Bravotv.com: So, we start with a Quickfire Challenge with Marilyn Hagerty….
Gail Simmons: Marilyn was so adorable. I remember so well when the Olive Garden story came out, and it was just so appalling how some members of the snobby, obnoxious food community made fun of her when really, her writing was more a reflection of the majority of this country than anything, and she was just being honest and reporting on a new restaurant in her neighborhood, which is the truth. So, we were so thrilled to have her on the show; everyone was so excited that she was there. I’m not quite sure she knew that much about Top Chef, but that made it even better: she wasn’t biased, she had no preconceived notions about being on reality television, which was really refreshing, and she did a great job. It was the perfect Quickfire Challenge for the holidays.
Bravotv.com: On to the Elimination Challenge with Chris Pratt and Anna Faris. Were you guys excited that they were coming?
GS: We were so excited! They are hilarious, individually, but even more so together. And I heard that Anna was a big TC fan before, and Chris had been on our show actually last season. Not on the show but on the set—he filmed a scene on our set for The Five-Year-Engagement. Did you know that?
Bravotv.com: Top Chef does get a shout-out in the film!
GS: Unfortunately the scene got cut, but I hear it's on the bonus features.
Bravotv.com: On to the dishes!
GS: Brooke has a double-whammy: she won the Quickfire and the Elimination! Really at this point, when we were shooting, I thought, "Wow, Brooke really came out of nowhere." For a few episodes, she really laid low and played quiet, and this was the first moment when we saw her capability, and I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that she did have immunity from the Quickfire and allowed herself a little more ambition, a little more risk, and cooked her own food. Everyone on Top Chef always loves to say, “Oh, we never get to cook our own food; this isn’t really my food.” Well, too bad, because you cooked it, and therefore it is always your food, but I know what people mean. Chefs are not in their comfort zone, so they’re not always cooking to the best of their abilities. And here’s an example where, for whatever reason, she was able to relax a little bit, and her lamb-stuffed squid was absolutely delicious. It was ambitious; it was a really complex dish with a lot of strong flavors. The coconut milk and black rice was an even flavor with the lamb-stuffed squid—it tasted very Spanish actually. And it was just totally out of left field, this dish, very untraditional. She definitely listened to Chris and Ana, because she used flavors that they loved, but in a way that no one expected, and that’s why she won.
Bravotv.com: Kristen's dish seemed to really surprise everyone too.
GS: Kristen’s was beautiful, too. She made these just, melt-in-your-mouth, gorgeous tortelloni. They were just pillowy and super-rich with this triple-cream that just sort of exploded, kind of like a cheesy soup dumpling, in this lovely rich broth that she made with apricots, which gave it a sweet and savory-ness that was really unusual. And it was a great dish for that evening, too; easy to eat despite it being in a broth. She served it really elegantly. We loved that dish. There were a lot of dishes that we loved. We loved John’s seafood chowder, it was really carefully crafted and excellent.
Bravotv.com: Sheldon was on top too.
GS: Sheldon! This also was the first time that we really saw Sheldon’s ability to cook because he was able to cook in his style, and it wasn’t a team challenge. This was the first time that they were all really on their own, and because of that, could do their own food, and some of them succeeded, and some of them didn’t. We really for the first time got a sense of their own personal styles, and Brooke was a great example of that, John was a great example, and Sheldon’s plating was beautiful.
All of a sudden, this guy who had been very quiet, and sort of in the wings until now, presented a dish that was very modern, very technically precise, and really delicious. It was a really interesting braised pork belly with seared scallop and rice congee, so there was really a big shout-out to his heritage: the Philippines, Hawaii, the congee was a south-east Asian element, the pork belly was beautiful. It was all really a small, really feminine plate of food, compared to something like Josh’s, for example, that was this giant monster of a piece of meat—sort of clunky and heavy-handed. Sheldon’s was completely the opposite—it was delicate and really refined. And it tasted great! There was so much balance on that plate. So, that was a great dish too.
There were a few that were kind of in the middle that didn’t go either way, and then there were a few real clunkers. I would say Josh’s, as I’ve mentioned, there was no balance between the pork shoulder and the other elements in the dish. He should have known better—all we need is two bites. We're tasting 11 other dishes -- you want it to be a tasting portion. Josh was out of whack—the meat was dry and not very flavorful.
Danyele also, she knew from the beginning that her boar chops were going to be really thin, so she should have been able to adapt to that, and ensure that they would still be really moist. They would still have some flavor to them, and they didn’t. Her Hoppin’ John was totally fine, but those boar chops were kind of measly and dry and over-cooked.
Micah had this really grainy, celery root puree that was so odd--- and again he knew it wasn’t great, and I wish he had had the foresight to just leave it off, or to improvise and do something else with it. When you see afterwards, that they’re struggling with that ingredient, and it’s the exact thing we point out, obviously we’re goning notice! If they notice, we notice. It was just disappointing because I know he can do better, and he had done quite well until now.
And then finally, Eliza. You have to remember, we’re judging everything in relation to all the other dishes. So you’re only as good as everything else that’s served that day, and comparatively, Eliza really missed the mark. If her dish had been stand-alone, it might have been passable, but compared to the great dishes we had from Sheldon, from Brooke, from John, from Kristen... there were so many great dishes, it was just completely, almost amateur. The elk was sliced too thinly that it sort of fell apart. It wasn't cooked well -- it was a little too pink in the center for some people. You want it rare, but it was so rare that you got no flavor. You got no texture at all -- it was just kind of mealy and mushy. And then the carrots were so strange—the spiced carrots were just sort of an afterthought. They also had a strange mixture on them—they weren’t cooked consistently or evenly. And they had nothing to do with anything else on the plate—it was as if the three different components weren’t talking to each other, and they could have been served separately. Her huckleberry sauce was great, I will give her that. But unfortunately, that’s just not enough to pull you through.
Bravotv.com: And what did you think when Danyele broke down and you said maybe she’s not cut out for this competition?
GS: I think that people come to TC, they always think it’s going to be easier than it really is, and every chef works differently, and there’s always a few people who get to TC and realize, "Wow -- I thought that I was a competitor, but my style of cooking doesn’t lend itself to competition in this way. I’m a think girl, and I do things slowly and methodically, and I’m not cut out for the exhaustion that overcomes us." They really are working so hard, and for days on end -- it’s not for everyone. And how can you know that? And she made it clear that maybe it’s just not for her, but she’s still in it, and she obviously has some great cooking experience—she’s worked for Steven Pyle, she’s worked in a lot of great kitchens. She knows how to cook, and we don’t doubt that, or she wouldn’t have made it on the show.We’ll see how she does. But it’s just too bad that she showed us her hand in that way. Although again, we don’t judge on that necessarily -- we judge on the food in front of us. Her food, that night, indicated that she was not pulling her weight, that she was not cooking to the best of her abilities because her food was really lacking and she was aware that it was lacking. It wasn’t as if she was trying her hardest and you really thought she was giving us her all. When we walked up to that table, Danyele admitted, before she even gave us anything to eat, that she wasn’t happy with her food and that she was very nervous, and it showed. Confidence goes a long way on Top Chef, and she wasn’t at her best that evening. But, it happens.
Bravotv.com: Anything you can tell us about the next episode?
GS: This next episode is one of my favorites. It was one of the more fun days we had this season.