Gail Simmons

Gail isn't sure if all the chefs understood the challenge, but she sure did eat well ... for the most part.

on Aug 19, 20090

The first episode of every season is somewhat overwhelming, not just for our new contestants, but for us judges as well. A new city, new kitchen set,17 nervous new faces, the task of tasting their food in one short sitting and immediately having to send one person home – the first Elimination Challenge a long and stressful day. No wonder we are usually looking for a strong cocktail and a little fun by the end of it. Luckily, shooting in Las Vegas provided countless opportunities for cocktails and after-hours high jinks (I will save those stories for another blog). This brings me, conveniently, to the topic of vices. Last I checked, a vice was defined as an immoral or evil habit – smoking, excessive drinking, or gambling, for example. Of course, Las Vegas is the perfect place to indulge these practices around the clock. My vice, as discovered soon after arriving in Sin City, comes in the form of a blackjack table and a gin and tonic. Although I am proud to say that during my recent proximity to both, I never allowed them to do any real damage – a test of will of which I am quite proud.

Knowing someone’s vices certainly gives you insight into their psyche, which is precisely why I was so intrigued by this first challenge: to cook a dish inspired by your biggest vice. Here was a chance to get to know our new contestants and learn what darker forces drive them. Many presented dishes that showcased vices you would come to expect in the fast-paced world of professional cooking: copious amounts of alcohol (mostly spirit- or wine-based sauces and marinades), cigars or cigarettes (smoky flavors added to meat) or a general tendency toward excess in any form (over-the-top plate presentations). Others chose to highlight a shortcoming or personality flaw: procrastination, stubbornness, or a hot temper, to name a few. While it’s true some interpretations of the challenge were a bit of a stretch from what was asked, we didn’t get too caught up in definitions, provided each chef served us a revealing story and a well-prepared, appetizing plate of food.

The trickiest part of judging this type of challenge is that, because there were so many dishes to evaluate, we were forced to divide them into groups of four or five, and then choose a top and bottom chef from each. It is important to keep in mind that our picks for strongest and weakest were not chosen by examining the results overall, but by deciding who was best and worst in each heat, so to speak. I will happily admit that most of what we tasted surpassed my expectations, both in cooking technique and the chefs’ success at spinning their personal depravity into something smart and tangible. I loved Mike Isabella’s smoky, spicy Olive Oil Poached Halibut with Eggplant Puree as well as Jennifer’s Poached Halibut with Whisky, Bourbon, Scotch & Black Peppercorn Sauce. Robin’s sacrilegious penchant for pork and Ashley’s wine-soaked Chicken Liver Ravioli in Red Wine Sauce also won me over, even if they did not win in their groups. Then there was Ron. His touching story of refugee survival – while not really a vice, per se – paired so sincerely with the Jerk Bass, Collard Greens & Haitian Hash. We could not help but appreciate his use of bright island flavors, ever symbolic of hope and a fresh start. But it was Kevin’s ingenious riff on procrastination that took our breath away. His delicate, slow-cooked Artic Char combined with the quick Salsa Verde of Turnips was as good as or better than any restaurant dish I have eaten. It was thoughtful and concise – and his skill in its preparation was totally apparent.

39 comments
Viewer
Viewer

With Tom's obsession about keeping meat on the bone if you can, it's curious that he didn't criticize the guy who did the "rack." And he also could have used the coconuts in plating. Duh.

Viewer
Viewer

I think they should make Gail try to prepare a meal...she is so ready to criticize...but how is she in the kitchen...

Logan
Logan

So far, Kevin has the advantage by winning the challenge. Jennifer may have a chance at the final four, at the most, the bros, Bryan and Michael, is definitely something to keep an eye on, as well as that slacker Robin, and probably Mike, who I have bad vibes about.

As far as fan favorite, I like Ron, and I guess his vice was an understatement, due to the fact that he had fear from his journey, which leads to anxiety. Another candidate as a possible favorite is Mattin, who seems to be a little overboard, in a good and funny way.

As far as season, the only reason why it is in Las Vegas is because of theme and celebrity chefs, such as Wolfgang Puck, Todd English, Mark Peel, and the legendary Joel Robochon. The premiere of season six sized up some of the chefs, but there is a lot more of Top Chef to see, except for Jen Z., in which I don't disagree about the elimination.

