Bravotv.com: This episode starts with Questlove with a really fun challenge: the drumstick challenge.
Gail Simmons: I had never thought to think of how many drumsticks exist in the world, but I was happy to do so. Overall, I was impressed with how creative the chefs were. I think that Questlove was too. It was really fun having him with us. He actually DJed that night after the Quickfire at Tipitina's, which is one of the most famous music venues in New Orleans.
Bravotv.com: What do you look for in a drumstick?
GS: You want it to be moist, not dry. You want it to have some flavor. Poultry in general really takes on the flavors that you give it, so there's so much opportunity, whether you’re frying or grilling or baking, to really fuse the flavor. I think that that was the challenge for the chefs to do so in such a short time. Carrie was really creative with the squab. Squab drumsticks are so tiny. We've seen so many chefs overcook them in tough challenges on the show or in life in general. She did a great job.
Bravotv.com: A very different challenge this week to have to serve to 500 people at the LSU student cafeteria.
GS: This was a huge challenge for the chefs, for sure. We always like to throw them one challenge (if not more) every season that makes them really come together as a team and cook for a really large amount of people -- because it’s so different than what they do in the kitchens when they’re making one plate at a time. This was a massive obstacle for them. Not only was it 500 students, but they’re students. You’re cooking without all of the fancy gourmet ingredients that you’re used to in the Top Chef kitchen. They also had no prep time before. They had no idea what they were getting. They weren’t used to the massive industrial space. There was a big learning curve for all of them.
Bravotv.com: What were you hoping to see them achieve with cafeteria food?
GS: There were three things that they needed to keep in mind. One was consistency; we talked a lot about that. With 500 people, you need to ensure that everything you make is consistent. Then your first batch for person number six is the same as four hours later when you’re cooking for person number 426. The second issue is knowing your audience. You’re cooking for students who are about to start college, so generally 17, 18, 19 year-olds. That’s not to say that they can’t be sophisticated, because you never know, but generally you’re going to run the gamut. You want to cook something that’s going to draw them in, especially since you’re all competing here. You can try to take risks and challenge their palate, which I’m all for in theory, but you also need to appeal to a mass audience. We’re talking 500 people, we’re not talking 20 17-year-olds who you’re trying to sway to become chefs themselves. That’s not the point. The third piece is speed. You need to be pumping out service. As you saw from the show, so many of the chefs really struggled with the speed of service because when those doors opened, the masses descended on them. They were all pummeled to the ground by how many people needed food and needed it fast. So really preparation became key.
Bravotv.com: Talking about preparation, do you want to get into OvenGate?
GS: Carlos was out for himself, but again I don’t understand why he wouldn’t be. It’s about yourself. You're competing against everyone else, solo. It's funny when everyone thinks he's selfish. Well, who's going to look out for you, if not you? On the other hand it did seem like he being a little bit sketchy. He demanded the pancha, because he had to cook his tilapia a certain way, even after Shirley already wanted it.
Then he blamed Nick for stealing his oven, which I really was confused by. At the time I didn’t understand what he was talking about. He wasn't clear: was it his oven or did he ask Nick to use it and Nick said no. That's not the same thing as stealing your oven. They had to work that out and if Carlos had an issue with it he needed to go to Nick. It was a little bit of a low blow. He did throw Nick under the bus by telling the judges he stole the oven. Quite frankly we didn't care that much. We were still just going to choose who had the best food, and that’s why Carlos was on the top -- even if people were really annoyed by him. His food was good, but he had other issues as well. The issue of speed was certainly one.
Bravotv.com: What did you think of his tilapia?
GS: It was definitely one of the best dishes in terms of being fresh, it had lots of flavor, it was cooked well, and it appealed to a lot of people while still being creative and not feeling like cafeteria food at all. It was a little bit elevated which we appreciated, while still accessible to everyone. Everyone enjoyed it.
Bravotv.com: What did you think of Brian's shrimp cake?
GS: Brian’s shrimp cake was one of the first things I tasted that day and it was really excellent. It had tons of crunch. It was fried, and that appealed to a lot of people. The salad had a lot of acid in it, which brought a lemony-brightness that lightened up the cake itself so it didn't feel so dense and heavy. The cake had lots of chunks of shrimp so it felt like you were getting something substantial. And it tasted great. I think it was really smart.
