiful, they were tasty. They were just an uninspired plate of food considering the challenge. I cant believe that all he thought of when he thought of California was a steak and a twice-baked potato! It could represent New York, it could represent Chicago, it could represent Las Vegas, for that matter. I mean, he called it a New York strip. Call it a strip loin at least! Once you write the word New York, all of us can’t help but acknowledge it. I mean, the challenge is to make it about Los Angeles. The irony is Neal is from Los Angeles! I’ve had Neal’s food, and it is very, very California. I don’t know what happened there. It wasn’t a huge issue; it was just a contextual cop-out.
And then there was Lynn’s brownie. It sounded delicious on the menu; chocolate brownie sundae with roasted banana ice cream and peanut caramel sauce -- that sounds great. But it was completely flat. It was heavy. I’ve seen chocolate brownie with banana ice cream and caramel sauce on every menu in America since 1981. If she had done something new with it, showed us a creative way to plate it, stretch the idea of what a sundae can be in any way, I would have been more receptive. But it was plated as if it were plated by any home cook on a random Wednesday night. There’s just nothing special about a chocolate fudge brownie. Every mother in America can make a chocolate fudge brownie, and probably better than hers because it was so dense and so sweet. There was no subtlety; there was no “chef” in that dish. I don’t think she was pushing herself or thinking about what the challenge was. I mean, if you’re going to make us a sundae on ‘Top Chef Masters’ for Restaurant Wars, I want it to be the best darn sundae I’ve ever had, and it was like any other sundae I’ve ever had.
Lynn is my fellow Canadian countryman, and I’m still very proud of her. She did Canada proud and she did a great job all around. She blew me away me with a few delicious dishes. I’ll always remember several of them. But her dish for Restaurant Wars just wasn’t one of them.