In conclusion, if I can make a suggestion for next season, I say Top Chef Seattle, Houston or Boston.

Viewer
Viewer

I did not think procrastination was a vice either...

Anyway... I disliked Mike at first comment, but then I realized there is always someone I love to hate on this show. Par for the course.

Atlanta Viewer
Atlanta Viewer

Ron's refugee story was a vice, he just couldn't articulate it well. He said that he "kept holding on to the experience." In other words, he couldn't move past it. Not letting things go is a vice, and anyone who has been in an argument with someone who insists on bringing up something that happened two years ago can attest to it.

Yay that there are so many chefs from my hometown. Hopefully, they will give the other cheftestants a run for their money and show that Atlanta is quietly a serious foodie town.

Viewer
Viewer

Ron said he was a refugee and with what happened to him, he just couldn't get over it - or something to that effect. As a person who obsesses over everything, I certainly see that as one of my worst vices and can understand why Ron would consider that as a vice.

Viewer
Viewer

Gail, Just something I notiiced from last season - the adjective "tasty" is overused. Hope I didn't hurt your feelings but I thought you would want to know. Thanks.

cr
cr

Michael I wanted to say that I think the show is beginning to suffer a bit and becoming too predictable with who goes and who stays with what I perceive as the producers desires to be "politically correct." =============================

I think when the producers put the show together there is a bit of foreshadowing done, which I like, I would not confuse that with "predictable"

Can you predict who will be cut next week?

There is something very addictive about this show, I'm not sure what, but I look forward with great anticipation not only the new show to come but watching the repeats. I like to play along in my head.

For this elimination challenge I "made" drunken crayfish etoufee, with a stock made by simmering the bodies in white wine, with the tails marinated in a bit of oloroso and then added at the very end so as not to over cook.

It is silly I know, but just like Jeopardy I can't resist playing along. However with this show, I will never know if my answer is wrong!! (Though I know I can't shuck a clam).

thebin
thebin

Ron's refugee story wasn't a vice "per se?" It wasn't remotely a vice, and people other than Tom should have picked up on it. No more sob story tactics.

Michael
Michael

I wanted to say that I think the show is beginning to suffer a bit and becoming too predictable with who goes and who stays with what I perceive as the producers desires to be "politically correct."

NickP
NickP

I am astounded that the first comment below is that season one was the best.

Other than Harold, would any have made the final six in season five? S06 seems to have five or six standouts, too.

C'mon folks, I get nostalgic too, but most of the contestants in season one were WAY less experienced and accomplished than the average contestants in the last couple years (as you would expect as more and more people have applied for the show).

Anyway, great start to the season, but I already miss Stefan, Fabio and Carla.

Angie
Angie

This season looks to be one of the best ever - lots of talent in this group.

Yes. Mike is a jerk, but I wonder how much of his behavior and commentary is an act designed to get himself more camera time ? If so, not smart - his food will win or lose it for him, but if he gets stuck with the public perceiving him as an ass, who will want to patronize his restaurant?

Loved your interacton with Tom about the lamb - "Yes, Tom. It's a rack - we get it." Perfect !

andyonli
andyonli

So besides having some talent as a chef, is it mandatory that the contests curse constantly and are covered with tatoos? Or is that just for theatrical effect?

Gemma120in2002
Gemma120in2002

This looks like it's going to be a really amazing season! I think that Mike Isabella's attitude and behavior is going to bite him back for a very long time. Why is he so insecure about losing to a woman? Why isn't he more concerned about being the best at his craft? Losing to a woman doesn't diminish him. Being a loser even if he wins the competition is what diminishes him.

He's going to find that his attitude can really adversely affect his career.

It's good to have you back! I missed you last season.

Viewer
Viewer

Gail.. great to see you and the show back! The contestants all seem great and varied in location, background, and talent. Looks like a fun season overall. I liked Top Chef masters and hope that the contestants will learn some maturity and respect from seeing that. It was nice to see those chef masters work nicely together and no cursing, etc.

jpdiggle
jpdiggle

it wasn't mike who asked if jen c. was a pastry chef, it was ron, you can hear the accent.i agree with kenn, i wish that this show was more about the reality of cooking, and less about "reality". mike i. is just a little bit of a meathead...i'm sure he's not the only one who was thinking it, even if he was the only one who said it.

