Gail Simmons

Gail explains why the judges were just as nervous as the chefs at this week's dining table.

on Nov 18, 20090

Watching this final challenge in Las Vegas, shot almost six months ago, I found myself breaking into bouts of chills alternating with moments of cold sweat. For the first time in six seasons of Top Chef, I also found myself brought to tears. I can still recall so clearly how nervous Tom, Padma, and I were when we sat down to eat that day. Somehow it felt as if we were being judged as much as the contestants. The table of diners who joined us, each person an active board member of the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, was in ways more daunting even than when Joel Robouchon paid us a visit. For me, this was perhaps because I have a very personal relationship with many of these talented chefs. Daniel Boulud is my former boss and still a great mentor of mine. In fact, this coming February I will host a gala tribute dinner in his honor at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Gavin Kaysen is the executive chef of Daniel’s Café Boulud, so I cannot help but consider him part of my former work family. He is also a former Food & Wine Best New Chef, as are Daniel, Thomas, Traci, and Alex. Together, this astoundingly gifted group represents what could be considered the past, present and future of modern American fine dining. By inviting them to help us judge a Bocuse d’Or–style challenge on our show, we were declaring our belief that these final five contestants were up for such a prohibitive task. What if they failed? And in front of this intimidating group, no less? It would have been our own reputations, as much as the contestants’, at stake.

Here’s just a little background: Often referred to as the “Culinary Olympics,” the Bocuse d’Or is held every other year in Lyon. Founded in 1987 by one of France’s greatest chefs, Paul Bocuse, the competition aims to broaden the public’s understanding of, and appreciation for, the exceptional skill and precision required to be a master chef of haute cuisine. Each national team—chef and assistant—must present to a panel of judges (who, I assure, you are MUCH more critical than we are) two classic platter-style dishes, one fish and one meat. Each platter must include three elaborate sides or garnishes. The guests at our table in Las Vegas make up a portion of the group that selects, counsels, and coaches the young chef chosen to represent America. Chefs from every corner of the world train year-round to have the chance at being the one chosen by their country to compete in the culminating Lyon event. 24 countries are represented in what is considered the most difficult and rigorous culinary challenge in the world. And we gave our cheftestants just four measly hours....

Knowing all this, you can imagine the pride and great relief I felt at witnessing them produce dishes of that magnitude and skill in such a short amount of time. Obviously, there was no way they could create anything as precise as is presented at the actual Bocuse d’Or finals, but every one of our chefs reaffirmed for me why they are so worthy of being in the top five, and how devoted they all are to their craft. It is vital in watching this specific episode to actually understand that there were in fact two simultaneous challenges on which they were being judged, which makes their accomplishments even more impressive: first, to succeed at giving us a Bocuse-inspired platter of meat or fish, and second, to remember that at Judges' Table we would be evaluating them on their dishes within the confines of Top Chef. Our fellow diners, for the most part, assessed the meal from within their rarefied paradigm, which explains why they were all so incredibly meticulous in their judgments and may have appeared slightly too stringent with their commentary. Tom, Padma and I, on the other hand, needed to keep in mind our own agenda for the show, which was, above all else, who would be moving onward to our Napa finale.

29 comments
Lendro Garden
Lendro Garden

você é muito linda!!! sou um jovem chef aprendiz no brasil e esperoum dia participar do top chef.

you are very beautiful! I am a young apprentice chef in Brazil, and esperoum days join top chef.

Margaret Chan
Margaret Chan

People seem to have a problem of hearing. Kevin's dish wasn't said to be disqualified for its simplicity. It would be dismissed, as in A judge or competitor thinking it wouldn't have had a real chance of actually winning. But a disqualification puts you out immediately.

Kevin's dish didn't have a problem with flavor or cooking (overcooked or undercooked), his competition did (run out of time or didn't cook properly).

