Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Gail Simmons: Kristen Has "That Magic"

The judge breaks down each course. What did you think of the finale format?
Gail Simmons: I still can’t believe it’s already the Season 10 finale! It’s more intense than it’s ever been. We decided to completely change the way we do things and this time we’re in front of 300 people, and half of them are actually eating along with us. Usually, our chefs cook for a table of anywhere from eight to 20, but this year they were cooking for 160, an enormous task. Just to be clear, the challenge was to make the best of five dishes, head-to-head. The only qualifications were that the second dish needed to be scallop and the fourth needed to be snapper, so that there was a little bit of consistency in terms of how we were judging, but there did not need to be trajectory of the courses. I believe they didn’t even have to do dessert, if they didn’t want to, but in this case both chefs chose to, even though neither was plated and served. They could have done five appetizers if they wanted, they could have done five desserts if they wanted. We just asked them to bring us their five best dishes possible. I hope it was liberating for them to just cook their hearts out. I guess sometimes that can also paralyze you too.

I just want to say up front that I could not be more pleased with the final two chefs. I was devastated to see Sheldon go, since he really was a favorite of mine throughout the season and of all TC seasons combined; I think he’s so smart and so kind, a great chef with a lovely spirit. But, I believe Brooke and Kristen are truly exemplary as TC contestants. They have very different styles, but they both have such strong foundations, distinct points of view and super strong cooking skills. I was really excited for this final meal. Let's go through the dishes.
GS: All of the courses we ate from them were strong. There were very few major gaping flaws with any of their dishes, but we needed to choose which one we preferred, and that’s based on a combination of technical finesse, as well as flavor combination, presentation, creativity—these are all the things that go through my mind. I am not just judging arbitrarily on which one tastes better, although of course, that’s part of the equation too. We started with Kristen’s liver mousse and Brooke’s crispy pig ear salad. The chicken liver mousse that Kristen made was technically faultless. The mousse felt silky and velvety, although it was quite a big scoop… the presentation of Kristen’s was the only thing that I felt was slightly strange. The mousse was underneath all the frisee, so when I went to look for it, I couldn’t find the mousse, I had to dig through the lettuce for it a bit. But the flavor of hazelnut and prunes and chicken liver to me was sublime. Rich, with that nutty-toastiness from the hazelnuts, and the sweetness that cut through the fat from the prunes, and then that bright, dressed frisee just gave it a bit of freshness and bit of crunch. It was delicious.

Brooke’s dish was equally appealing. That six-minute egg was the most perfect it could possibly be; it was just set. The yolk wasn’t too runny, but it was loose enough to still create a little bit of a sauce. The chicory was so well-seasoned and so bright, and the pigs' ears were a fun, smart  and tasty addition. Mine weren’t as burnt as other people’s, but Emeril’s and Tom’s were significantly burnt, to the point where you could not overlook it. My issue with that plate was that the candied kumquat and apricot jam were with the egg, and the crispy pig ear and chicory were together in the salad, so the egg was totally separate from the pig ear on the plate. They just weren’t talking to each other as much as I wanted them to; they looked like two separately plated dishes. They ate well, so it’s not that it was wrong to separate them, but I didn’t know why she needed to do that. Why not place the egg right on top of the pig ears; so that when you cut through it, it dripped into the salad? Isn’t that’s what she wanted you to do anyway? I think when I asked her, she might have said it was do-it-yourself a little, but I don’t want it to be left up to me, I want it to be a fully-composed thought, orchestrated and controlled by the chef who made it. I was looking for a little more of a point of view. That’s why, for me, Kristen took the first course.

