Bravotv.com: CJ, Stefan, and Josie return to the kitchen. What did you think when you saw them?
Gail Simmons: Well, obviously, we knew what they were coming back to do. At first, I had some reservations. But when I saw how it played out, it actually made perfect sense, and really switched things up for the show; I thought it was smart as it totally changes the dynamic. You'll see as the show continues, what that means—not only for the chefs who are new (the 15 chefs who were cast) but also for these veteran chefs. We’ll learn if having completed before gives them that advantage or not. The three of them have changed a lot since they were last on the show, so it’s great to see them back again, and see how they interact with the other chefs. They come across, on that first day, sort of feeling superior. But I think the Top Chef kitchen is a great equalizer—everybody’s humbled. Quickfires humble you.
Bravotv.com: For the Quickfire Challenge, they had to create a dish that highlighted the local shellfish. So, the chefs choose their groups. We’re kind of seeing this side of John that’s sort of nicer; he’s really into working with Kuniko.
Gail: John seems smart. He’s strategizing. It’s kind of funny that he was like “She’s Japanese; she must have good knife skills.” That was ridiculous, but you know what? He turned out to be right. And, that team was really strong, whether they knew it before or not. What a crazy thing having to pick teams when you’ve literally just met people. You have no idea who is who, what their strengths are, so it’s a big chance. You have to learn to trust people very quickly, but you also have to fend for yourself, because at the end of the day, only one person wins; the good news is that with this Quickfire, no one goes home.
Bravotv.com: What do you think of the Carla backlash that's starting to emerge?
GS: I don’t blame them. She is who she is, she’s larger than life. I don’t doubt of talent, but she’s a big character. And big characters are great to watch, but they’re not always great to work alongside in terms of just getting along. I think there’s a way of working in the kitchen that the other chefs are used to that she defies. She’s very loud, she’s throwing things, she’s talking non-stop. It can be very distracting, especially when you’re trying to work. She drove me crazy by the end of the episode too!
Bravotv.com: As we focus on the local seafood in this challenge, do you recall one seafood moment in Seattle that was somewhat of a revelation for you?
GS: I had so many seafood moments in Seattle! I basically stuffed myself all season long with oysters, spot prawns, crab, and salmon. We’ll get to more of that as the season unfolds. But, it really is interesting to me that you’d think in this day and age of travel and shipping, no matter what coast you’re on, no matter where you are, that there isn’t such a difference in terms of quality of ingredients. But we tasted so many things this season that you just can never get of such high quality on the East Coast. Like spot prawns, I’ve certainly had them before, but God are they good in Seattle. And we’re there in perfect season for them. Sweet, delicate prawns that basically need almost no cooking. They’re really, really special to that part of the country. So that was sort of amazing. Bravotv.com: OK, so on to the Elimination Challenge. Well first, you were saying the three returning chefs kind of changed a lot. What were the things you noticed since the first time you saw them?
GS: Josie was on Season 2; that was SIX YEARS AGO. Everyone changes. I’ve changed a lot in six years. She’s calmer, more confident; she’s just developed her own style. That’s what happens as the years go on. You work harder, you learn about yourself, you have different experiences that shape who you are as a cook, and I think she’s just really found her place. When we met her in Season 2 she was cooking at Marlow & Sons in New York, I believe, which is a great restaurant, but she has since found what her passion really is, which is globally influenced comfort food. She comes back to it again and again throughout the season.
CJ has grown enormously. I was always a CJ fan. I always thought he was a strong cook, but again, Season 3 was five years ago, and he’s had a lot of experience since then; he’s done a lot of hard work. He went to Copenhagen, and was really inspired by cooking at Noma there. He’s become so much stronger. I believe the CJ from Season 3 and the Josie from Season 2 could not have competed so well with the chefs in this season, at this level. Not that they couldn’t have competed; I should say that they just would have had a much harder time, they were less experienced, but we all were I guess...
Stefan has changed too. Whenever he was in front of the judges this season, he actually was a lot calmer, more direct, less arrogant to us. That’s not to say he wasn’t arrogant. But he was a little more thoughtful, a little more introspective about who he is as a chef, what he expected from himself. He wasn’t just saying how great he was, he knew he had to put something behind it. He’s always been a good cook, there’s no question that he’s talented. But…well, you’ll see...
Bravotv.com: What was it like judging at the Space Needle?
GS: It was a very foggy day, unfortunately. But it was great that we were rotating, and having Ambassador/Chef Tom Douglas with us allowed us a great tour of the city from above. By the time we got up, I felt like I knew the landscape of Seattle really well. I could point at landmarks, and Tom [Douglas] took us through all the major neighborhoods and pointing them out. Seattle is really a beautiful city, filled with water ways and lakes, obviously mountains; it’s very, very green. It was a great place to start the season, because it gave us a great sense of place.Bravotv.com: Tom Douglas is our guest judge. Can you tell us a little bit about him?
GS: Tom Douglas for President!
Tom Douglas is basically the default mayor of Seattle. He owns something like 20 restaurants, and he’s opening up a least 20 more this year... ha! Driving around town with him, he would constantly point to a random corner, and say "I’m opening a Thai place there. Oh yeah, I’m opening a pizza place there; I’m opening a donut place there." And he’s serious! He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. We spent a lot of time with him; he showed us such a great time all season long. He really was like our private ambassador to the city. And he’s beloved by all of Seattle, not just the food community. And is restaurants are fantastic, so he certainly knows a lot about food in that part of the country. Very appropriate to have him as our first guest judge.
Bravotv.com: Everyone made fish except for the Veterans, who went with the quail. Did you think that was a poor decision? Or if they had executed it well, would they have made a good decision?
GS: It was a good decision. We had no guidelines; we just wanted them to use local ingredients—we never said, "You have to use seafood.” I think it was smart of them to differentiate themselves, it wasn’t the risk of making quail that was the issue. You just have to cook it well. Quail is very small animal. You want to eat the breast medium rare, on the pink side, or else its very tough and dry because there’s very little fat in it. Stefan probably left them on the heat just 30 seconds too long, and that’s all it takes with such tiny breasts! I guess Stefan’s not so adept at handling breasts after all! Ha!
Bravotv.com: And so the winning dish was once again the Blue Team. Have you ever had anything poached in chili oil before?
GS: Sure, in Chinese cooking… I’ve certainly had tofu with chili oil in it and fish. But I thought their version was modern and really inspired, really delicious." Lingcod is a beautiful, delicate, flakey white fish, it was the first thing we tasted that day, and it was the best. It had so much flavor, and balance, the fish was beautiful. It was a very, fresh, delicate dish.
Bravotv.com: Jeffrey unfortunately goes home. What was the difference between him overcooking his fish and Stefan overcooking the quail?
GS: The difference was the degree of done-ness. Overcooking slightly is one thing. Yes, Stefan's quail was overcooked and a little dry, but Jeffrey’s halibut was pummeled, unfortunately. He had put it on way too high heat, on both sides. We kept referring in the episode to how it was hard-seared on both sides—with a fish that delicate you probably could have just seared one side, turned it over and it would have been done. And he could have monitored the heat a little better. There were pieces of it that were essentially burnt. It was really too bad.
I was so sad that Jeffrey was the first to go. He’s so cute, and I barely know the guy, but I know that it was a very difficult challenge, and overall the food was all very good. For a first episode, I would say that it’s actually the best food we’ve ever had. Of all the things we tasted that day across the six dishes, Jeffrey’s piece of fish was the most flawed element.