TerriDC
TerriDC

I believe that Bryan has the most talent and heart and deserves to win Top Chef. I am voting for him as the fan favorite! Bryan and Michael have the brother competition thing going, but that is really what makes watching this show fun. The other contestants are also talented, but I'm routing for Bryan!

stasia12
stasia12

It seems to me, anyway, that Eli should have gone home instead of Robin in the Nigella episode. No one liked what he made, and if it had been based on food only he should have gone instead.

stasia12
stasia12

I have to agree with the other commenters here. If it was just about getting to the finale of Top Chef, it shouldnt have been mixed up with the Bocuse d'Or competition. Thinking back on the episode, it is clear that if it was focused on Bocuse, Bryan or Jen should have won. Also, I am not sure I remember that Bryan's protein wasn't cooked correctly-a surprise when he instructed Kevin and Kevin's came out all right. This competition clearly puts into focus the idea that haute cuisine and edible food are often at odds-Kevin's style may be simple, but it usually is the simpler food which is the tastier. I loved the Nigella episode for this reason-loved that she remarked how she didnt like the addition of vanilla to the crab egg dish. ALso just want to say for those who are critical about the contestants not cooking protein correctly....when you are cooking large pieces it becomes extremely difficult and these chefs are changing where teh cook freqently so they do not have the time to get to know how a particular oven works. THey also dont have the extra time to fix a mistake. It is not easy to cook everything to everyone's liking-what is underdone to some people is perfectly edible to others. For example I thought Jen's fish looked wonderful. I am not really sure , though, how she could have possibly cooked that fish perfectly even all through when it is in one piece like that if she put it in the oven. I am not sure I recall what technique she used but I am sure to cook one long piece of any meat is very difficult owning to the different thicknesses. Tom criticized her cutting as sloppy, which is why it cooked unevenly. Sometimes I guess it comes down more to butchering and knife skills than to cooking technique. L

BGirl
BGirl

Gail, I'm not sure why you felt pride in the presented platters. According to the comments on air and Tom's blog, all of the proteins were not cooked correctly. Kevin's was overcooked and the rest of the best were undercooked (or had bones). Therefore, they all failed the challenge at hand. I am not as impressed as you seem to be.

mickey2942
mickey2942

At this point in the game, if you can't cook a simple piece of meat to be edible, it is time to go home. "rare" lamb is one thing, raw is another. I can't understand why these accomplished chefs undercooked the meat. Micheal overthinks everything, and seriously, salmon is not mediterrean. He would have done better by going with flavors of the northwest, and staying true to that. And Micheal, if you are going to set the bar high by doing salmon, don't think you should win because you "only" missed one bone. It is all or nothing on perfection, not "bonus" points for doing something more challenging, but not getting it 100% right.

I don't think that Kevin's dish rated on complexity, but wins on flavor, which is after all, what eating is all about.

This season has seemed to be more political than about judging the food, and Top Chef has lost ground with me on ethics and standards this season. If Top Chef had really focused on the food, Eli would not have made it this far, nor would Jen. They were clearly judges favorites, because several of their dishes were not judged solely on the food in comparison with the other dishes presented. Which is why, a true judging ought to be in place, where the judges do not know whose food is placed in front of them, and the food is judged solely on the merits of the dish, in comparision with the other dishes, rather than taking pesonal issues into the criteria.

KDB
KDB

sorry Gail, but I'm with some of the others in happily seeing Eli gone - finally gone! And the brothers and their egos - deserved? probably, but that's okay - they're unlikeable and pretentious (sp) Kevin for the win!

Kenn
Kenn

Thank you for the comment regarding how the judges viewed the competition; it helped explain a difficulty I had while watching the episode. The competition was a "mini-version of Bocuse d'Or USA. The guest judges made comment that Michael V's presentation would have been automatic disqualification because of the presence of a bone in the fish; Kevin's presentation would have been disqualified as being "too simple." My thoughts thereafter, before final judgement, was that - given the criteria, neither Michael or Kevin could win (not necessarily be eliminated). And that the winner would, by default, have to be either Bryan or Jen. Your pointing out the process and objective the judges stuck with went a long way to explaining the outcome. Thank you!