Second dish… both were incredible. But for me, Brooke absolutely won the scallop course. The scallops they were given were so pristine and fresh, they actually came in their shells, so part of the task was opening, cleaning, and preparing them, before you even could cook them, which was an enormous task, and both chefs did very, very well. But it did add a lot to the use of their time and their sous-chefs. The dishes were both brilliant, and I would be right at home in any of the finest restaurants in the country, I mean that truly. Kristen served hers raw, just slightly cured, with citrus and lavender, and she made a Meyer lemon and apple garnish. The contrast of its tartness with the sweetness of the scallop was really outstanding. Her preparation showcased the raw scallop’s beautiful texture. I really appreciated that she held back, and didn’t feel like she wasn’t doing enough by keeping it raw and clean. She presented us with flavors that were so fresh, bright and clean. For me though, there was something about Brooke's dish that proved why she is such an excellent chef. In the same way that she impressed us when she combined squid and sausage in the Anna Faris and Chris Pratt episode, or mussels and frogs legs on the ship -- Brooke can take very disparate ingredients and work with them in such a way that you can’t believe you’ve never eaten them in that combination before. That to me is just exceptional, and this scallop dish was another example of it. The scallop and salt-cod were a great combination. But then she added speck a healthy dose of mustard seed. Somehow they didn’t overpower anything, but instead balanced it all out.  The mustard gave her dish a tang which really elevated the richness of the salt-cod and contrasted with the sweetness of the scallop, and then she added romanesco – a cauliflower hybrid, that was just slightly charred, and served in perfect bites. Everything else on her dish was very soft in texture, and very muted in color, but the romanesco brought it all together. It was an unusual dish and the flavors really worked! it inspired me, it was like nothing I’ve ever seen or tasted before. Whereas I couldn’t help but feel with Kristen’s dish that, although beautiful, I’ve eaten it in some combination or variation Brooke said she made sort of a fatal error by going with the chicken wings for her third course. Do you think it was a mistake?
GS: I hate to say this, but I do think it was a mistake. Let me assure you that chicken wings are my number one favorite food of all time, and I’m not exaggerating. I love a chicken wing any form; even better if it’s a spicy, Asian-inflected chicken wing. And this probably was the best chicken wing I’ve ever eaten. However, as much as it was delicious, served simply with yoghurt tahini and pickled kohlrabi salad, it was still just a chicken wing. In one of our previous challenges it may very well have won, but for the finale.... I know she wanted redemption, I know she wanted to do it to prove herself with chicken from our fried-chicken challenge in Seattle, but she’s already redeemed herself! She’s in the finale! This is just not the place to settle old scores. We wanted to see her stretch; we wanted to see her put all of those challenges behind her and just bring us her best possible food, which she did with the scallop. Yes, it was an amazing chicken wing, but this wasn’t a little chicken wing challenge! We expected something more complex, more original more from her. Perhaps it would have won if Kristen’s was not as good as it was, but Kristen’s bone marrow with celery root was outstanding. Judging them side-by-side, Kristen’s was much more layered, much more imaginative, and was technically flawless. The fact is, Brooke made that dish to compete against herself, not to compete against Kristen. I think she simply lost track of who she was competing against, and that is where she lost us. Both chefs seemed to have made their fourth dishes before and felt really confident in them.
GS: And you know what’s interesting? I liked both of the dishes, and again, if Brooke’s hadn’t been right beside Kristen’s, if I had been served only Brooke’s at a restaurant, I would have been very, very happy. You don't get to hear it, but I actually said when I was critiquing this course that both Brooke and Kristen made the same mistake: they both served their greens in a long stringy fashion, which I found difficult to eat! Brooke had a collared green slaw; the strips of the collared green were very long and covered and saucy, so when I ate it, it slapped against my chin and was messy. But Kristen did the same thing with her leeks – a very long and stringy vegetable. And yes, Hugh, I know you can use a knife, but actually, leeks are often hard to cut, because they are so stringy and filmy, like an onion is, so I found that to be an issue with both dishes equally! 

I loved the pomegranate with Brooke’s red snapper; I loved the pork cheek which was so tender and flavorful, but Kristen’s addition of uni and charred little gem lettuces just made the dish feel more whole, more connected, more cohesive to me. And so, I enjoyed the flavors as they all melded together just a little bit more. It was such a narrow margin, but that is why Kristen took the fourth course as well. And by doing so she won Top Chef!What an extraordinary, historic win. Kristen literally battled her way back from elimination and took it all, which is why Last Chance Kitchen was made: to give people that final chance. It’s unconventional I know, but like any challenge we need to change and grow. Starting in our ninth season, we wanted to do something new, and I am so proud of the result. Not only did I think we got better food than ever because of it, but also because I think Kristen truly deserved it. I believed it back when we eliminated her from Restaurant Wars, and I believe it now more than ever. I have no doubt that Brooke, Sheldon, Lizzie, Josh, CJ, Kuniko, Stefan and the rest, will all go on to do great things, and I expect great things from all of them, I’m so proud of all of them, especially Brooke. In a way, Brooke accomplished something beyond just competing through the finale: Brooke conquered an enormous amount of challenges and fear this season. That really can’t be overlooked or underestimated. Planes, trains, boats, automobiles, helicopters, Brooke has proven that she is one of the strongest chefs I have ever met, and I mean that truly. 

But Kristen, she just awes me. I think she is such a strong cook and such a strong leader. I know when she is ready she will go from being Barbara Lynch’s protégé to becoming a great woman-leader, and a great chef regardless of her gender, in this country. She has that magic. She understands food, how people want to eat, she has patience, grace and undeniable focus. I think that is what makes her so special.  

Congrats to them both! And hooray for a second woman Top Chef winner! Now we have two of 10, or 20%, which I will say is probably higher than the restaurant industry average. After 10 seasons, I think we have a pretty great overall track record for talent. Something to savor indeed. 



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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Hugh Acheson weighs in on the finale showdown between Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet.

There is always a Top Chef winner but obviously some seasons have a less experienced assemblage of chefs, while others have veritable US Olympic-caliber culinary practitioners. (Congrats to Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or competition by the way! Silver! Silver!)

This particular season of Top Chef could have been a contest of mediocrity, but it bloomed into something very skilled and mature, which is good for judging, but makes writing a blog with poop jokes and rap humor very difficult. I have to say, I was a little worried at the beginning that the whole chef squadron was a little shaky. But early retreats by chefs with bigger egos than culinary skillsets allowed the true talent to rise without being malevolent fools. And that talent really was there. By mid season we were eating their visions on the plate, while watching them battle it out over the food and just the food.