John
John

Mike Isabella's sexist commentary was not limited to one comment about not wanting to lose to a girl. He also said that Robin was "one less old lady" he had to worry about after she chose to maintain her immunity, and I believe he was the person who asked Jennifer Carroll if she was the pastry chef at 10 Arts, although that comment came from off camera. He obviously has a bad attitude about women. Without regard to how well he cooks, he can't leave too soon for me.

Overall, though, this looks like it will be the best season yet. I enjoy your blog, Gail. Please keep it up.

Hot Coffee
Hot Coffee

I don't understand why Ron got off so easy. He didn't actually do the challenge, which was to make something that reflected a personal vice. He just made a dish that had something to do with his life. Great, moving story, yes, but it wasn't the challenge. If you want to just have people cook food and judge which tastes best, that's fine, but that wasn't what this particular challenge was supposed to be about. I'm remembering the woman from a past season who got kicked off for poaching lobster when the challenge was supposed to be about barbecue, even though her dish tasted very good.

Sully
Sully

Mike is a nice guy who said something really stupid. We've all done that it just wasn't caught on film and aired to millions of viewers.

And, I'm a girl and I don't like to lose to boys. Why wouldn't that be equally offensive?

Sandra from DC
Sandra from DC

I, too, was totally taken aback by Mike's sexist comment. If he had said that he refused to lose to a black man there would be a picket line outside of his restaurant. As much as I've been a fan of Zaytinya over the years, I refuse to support them any more. Ignorance is bliss and it's a good thing that I don't know the personality traits of all the chefs in my favorite restaurants. That said, I just wouldn't be able to get the bad taste of Mike's misogyny out of my mouth.

Alex from MA
Alex from MA

Welcome back, Gail! Another superb blog! Thanks for addressing Mike Isabella's insulting, insensitive comments. As ever, your vivid writing lets the viewer how the food looked and tasted.

KB
KB

I personally liked the first episode and it looks like there is a lot of talent amoung the group. I especially enjoyed the changes and twists from past seasons. Wouldn't we all get a little bored if the show didn't evolve in some ways? I expected one of the 17 chefs to get eliminated in the quickfire. Then one gets immunity instead, out of shear luck (clever touch). And raising the stakes (excuse the pun) by adding big money prizes. It might not seem fair to past seasons, but that's life. Game on....P.S. Viewer at 1:21 is right. Ron said vice was his inablity to let go. I'd call that "holding a grudge" against his circumstances.

SN
SN

What's the deal with all the tattoos this season? Anyway glad your back Gail.

GordonsGirl
GordonsGirl

Gail, you ROCK!!! May I also say that marriage is clearly treating you well - you are more radiant than ever...

I add my name to those grateful for your comments about Michael Isabella. If the producers edited the opener especially to crown him the season villain, I'm disappointed. We viewers deserve better. If he's anything close to the misogynistic jerk we saw, I can only pray that his knives are handed to him by a kick-ass female chef. At the very least, there are now millions fewer women willing to date him.

WS
WS

Amy - you are probably right that the women in Mike Isabella's life are probably smacking him. I worked with him, and he was actually a really nice guy. I never had a problem with him, and I don't recall any other women having problems with him, either.

ferfer
ferfer

Thank you for your last comments. I really wish the show would dump the personality-less Padma and have you host and judge.

Angelique
Angelique

Hi Gail, I love your comments and participation on the show. Here's my comment:

As a puertorrican i was a little embarassed when Hector said he fried the steak he used for his dish because "in PR we fry everything" I thought, c'mon don't be ridiculous, i have never eaten or seen fried steak in any Puerto Rico restaurant. Why would anyone fry a good piece of steak? i hope he picked up his game like a real chef.

Quincy
Quincy

Great to have the show back, and great to see you back as well, Gail!

First off, Mike Isabella is an ass.

Secondly, it's too soon (well, except Mike Isabella) for me to really form opinions on people, but based on the first episode, I can safely assume that Preeti won't be long for this show. And it ain't just because of Clamgate. She just seems way out of her realm as a whole.

Hector looks so damn familiar to me and I don't know why. I've never been to Atlanta so I'm stumped.

I wish I would have been in Vegas when this show was taping!!