Bette
Bette

Wrong, Gail ... I was very happy that Kevin won (Jen was a 2d choice) and thrilled that Eli is finally gone. His mouth destroyed any pleasure I took from watching him cook. But I also wondered whether you created some of these more difficult challenges after you saw the caliber of cheftestants left in the game?

Steve in MD
Steve in MD

Nice read! I like your honesty concerning the difficulty both tasting with the elite chefs and the final decisions you had to make. This is the best season yet. Keep up the great work!

Copperhead
Copperhead

Gail,

You're a doll. I enjoy your upbeat spirit. I'm rooting for Kevin, and was soooo happy that he won the Bocuse D'Or challenge and the $30,000. We at home can't taste the food, so the viewer comments about who "should have" won are really irrelevant. Going back to the vegetarian challenge with Natalie Portman, Michael's dish may have been more inventive, but Kevin's tasted better. It seems like that should always be the bottom line.

dc
dc

As you say, Bocus d'Or is haute cuisine, not blue ribbon $20 diner special. Haute cuisine is not what Kevin does, so it was alien challenge for him. I thought Jen would knock it out of the park with her classic style, the same way she won the French challenge, plus Kevin skipped the French challenge altogether via his bacon jam QF win. And even with the mixed criticism of Jen's salmon, the editing made me think Jennifer's slight mistakes would beat out Kevin lack of haute cuisine and simple presentation.

I thought Bryan and Jennifer age may have affect JT against them as being too old to compete. Most Bocuse competitors are in their 20s, as is Kevin.

I do hope Kevin accepts the opportunity to represent the USA in actual Bocus d'Or, and Bravo makes a reality tv out of it. That would be awesome.

CR
CR

The right four are in the Finals! Among these four outstanding chefs, they have won ALL of the Elimination Challenges and all but four Quick Fire Challenges. I'm giddy with anticipation. Bryan is my favorite and I hope he wins!

maureen leibovitz
maureen leibovitz

Gail I don't get it. Kevin did not do a realBocuse D'Or. The other chefs might of gone in a different direction had they known this was not for real. I am surprised Bryan gave Kevin answers to the precise way to cook his lamb. This could hurt the other contestants. Wait until after the challenge. Maureen

Cat in the Hat
Cat in the Hat

First, thanks for the informative blog. Second, the best four chefs this year are in the finals... that hasn't always been the case in past seasons. I'm very excited for the finale! Third, based on watching from home and how the judges comments were edited, it seems as though Bryan would have won this challenge. I do think that his style of cooking would be a better fit for the Bocuse d'Or competition. Forth, after having read all the blogs today, I've decided to vote for Bryan as fan favorite!

Cat in the Hat
Cat in the Hat

Watching from home, it seemed as though Bryan would be the winner. I think his style of cooking would be a better fit for the Bocuse D'or. I've just decided that I'm going to vote for Bryan as fan favorite.

DebDoes
DebDoes

I am another that is not disppointed that Kevin won...he is Top Chef finalist material in my opinion and is making Atlanta very proud.

It was confusing in this episode...mixing up the Bocuse d'Or future competitor and determing the Top Chef finalist. Let's face it, if arrogance were a criteria, then yes Brian should have won!

The 'brother's' need a dose of humility. Perhaps this was the medicine they needed.

LoriB
LoriB

Hi Gail, Your comment about viewer frustration is spot-on. I did not expect Kevin to win this challenge - you said this was not about the Bocuse D'or - is was about who is the Top Chef - yet that was not the challenge! Bryan or Jen should have won and it is so disappointing when the judges ignore the criteria that they establish before the competition. I am frustrated even though I love Kevin. I just didn't think he deserved to win this one and by the look on his face when his name was announced, neither did he.

BoulderKevin
BoulderKevin

He who made the least amount of mistakes wins - simple as that. Jenn had the best garnishes, but didn't cut or cook the fish right. Eli and Bryan both served raw lamb, which has the consistency of JELLO - in case you've never tried it, you basically want to spit it out as soon as it hits your mouth. Michael was too high on his own cloud to see that salmon & cauliflower are not exactly Mediterranean components. At least his fish was cooked perfect, but the flavors were off on the dish and the garnishes were a low. Yes he had a bone in there, but the protein was cooked well.