The two most successful chefs of the season made it to the end, and they are ready to rumble in the most respective way they know how. One will plate most of their food on the side of the plate, incorporating Korean flavors and modern technique into the vittles, while the other will weave a more classic story and put food more in the center of the plate like regular people. Should be a good show no matter what, because at the end of the day, it’s just hard not to be really enamored with both of them. They are good people.

Gregory and Mei start out on a hot air balloon ride, because that’s how I like to start every day in Mexico. The country looks beautiful to me even if you are in a basket hoisted hundreds of feet into the air by hot air. The hotel I stayed in was the Casa di Sierra Nevada, which was AWESOME, so if you are looking for a vacation, go there. It's no party town, but it is plenty fun. Great food scene. And to put safety into perspective, I felt safer wandering around St. Miguel than I do my hometown. Anyway, the balloon ride looks like fun and allows for that finale moment of almost tearful reminiscence and contemplation.

So their balloon ride lands in a vineyard, and Tom and Padma are waiting to put a halt to this sentimentality. The task is put forward and the challenge, this final culinary joust, is to create a meal that is the meal of their lives. They pick their two sous chefs per person; Gregory picks Doug and George, while Mei picks Melissa and Rebecca.

They prep their menus after a good night’s sleep. The prep I will not talk about too much, but suffice it to say that each team seems very pro and super on top of things.

Traci des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, Gavin Kaysen, and Donnie Masterton are dining with us, all of them amazing chefs. Like amazing amazing. The kid’s table, at which I am the head, is made up of Sean, Traci, Gavin, and Gail. It is a super table. At the table I decide to hold true to the tourist warning of not drinking the water. I thus only drink wine and the phenomenal beauty of Casa Dragones tequila, a concoction that will make me sleep soundly (but probably by dessert) on the table.

Mei hits us with an octopus that I really, really like. It resounds with flavors of coconut, avocado, and fish sauce. It is deep. The only flaw is that maybe it is a bit over done. The over cooking made it kind of crunchy and she could easily have been cooking it to that point on purpose. Second course from her is a congee, with peanuts, carnitas, egg yolk, and hot sauce. It is so f----ing delicious. Like stylized comfort food that you just want to eat all the time. Comfort food, when perfect, is perhaps the hardest food to cook, because it is by definition food you are very familiar with, resulting in people having a lot of preconceived notions about it. This congee would have silenced all critics on congee. It was that good.

Mei is gliding through this meal. She has palpable confidence, but is still a nicely soft-spoken leader. In my years of watching people lead kitchens, I have always been more taken with the allegiance that soft-spoken leaders cultivate in their staffs. Her third course is a duck course, and like the congee, she has cooked duck at least twice this season, but in entirely different ways. This duck has kimchi, braised lettuce, and huitlacoche on the plate. Huitlacoche is corn smut, a term I just yelled in a coffee shop, making everyone uncomfortable. It is a good plate, but my refrain about duck skin continues. It was a bit chewy. All in all, the dish just was texturally challenged. It needed a crunchy texture. But it was good still. Her last is her version of yogurt dippin’ dots with strawberry-lime curd, milk crumble, and stuff. It was blow-you-away amazing. Very complex, but very successful. Tom says it is the best dessert on Top Chef he has ever had, and I definitely concur, though he has tasted many more than I have. The toasted yogurt base was amazing.

Gregory steps up with a brothy octopus with cashew milk, fresh prickly pear, and also xoconostle, which is the dried version of prickly pear, kind of like a prickly pear fruit roll up. It is a strong dish, and may be the winner in the Octopus Olympiad. His second was a strange soup that was redolent with flavor until you choked with a shrimp head lodged in your gullet. Strange and a little unrefined for me, and pretty much everyone else. It was a wanted textural element, but made a rustic soup weird. The whole dish needs to be compared to the comfort food of Mei’s congee, and in that context it is no contest.

Third course from Gregory is a bass with carrot sauce, tomatillo, vegetables, and pineapple. It is a strange dish. I am worried for Gregory at this point. It is not like the dish was bad, but the dish was just not a winner winner. Well, let’s not rest on that notion, because his next and final course is a stone cold stunner. Simple short ribs in mole with sweet potato. It is purity on the plate and equal to the idea of Mei’s congee in nailing comfort food. Kudos. He’s back on track. This is a close contest.

Judges' Table comes and we deliberate. I am not going to mince words and hold off on this: It is really close, but this season’s winner is definitely Mei. Well deserved. Gregory is the consummate pro in placing second and is going to be a force to be reckoned with in this restaurant world. His win versus addiction and his success in cooking shows one tough person with oodles of talent.

Mei. Mei. You rock. You are a chef’s chef. You make food that excites and makes us ponder. You are a leader and a super cool person. You are the winner and will always be a winner. Onwards.

Until next season. I loved this season. Thanks BOSTON. And thanks San Miguel di Allende. You are awesome places to work.

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