Gail Simmons

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

on Nov 18, 2009

Our final decision was painstaking. It is possible that both viewers and contestants alike may feel frustrated by the fact that Kevin won. It was clear that his presentation was the simplest. He did not deliver a platter as complex and technically demanding as those of his competitors. 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. Here is a prime example of when cooking simply and realistically, but with a sense of urgency and attention to detail, is best. Kevin acknowledged his own capabilities and weighed them against the time he had to execute the challenge at hand. He knew if he tried to overreach there was a serious chance he would fail. There was already too much on the line for him to suddenly try to cook beyond his personal level of integrity and means. His was the only platter we tasted that day in which at least one key element was not severely overcooked or underseasoned. Kevin gave us a dish composed of beautifully poached and caramelized lamb loin with sherry-glazed golden beets, baked asparagus with sunchoke cream and buttered toast. Although simple in design, each component was flawless. Eaten together, they were balanced and cohesive.

Saying goodbye to Eli was a little devastating for us all. At such a young age, he stood his ground week after week against fierce competition. I know the other chefs were very close with him and at this late stage it was difficult to let him go. Again, we were truly blown away by what each of the chefs cooked for us. In judging their food, we forced ourselves to split hairs over which dish was the least successful. We loved the concept of Eli’s pistachio-crusted lamb loin wrapped in lamb sausage with arugula and tarragon coulis. His ras al hanout and carrot puree with yogurt foam was bright and full of flavor. The tomato and piquillo pepper marmalade over a brioche crouton was also a lovely idea. But the sausage had just too many pieces of fat within it that had not been properly rendered and its caulfat lining could still be detected around the meat, making the focal point of the dish almost impossible to eat. In addition, the brioche under his marmalade was dry and bland, an elementary mistake we could not overlook. Eli did an extraordinary job and I am confident that none of the contestants eliminated before him could have done as well. I know he has a long and exciting future ahead and I cannot wait to see how it all unfolds.

Phew! After re-experiencing how intense that last Las Vegas challenge was, I am a little exhausted myself and could use a drink. Thankfully, our next stop is the Napa Valley, where I can assure you there will be no shortage of wonderful wine and even better food from our much-deserving final four. Cheers!