Essentially, it must have come down to Bryan or Eli, and Bryan flexed more technique and clearly showed that he edged Eli in the Judges minds. Why do these AMAZING chefs continue to mess up the simplest, focal point even, of the dish? How do you put out undercooked proteins?

maureen leibovitz
maureen leibovitz

Gail you can't be for real here. Please Kevin can't win on a Bocuse d'Or with a home cooked meal. If that where the case the other contestants might of gone in a different direction. God there was 30,000 dollars at stake. Don't call it a Bocuse d'Or if its not. It just wasn't fair. Jennifer or Bryan should of won. I can understand with a bone in his salmon why Michael didn't win but come on this was wrong wrong wrong on the judges part Maureen

MikeyJ
MikeyJ

I agree with jonchow....I had no problem with Kevin winning....I can't imagine him tripping up at this point and not winning it all

mc1
mc1

As a viewer of Top Chef, I am happy that Kevin won. Each week he has been consistant with his cooking, does not have a cocky attitude and is generally an all around nice person and it comes off in his food. The brothers may have flair but Kevin has heart. Michael needs to quit ripping on Kevin everyweek and worry about his own cooking.Kevin for TOP CHEF and FAN FAVORITE

mmc
mmc

Kevin has proven once again why he is a winner. He stepped out of his comfort zone this time and did a great job. The chefs all liked his food and presentation.I love him because he's consistantly good and deserved to win.I love Jen and Bryan too. Michaels arrogance makes him sloppy sometimes and the little green monster turns me off. I think Kevin is truly my favorite with Jen and Bryan nipping at his heels!

STELMO1962
STELMO1962

WELL I THINK EIT GOT A EXTRA FREE WEEK IN VEGAS.....HE SHOULD OF BEEN SENT HOME LAST WEEK....AND NOT TO SAY THAT ROBIN WOULD OF DONE ANY BETTER THIS WEEK.....AND WITH BONES IN THE FISH....MAYBE IT SHOULD OF BEEN MICHAEL TO GO HOME AND MICHAEL SHOULD CHANGE HIS MENU'S TO WHAT HE COOKS ON HIS DAYS OFF.....IT SEEMS THAT KEVIN WINS ALOT WITH THOSE DISHES.....

jonchow
jonchow

Gail, I assure you that as a viewer, I am in no way frustrated that Kevin won.

bolerup85
bolerup85

I would agree with your assessment on this show but with one caveat. Eli is, what, 1 year younger (chronologically) than Kevin? Just because someone acts immaturely he should not be credit for being young. If that's all it took, then Michael V. would be the youngest of the remaining chefs (not Kevin, the most accomplished of the remaining 4).

Heather D.
Heather D.

I live and work in the Napa Valley and wanted to know if you are allowing viewers to come to the final show? I do not know if it is live or has already been taped. I love Top Chef and would love to be able to watch a show unfold!

Thank You Heather

Viewer89
Viewer89

"If this were the real Bocuse d’Or, he would no doubt have been at the bottom of the heap. But let’s not forget that this was, first and foremost, a challenge to determine who will be Top Chef."

I don't know about that. If this particular challenge on Top Chef was to compete as if they were in the Bocuse d'Or, then that's how these contestants should have been judged. I am positive I would love Kevin's cooking because I am a fan of simple home cooking. However, in choosing someone to compete in the Bocuse D'or, Kevin's style of cooking just does not seem to fit.

I was really rooting for Bryan in this episode. Even at the dinner, the other judges were comparing Jen and Bryan's dishes as if those were the top two. And I really admire how they are always pushing themselves to the limit, sometimes beyond...which is what one must often do to be extraordinary.

While Michael comes off as kind of a jerk for his remarks about Kevin, at the same time, I believe what he is saying. I'm sure all of these cooks can cook delicious food on the fly. I just thought this competition would/should focus more on the inventiveness and techniques of the other chefs.