Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children
Gail prasies most of this week's dishes and discusses what she really looks for in a perfect bite of food.
Bravotv.com: Let's discuss the Quickfire challenge. Tell us more about what you look for in the perfect bite.
Gail Simmons: In every meal you eat, not every single bite is going to be perfect. But when we're looking for good food, I think balance is the most important thing. With this challenge, I wanted to get that idea across to the chefs. I wanted to have them think getting everything you can and all the flavor into that bite. That bite being in perfect balance is so important to making great tasting food. A little sweet, a little salty, a little spicy, those are all the things that makes your mouth drool and water and want more. This was what I wanted to see if they could do. Putting it all on one little cocktail fork is kind of silly, but it got the point across that it had to be small. It had to be limited, and concise.
Bravotv.com: So let's talk about the bites. Shirley's Tataki Style Flank Steak with Black Pepper, Cherry, and Crispy Onions had problems staying on the fork.
GS: Shirley's dish tasted really great. I love that she built it Tataki-style. There was a lot of soy and a lot of savoriness to it, and there was balance, texture, and crispiness. The problem was the way she constructed it made it difficult to eat. There were so many tiny components that were balancing on top of the piece of steak that was on the fork. The construction just wasn't perfect, which is ultimately why I thought that compared to the others, she shouldn't go through to the next challenge. You have to really think of all of those things to make it the perfect bite.
Bravotv.com: Then you had Nina's Shrimp Escabeche with Potato Aioli and Pickled Shallots.
GS: Nina had a really great idea to do something escabeche. There’s a vinegar to escabeche that really rounds out the flavor of the food. You really tasted the shrimp; the potato aioli was a little fatty and a little savory. And then, of course, the pickled shallots and the escabeche flavor went together really well. But, hers was a little bit greasy. There was an oiliness and thickness to it that I thought could have been better. But it was absolutely a great idea.
Carlos was just clever to grill the mangos. There was warmth. The mango had a sweetness, but also a tartness to it, and a great texture that really went well with the shrimp. There was quite a bit of heat from the chili, actually, which I really liked. It was simple, there were very few ingredients. You don’t need a lot if you pair ingredients well and season them well -- and that’s what he did.
And then Nick's beef deckle was really smart too. Deckle is a cut of the beef that often gets overlooked, but it's really flavorful and tender. So if you want one bite, it's smart to use that piece of meat. Then he had this really crispy, beautiful, purple potato chip and balsamic glaze that brought out all of the savoriness and beefiness of the meat and added layers of texture. Balsamic vinegar is an interesting option, because I often don't like balsamic vinegar. It can be really sweet, but in this case it worked really well. It added that layer of sweetness that, yet again, made it a whole bite of food.
Bravotv.com: Nick and Carlos then moved onto the Tom Challenge.
GS: This was tricky, and I sort of agree with Nick that Carlos made a soup -- and soup really is just roasting and pureeing and seasoning, which is less complicated than what Nick tried to do. But Carlos won the challenge. Just because it's simple, doesn't mean it's not as good. I'm happy to eat the simplest of food if it's made really well and made thoughtfully. That's why Carlos won. His soup really did have a lot of flavor. It was seasoned well, it had heat, it had balance with from the shallots, basil, and onions. There was an herbaciousness. There was a bit of licorice-ness to it that the fennel brought.
Nick's roasted eggplant was a lovely idea. It was cooked well, it was creative. I think we all found it a little under seasoned, as we sometimes do with Nick's food. This was just not as fully developed an idea. He talked about cutting the eggplant into scallops, but I don’t really know what that has to do with anything. There's a bit of a disconnect between the reasoning behind the cooking and how he executed it. He was trying to be too refined I think, and the flavor and the actual heartiness of the eggplant were lost a little bit.
