Gail Simmons: That's a Wrap!

The #TopChef judge shares a behind the scenes look at the big finale!

As always, we try to change up the finale every season. Not just for the audience, but also for the chefs themselves. Production decided it would be a good change of pace if Tom cooked for the finalists. I know Tom has always wanted to cook for and with our chefs. I am sure it makes him crazy as a chef when he’s watching them cook from challenge to challenge, not able to get in there and try his hand at it too. So our producers basically posed to him to cook what we were going to ask the finalists to do in this final meal: pick four ingredients that are significant to you, that you love, and design four courses for this that show them off in the best way you know how. Obviously, Tom had the advantage of time and was only cooking for two people, not a dining room full of eager guests. He also has his own restaurant in the MGM, so he had a little help to prep, but it was an amazing exercise and meal, which I think set the tone for Amar and Jeremy in a very aspirational way. They also were able to have some quality time with him and experience his food in a really personal setting, which invigorated them for what was ahead.

When Padma posed to them that same challenge the very next morning, it was no surprise: pick four ingredients that matter to you and that you’re passionate about and create a menu based on that. But their sous chef decisions may have been a little bit surprising to the audience. Amar chose Kwame and Marjorie, Jeremy chose Carl and Angelina. I think Kwame, Carl, and Marjorie were all in the top few, so, that makes sense, but Angelina was not. I know if people remember, but considering how young she is, she always prepped her food with such precision and speed, she is an amazingly talented cook and I don’t think she was ever really given enough credit for it. Jeremy knew this and used her in a really strategic way, adding her to his arsenal.

Only after they chose their sous chefs were they told their chef mentors would also be there to help prep with them. This is something we’ve never done before. We have brought in great chefs to cook with our finalists, but bringing in the two most meaningful and significant chefs from their careers carried a lot of emotional weight: Jean-Gorges cooking under Jeremy, Charlie Palmer cooking under Amar. Not only were we asking a master to be a sous-chef, but also they each have very deep relationships with these men. They are their gurus; they have a personal history with them, and, especially in Amar’s case, that personal history is laden with unfinished business. He worked for Charlie for a long time, was very close to Charlie personally too, especially when his father died, and he considered Charlie a father-figure. But when he left, they apparently had a falling out that was, until he arrived in Las Vegas at that moment, completely unresolved. They had literally not spoken since. So there was definitely tension in the kitchen that night. However, I think because of the circumstances and how proud Charlie was to see Amar fulfill his dream of opening a successful restaurant and working so hard for it,  in addition to how clearly humbled Amar was by this experience, they were able to put their issues aside and get to work.

On the other end of the spectrum, Jeremy hasn’t actually been working with Jean-Georges for so long, but, there’s no question he still felt he had a lot to prove, Jean Georges is still his boss and owns the restaurant he runs so there is a lot of pressure there. It was fascinating to watch their dynamic in the kitchen.

What you didn’t see in the edit of the final episode is how long they all prepped together. We really put Jean-Georges and Charlie Palmer to work! I remember they worked for hours and then two hours later we all went for dinner and were wondering where they were, and our producers came in and told us that they were still cooking! I’m not totally sure if they knew when they were asked to come on Top Chef that they’d be actually getting their hands quite that dirty, but they were such great sports about it and, in the end, I think they had a great time doing it because it’s a position they often don’t find themselves in. Just being able to take orders from someone else, put your head down, chop your vegetables, seemed refreshing and re-grounding for them to be able to do. I think it also helped the chefs to have had their guidance and assistance. If you paid attention, some of the work they gave their mentors was not by coincidence. Frenching all of those lamb bones, for example, needs to be done very precisely and takes time. It’s a very arduous job and I imagine Amar giving that job to Charlie Palmer took courage but was wise, as he knew Charlie would do it beautifully.

It was of course a great asset to have these world-renowned chefs in the kitchen with our finalists the first day, but it was even more valuable to have them with us at the dinner table during that final service, as it gave us so much insight into how the dishes evolved and if they were what Jean-Georges and Charlie expected when they finally came to the table. Several of the dishes changed along the way and I could see the excitement and surprise on Charlie and Jean Georges faces when the dishes were successful, as well as the disappointment when certain aspects didn’t turn out quite as they were hoping they would.

I was thrilled at what a special meal it turned out to be. Both chefs dug deep and really gave us the perfect representation of themselves. That’s not to say there weren’t flaws along the way in execution, but overall, there were no conceptual flaws in either chef’s meal. Meaning, the ideas behind their dishes were smart and made sense and they rose to the challenge at hand in terms of choosing ingredients that were meaningful, highlighting them in a beautiful way, and giving us their perspective on cooking. I really respect and admire both of them for what they accomplished that night. It was a long, exhausting day and they both should be very, very proud. This was not an easy decision. I know we say that every finale and, to some extent, it’s always true. When you get to the finale of a competition like this, especially in its thirteenth season, the food better be good and the decision better be hard. It just means these chefs are great at what they do, although it certainly makes our job much more difficult.