Viewer
Viewer

I think the judges totally missed Ron's explanation of his vice. He was struggling with "letting it go"...the pain and anger after his long trip at sea. Being bitter is a vice. He says it pretty plainly IMO, but his accent perhaps caused some to miss it.

Dan
Dan

I'm glad you addressed Mike's sexism. I have worked in commercial kitchens and even run one for a year and I don't think that people realize what a sexist environment professional cooking can be. Sad really. I hope you get a chance to take him aside at some point and let him have it.

Johnny
Johnny

I think that this season is the best yet. Most of them seem to be very talented, and most of them have something special to say about food. I love Ron (my favorite), Ashley, Michael V., Ash, and Kevin. I really think that this season all of them are quite likeable (except Mike). The only think I don'tlike is that drawing the gold poker chip can give you immunity. It's a free pass, and a way for a bad chef to stay without earning it.

Jantina in Arizona
Jantina in Arizona

I as surprised that some vices didn't come up like gambling, women, masochism (hello tattoos and piercings), laziness, gluttony, caffeine, driving too fast, gossiping, etc. I'm thinking the contestants didn't want to seem too amoral. Whatever. Ron lost something in translation. I can already tell these contestants are trying to play something safe and that's not so fun. I'm waiting to see someone just pull out all the stops. I think the judges are waiting for that too. I really appreciate Gail's great depiction of the food and why it was bad or good. It's very hard for the viewer to understand the judging just by looking at the plate and the judges saying they didn't like it or they did. This looks like a great group of contestants and hopefully they'll come out of their talented shells.

Lynda S
Lynda S

Nice blog.

From the judges' comments, I was certain that Eve would be eliminated. She was so confused in describing her intentions and the dish was not well received. I actually thought that she and Jen Z would be axed. A twofer seemed necessary to cull the herd. I'm not that interested in any of the cooks. They all seem like so many that came before them. More of the same. The food didn't look that appealing either. There was nothing that I wanted to duplicate. Hopefully, things will improve as the season progresses.

Lisa
Lisa

Gail,

Your voice is the one I hear the loudest. I think you have way more food cred than Padma who is there for eye candy only (while you are lovely but with a real opinion).

Thanks for the great insights!

AMY
AMY

Right on Gail! I could not believe how sexist and doltish Mike sounded...I'm glad you brought it up and hopefully the women in his life have given him a few hard slaps on the head today! Great to have everyone back!

JN
JN

I agree with Mike from Michigan! I'm a Michigander too and have been to Greektown (yum, one of my favorite places). What about Frankenmuth? Lansing? Grand Rapids? Great food doesn't have to be in a BIG metropolis. i'd tell you about an awesome place in Lansing but I don't want it to get over run with people! I'll keep that secret to myself!

I found Mike's (cheftestant) comments very immature, all that bravado is just hiding a very small man.

Mike from Michigan
Mike from Michigan

Glad to hear your insight once again, Gail.

I do agree of Mike's comments being blatantly sexist, and off putting. Already he seems more irritating than Hung was and I think it is made clear who our villain this season is.

I also managed to watch his comments on Eve and Michigan. Michigan not having food? You have got to be kidding me! As a native of Detroit, there is Roast downtown, Greektown, and Zingermann's - an institution in Eve's home turf of Ann Arbor (aka A2). I highly recommend trying their food, albeit the large crowds; they are a definite telltale sign of how good their food is. We may not have much of a restaurant scene as say Chicago, but it is just one of many things people like to falsely perceive about the Detroit area that I can easily prove wrong.

GO BLUE!!

Kenn
Kenn

Gail, Glad to see you ,, and Top chef back for a new season. My wife and I have been fans of TC since episode 1 of Season 1, and we look forward to this season. This first episode shows good promise of a great season. The chefs will cook ,, you judges will judge their efforts ,, and we viewers will -- we'll do as always: within the first two episodes we will focus on one or two cheftestants as our favorite(s) and thereafter, no matter how terrible they do in a challenge, we will defend them. We cant see, smell, touch, or taste the food ,, all we have to go on is what the editors choose to present. For that reason I wish the edit would focus more on the food preparation and the judging comments, and less (much less) on the "hanky-panky" and behavioral issues.

Viewer
Viewer

Wow, Season one got so riped off, they were the best and got the less. They made this...... now is about money and NO TALENT1!!!!!!!!!!