Bravotv.com: Then you had on top Shirley's dish.
GS: Shirley's dish was great. I was even more impressed after I watched the episode knowing what Shirley went through to make that dish, knowing that wasn't what she wanted to do in the first place. I love how she used the wood burning oven in creative way to blister those tomatoes. They were delicious. To make potato puree for that many people, it’s either going to be gluey and sticky or too soupy and hers was neither. Hers had a great consistency, which showed that she was really paying attention, constantly. You could see her struggling when she made them, but they turned out really well. The roast beef was a beautiful medium rare, sliced consistency. I think there was a comfort to her dish that all the students, who were maybe away for the first time in their lives, really appreciated it. To them it felt like home cooking, Sunday dinner at their parents’ house, and I think that kind of gave everyone a familiarity but prepared really beautifully. So that’s why we gave her the win and the RAV4.
Bravotv.com: And Carrie had immunity.
GS: Let's talk about Carrie. I have a feeling that if Carrie didn't have immunity, she would have gone home. I think she knew it too. I think everybody knew it. But that's how the game is played. She had immunity so she earned the right to make a mediocre dish, I guess. It’s disappointing because Carrie is capable of so much more. She’s won a lot of challenges. The fact that she literally steamed broccoli and made a Tzatziki yogurt dip felt like such a cop out when you compare it to what everyone else made that day. I’m not saying that she wasn’t busy prepping, cleaning, washing, chopping, and cooking the broccoli and then making dip for 500 people. But it just doesn’t compare when you think of all the things that Shirley did, all the things that Nick and Carlos and Brian did for their dishes. It was sort of lame, I have to say. She wasn’t really thinking about her audience, she wasn’t thinking about being creative or rising to the challenge at all.
I think we hammered home the issue with Stephanie. I actually liked the taste of Stephanie’s soup and the taste of her sandwich. Stephanie’s issue was textural. I know she wanted us to dip her sandwiches into the soup. But after going through the trouble of crisping them up, she then soaked the toasty sandwich in the soup and some of them sat there for a little while. It just didn’t work. The sandwiches completely fell apart and disintegrated, plus it was difficult to eat and messy. The cheeses that she had to work with were difficult as well.
Bravotv.com: Yes, Feta is not in your typical pimentos.
GS: Nope, a lot of curd as I explained, which made it sort of chunky as opposed to melty. She went a little overboard. But she had great intentions and I was glad to see her get into the challenge. I think her idea was really smart.
Nina’s fried chicken had consistency issues. Some had corn puree, some didn’t, and the purees weren’t very flavorful. When fried chicken was in it, it became soggy. And some people didn’t get any puree at all, although they did avoid getting soggy friend chicken. The pickles were a great touch though. I think it was a smart dish; she just didn’t execute it very well. I think she was thrown off by the mass quantity she had to produce.
And then there was Justin. It was sad seeing Justin go home for this for sure. We know how talented he is. I think he’s an excellent, excellent cook and a smart cook. I just think he made decisions at LSU that cost him a lot. He tried to make something that didn’t play well to the challenge. It didn’t have a lot of flavor. It was a cold shrimp salad and the garlic puree overpowered everything because everything else was so mild and subtle. Cold shrimp alone needs seasoning, and it didn’t really have that. It was pretty and he tried to make it more refined. I just think you’re a setting like this when you’re appealing to 500 kids who need to get in and get out, you need to think a little more about what’s going to satisfy them or what they are going to be craving. I just don’t think this is something that any of them really enjoyed eating -- and we didn’t enjoy eating it that much either. We thought it was pretty and delicate. In another setting when you have more control over it, it might have been more appropriate. But at LSU that day, it was his downfall. Unfortunately that ends his time on Top Chef, unless he comes back in Last Chance Kitchen. He’ll be missed. But everyone should go visit him at La Petite Grocery in New Orleans. It’s just a fantastic restaurant.
Editors' Note: As a bonus, here's a snapshot of Gail in college
This is of my roommates and I in our junior year at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.