Overall in this Quickfire, I was really impressed with how quick on their feet the chefs all were. This was their last Quickfire and now they're all pretty seasoned at doing Quickfires. There were no bad dishes at all. At this point in the competition, as we see in the Elimination Challenge in this episode, it all comes down to who is the best of the dishes, as opposed to who is the worst. There were no major flaws; there was nothing that I wouldn't be happy to eat again.
Bravtotv.com: So let's talk about the Elimination Challenge, the challenge was to create a dish inspired by this time in New Orleans, and it's a very intimidating panel.
GS: It's sort of similar to the episode before when we asked the chefs to create a dish inspired by the moment that they found their own voice. It was emotional cooking -- which can be very abstract and difficult to parlay into actual food people want to eat. Doing something about New Orleans and their time spent there we thought was fitting. We wanted to end at Emeril's. It felt like the right thing to do. Throughout the whole Season, Emeril was such an incredible tour guide and ambassador to the city. He had such an amazing story of coming to New Orleans and Commander's Palace and really making it the restaurant city it is today. His restaurant is so extraordinary. I ate there for the first time the same night that the chefs were there. After they left, I went with my husband and had pretty much the same meal at the same table, and I'm so glad I did because it helped me to understand even more what we were eating the next day. I could understand Emeril's point of view and Emeril's take on New Orleans. His food is very modern, but it all has a story. It all has inspiration from this city. He's drawn on so many different moments from his life to create the menu at the restaurant and that's what's incredible about it. That's exactly what we wanted the chefs to do.
So that was part one: create a dish that really told us what you've learned on the journey in New Orleans since you've arrived, which at this point was a while ago. They'd all come so far and cooked so much incredible food. I know they'd all changed and grown in many ways.
The second was that we gathered three really interesting chefs, who were all very distinct voices in the culinary world -- Grant Achatz, Douglas Keane and Andrew Carmellini. They all have every award under the sun, but they are all young and very modern thinkers. They all have made huge impacts on the arena that they work in. Grant has completely changed how America thinks of modern restaurants and modern cuisine. Douglas not only won Top Chef Masters, but is really one of the young chefs cooking in Napa today in a really modern and interesting way. And then Andrew has three of the most successful restaurants in New York, with others opening or opened already in other parts of the country. But he comes from a really classic French training, an Italian ancestry, and I think the food he cooks is really New York. Of anyone that cooks food, Andrew's food really represents New York City right now. It was great to have them all with us. We knew they would have really interesting things to say about the food.
On a side note, we were all pretty nervous because these were our friends and our colleagues, people that we admire. All of them have inspired me in many ways, and I've worked with all of them, especially Andrew. I worked with Andrew for many years, he was sort of my boss, and so we were all a little bit nervous having them in our last Elimination. We want our chefs to do well and we want our chefs to put their best foot forward. It's as if the final four chefs are like are children. We're asking them to a school play and impress the audience. We want them to shine, we want the guests of such incredible esteem to think that the chefs are talented. We wanted to show them why we do what we do on the show -- and much to our relief all final four chefs cooked such great food that day. I think everybody was impressed. So, that was good thing.
You can’t help but feeling like a stage mom. You want the people who you admire to take your work seriously. We wanted them to enjoy it and feel like they came for a reason -- because we think that these four chefs really are the four most talented chefs to come through the competition.
Bravotv.com: So let's talk about what they made. Let's start with the top, with Shirley's Black Drum with Zhenjiang Vinegar Butter Sauce, Braised Celery and Mushrooms.
GS: Shirley wowed us with this dish. She won because it was very simple in its presentation. Shirley is really excellent at translating her emotions onto a plate. She has done it so well in so many instances. Even last episode, when she translated the idea of what she learned from Emeril when they went on the shrimp boat. Again, it's the sauce in Shirley's dish that really gets us every time, and this was no exception. She did black drum, which a very interesting local fish that everybody in New Orleans cooks with. She incorporated her own Chinese sauce into it, this really interesting vinegar and butter sauce that was just unbelievable. The sauce was so delicious and rich, but it had really bright Zhenjiang vinegar. Then mushroom which, again, made it feel really very much about her. You could not help but understand that because she put the butter sauce in, and because she used the drum, that it certainly was inspired by New Orleans and the local ingredients and way of cooking. She just brought together herself and New Orleans in such an organic way -- and it tasted so great. It was playful, it was beautiful, and she fully embraced everything we asked her to do in the Challenge.