Here’s how we came to our final decision: The first course, was successful for both of them. Jeremy’s food, from start to finish, was technically so perfect, and modernist, he used a lot of innovative techniques and showed that he is a very technical chef, a technician. Some of the dishes he made, as much as they were technically beautiful, didn’t have the pop of flavor that we wanted. On the other hand, Amar, as we have said, is a much more spontaneous chef. His food doesn’t have the refinement that Jeremy’s has, but in several instances, the flavor is so intense that that really sets him apart. Jeremy’s first course with foie gras, chili, passion fruit, and marshmallows was a classic flavor profile combination. The tart sweetness of the fruit pairs perfectly with the rich fattiness of the foie. Chilies add a spicy note and the marshmallows show a component that mirrors the foie gras, but with enough playful textual contrast that it all works well and make sense, plus it tasted fabulous. On the other hand, as much as there was a lot of balance to his flavors it was definitely messier in presentation. It did not reflect the same understanding of technique and same attention to detail – both vital qualities in a dish and in a chef. But the habanero, coconut, pineapple, and peanuts with the raw tuna were so refreshing, so bright that it really woke us up and made us take notice.  Sometimes with a first course you really want that pop, you want your mouth watering, and get you ready for what what’s ahead, and Amar gave us that.

So, going into the second course, they were really neck and neck for different reasons. With their second dishes, I thought Amar had a slight advantage. His risotto, was pretty excellent, the best we’ve ever possibly had on Top Chef. By now EVERYONE knows, it’s very difficult to make that amount of risotto at one time, for that many people, and have it come out with the right consistency and flavor. His combination of intense shellfish broth with sea urchin, lobster, finger limes, really hit it out of the park. And Jeremy’s branzino had some subtle beauty to it too. The squash and tomatoes contrasted with the fish in a unique way, and my piece of fish was cooked well. For a few of us, the flaw in his dish lay with the sauce. He covered this delicate fish in an intense green sauce, which to me came across as a little bit messy and overwhelming on the plate. I don’t think it did justice to the rest of the ingredients he served with it, and it all came across as muddled. He wanted that fish to taste pure and clean but you didn’t get that as much as you should have. So, at the halfway point, for me, Amar was slightly ahead.

The third dish was where we had the most difficult time because they made a similar mistake: they both undercooked or inconsistently cooked their proteins. Some diners were served meat that was cooked correctly, perfectly even, but many did not, and that’s an issue, even for people who got meat as it should’ve been, because it proves inconsistency in the kitchen. Controlling this issue is part of being a great chef. I liked Amar’s flavors so much. They were interesting and deep and rich, the Moroccan inspired pastilla, the harissa and ginger to cool it all down; it is one of my favorite flavor combinations out there. I think he executed it, from that standpoint, really well. But not only was his lamb chop undercooked, but his lamb pastille was a little overcooked and dried out. It was not as delicate and tender as I wish it had been. Similarly, Jeremy’s duck was undercooked for a lot of people too. But his presentation otherwise was pretty perfect. His composition was interesting too. I had never seen buttermilk and lemon with duck this way. It added such a surprising balance in contrast to the smoked chili and rich duck. It was a very smart dish. So for many of us Jeremy was just slightly more successful with this course. Which again put them neck and neck as to who could win.

It all came down to dessert. Neither of them had to do a dessert course at all really. And Jeremy didn’t do a traditional dessert by any means, but here is where things became a little clearer for us. Even though some people may not have loved the modern technique used in Jeremy’s last course, there was no denying that it was remarkably presented and that it tasted great. There were some issues with his honey sphere, because he watered it down, but that was such a small piece of the bigger picture of what he gave us dish that it was hard to hold that against him when everything else was so technically sound and strong, and tasty! We couldn’t say the same thing about Amar’s dessert. His coconut financier was, as we said, not a financier at all. A financier was a French cake generally in the shape of a rectangle that is spongy, and generally light and airy, usually made with almond flour and brown butter. If he was going to tell us something was a financier, needed to cook with this definition in mind as that is what we were looking to eat. Everything that Amar created besides the cake tasted great, but the centerpiece was absolutely off in the texture. It was very dry. It was hard and dense. If it was a financier, it certainly wasn’t a good one. Sadly, I think Richard was right that if he had called it something else, we would’ve not had such a preconceived notion and that would’ve given him a little more leeway. But I still truly believe we all would’ve noticed that the cake was too dense, too dry, regardless of its name. Its easy to blame the issue partially on Marjorie because she was the one responsible for baking it, but in a case like this, it doesn’t matter. When you are the chef, part of that job is taking responsibility for your kitchen, your vision and your direction. In this instance, we had to penalize Amar because it was his meal and his vision from beginning to end.

I love these two chefs so much, but looking back there were simply more tiny technical missteps in Amar’s meal. I am proud of them both but certain that Jeremy deserved this win. He was an extremely talented chef the whole season long. Though we don’t judge on anything but the meal that very day, I don’t think his success came as a surprise to anyone. He is an extremely talented young chef for sure I can’t wait to have him with us at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and see what he does from here. I’m pretty sure Jean-Georges is going to keep him as close as possible for a very long time!

Hooray for Top Chef 13! That’s a wrap!

 

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Gail Simmons

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