Bravotv.com: Nina's dish was very successful because of a mistake that she made. . .
GS: This was really interesting. I didn't know about the ricotta, and I really couldn't have cared. She didn't need to say anything, but because she had showed it to Tom and Emeril, they knew it was missing. It's one of those moments where, against her better judgment, the dish turned out really perfectly. Had she put it on, maybe it would have been better. We'll never know. It was perfect as it was, it didn't need ricotta, because it had this trout and a barbecue sauce. Adding a cheese-based dumpling to it seemed heavy-handed and unnecessary. As it stood alone, we felt it was playful. The vegetables were so carefully cooked, and the barbecue sauce felt like a New Orleans-based sauce that we knew she could have only learned in her time here.
It's interesting, the results of this challenge are the opposite of the Quickfire. In the Quickfire the two girls were eliminated and the two boys were the top, and in the Elimination, the girls were at the top and the two boys were up for elimination.
Between Carlos and Nick, they both did really interesting dishes and they both were very much in their own personal style, which we appreciated. It was a very hard call, and we didn't all agree at first.
Padma thought that the bigger sin was that Nick, once again, under seasoned his food. It seemed to be a theme with him and she wondered how long do we let him get away with it? I understand her thinking and she's right -- he is a light seasoner. It's not that he's forgetting to season, he's not making a mistake. Everybody uses salt differently and everybody wants a different level of seasoning in their food. Nick is a light seasoner. He uses salt in his dish, but we always want more. That could be us, but he is a little bit hesitant to really go for it.
But that was really the only mistake in his dish. The rest of his dish was quite beautiful. The three fish that he used, the cobia, the bass, and the confit tuna, were beautifully cooked. It was such a precise plate of food. There was nothing superfluous on the plate. Three perfect pieces of fish in this shrimp consomme, with some crispy rice around it. The crispy rice really added a lot of texture and intrigue. I really enjoyed this dish. In fact, I had no problem with it at all. Maybe, a pinch more of salt would have made it better. But I did understand why Padma felt that maybe it was time to penalize him for it.
But in the end we all agreed that as much as Carlos' seafood tamal was a really interesting idea, it was a much heavier dish and was just a little bit off-balance. To me, at least, that was a bigger issue than the lack of salt in Nick's food. There really wasn't enough of a counterpoint -- again going back to the Quickfire and the idea of the perfect bite. You need some balance. I know that Carlos used that pickled okra as a counterpoint, but there wasn't enough of it. The mousse that he made, the seafood mousse that he made in the banana leaf was very rich, and then there was all this buttery seafood. I wanted something else that could cut through that fat a little bit.
The other issue that Emeril and Padma mentioned was that because he chose to put the seafood into the mousse it broke up the perfection of that mousse. If he had the seafood on top, you would have been able to appreciate how well that mousse was made.
We were thrilled to see Carlos cooking out of his comfort zone. As much as it was a Mexican inspired idea, the idea of the tamal, it certainly wasn't a traditional tamal. It really felt much more like New Orleans than Mexico, and we were really happy about that and to see Carlos doing something really different. Overall, I still believe that Nick made a better dish that day. And for Carlos, as much as he cooked beautifully throughout the competition, he was eliminated.
Carlos is an amazing young talent, has an amazing restaurant in Chicago. I can't wait to eat there. And has has one more shot in Last Chance Kitchen, in Hawaii, so we haven’t seen the last of Carlos for sure. I'm just glad we got to eat so much of his food because there was so much food of his that was truly, truly memorable.