Gail Simmons: Top Chef Isn't for Everyone

Gail Simmons dishes on #TopChef 13 episode seven...

 

Bravotv.com: For the Quickfire challenge all of the chefs had to use exactly the same ingredients. It's really interesting how varied all of the dishes were.

Gail: I think it's such a great exercise -- taking ten of the exact same ingredients and seeing what ten different chefs do with it, it speaks to how vast the culinary universe is in terms of how we all think about food. I love that the chefs all cooked things that were very personal to their style. It just also shows you how diverse simple ingredients can be. These ingredients weren't out there in any way: salt, tomato, celery, beef, etc. I just loved the variety of dishes Antonia was able to taste from their creations. On a side note, I loved having Antonia on the show as a Quickfire judge in general. Obviously she has done extremely well since she was first on Top Chef, she has two beautiful, successful restaurants, and her own television career, and I thought she added such a great energy to the room. It's always nice when a Top Chef alum comes back because the cheftestants respect them, know that they have empathy, and that they will be articulate about the decisions. It is really helpful in terms of receiving feedback from someone who was once in their shoes.

And then we moved on to the elimination challenge...

A decade is a long time in life, this decade went by incredibly quickly for me, mostly because I've spent so much of it shooting this show! It's extraordinary to think back on the last ten years of my life and how my life has changed since the beginning of 2006. We shot the very first season of Top Chef at the end of 2005 and then I went back to my regular life, working at Food & Wine in New York, running the Classic in Aspen. I had just shot the first season, which I was completely nervous about and I had no idea what it would mean if anything, who was going to watch, and if it would do well. In my wildest dreams I certainly didn't imagine it was going to be the success that it was. I wasn't yet married, I didn't have a child, I didn't know Padma Lakshmi because our first season was shot with another host. It's amazing what a right turn my life was about to take right when the show first premiered. The show premiered in March 2006, so that January we were still a couple months off from it all and just starting to rev up to the premiere. I had no idea what that would mean and it totally changed the course of my life.

To have our chefs think back to that time and cook a dish that represents where they were was exciting. So much happens in ten years. All of their dishes were really personal and that's what I liked most about the challenge. I agree with what Antonia said, that the best challenges on the show, the most revealing challenges, when we often get the best food, are the challenges that require personal reflection, require the chefs to show us a piece of themselves. No fancy tricks or twists, just cook your own food, don't overthink it, be yourself, and show us what you can do. I think a lot of the chefs really did that.

For our dining table at this challenge, we wanted a group of chefs who were revered in Los Angeles. We were coming back to LA after our road trip to Palm Springs, San Diego, and Santa Barbara, and we wanted it to feel rooted there. People like Nancy Silverton, who has been an icon in Los Angeles dining for over probably three decades -- she's like the earth mother of Los Angeles food. She originally came from a baking background. She's such a wealth of information and has been on the show many times and so having her weigh in felt appropriate.

There were also some super talented LA Top Chef alum, like Michael Voltaggio, our guest judge for the challenge. In the last ten years his life has certainly changed, he cooked for Charlie Palmer, then for Jose Andres. Of course he won our sixth season, he opened ink, arguably one of the best restaurants in the city. The rest of the table included Mei Lin, his disciple who won our last season, Richard of course, and then two Los Angeles chefs who perfectly represent what I think is the new guard in Los Angeles. Los Angeles food has changed enormously in the last two to three years by the way! There's been an explosion of young, innovative, edgy cooking and Zach Pollack from Sotto and Alimento and Kris Yenbamroong from Night + Market are running two of the best, critically acclaimed restaurants in town. They're both young, but they're at the top of their game. So it was fun to get their perspective on the food too.

Full disclosure: Zach is my best friend's younger brother, so it was extra special for me to have him on the show.

Ok, now to the food...

The dishes Marjorie, Chad, and Carl created were really fantastic, true standouts. Marjorie's seared halibut with green curry won us all over instantly. Her story seemed light in the way that it related to the food, just that she was really green ten years back, she was just learning. We were impressed with how she could humble herself to the ingredients she cooked and though it say “ten years ago I was really new, I knew nothing, I still feel like I know nothing. This curry is green to represent how green I was, but it is layered with flavor and technique, so it also shows how far I've come." And that's why it resonated with all of us. It just had so many flavors and you could tell it was carefully executed; she really put a lot of thought into it, which she probably couldn’t have pulled off so well ten years ago. She was our winner.

I don't want to discount Chad and Carl who also made really beautiful dishes. Chad's dish was a clean, bright ceviche with balance and focus. Part of the reason why he was one of the top chefs that day was that we had another ceviche to compare it to directly which fell so short. Chad's was everything you'd want in a ceviche, he really delivered on his story and his technique. The thing about ceviche is that it sounds simple, it's raw, but ceviche depends so much not only on the freshness of the ingredients and the balance of acid, but also the knife skills employed and how every bite has to come together. It is not easy. We've seen a lot of ceviche and a lot of crudo this season. It seems to be the season of ceviche, and luckily this was a great one.

Carl's snail fricassee with vegetables was a beautiful interpretation of where he was ten years ago too -- he went to France, it blew his mind, he had snails, he then went to work for Tony Maws in Boston, a great chef who gave him a chance to learn technique and thrive in his kitchen. He told that story in such a delicate way. He also culled from the bounty of California ingredients we gave them, and letting them speak for themselves. His vegetable work was spectacular; the snails lent that enjoyable “funkiness”. I loved that dish and still think of it from time to time. I would eat it again in a heartbeat.

I wanted to also mention Amar's dish, which was well done too. It was the reinterpretation of a classic and it actually felt like a dish from ten years ago. I think if he created that exact dish today, not thinking about this challenge, it would be updated in its presentation and style, but he made it look and taste exactly as it would have ten years ago, which forced us all to think abut how far food and restaurants have come and how quickly things evolve. Most importantly he made it for his mentor, Gerry Hayden, a chef who worked at many great restaurants and then opened an incredible bed and breakfast on the North Fork of Long Island. He was one of Tom's close friends and he passed away shortly after we shot this season, which is why the episode is dedicated to him. Chef Gerry and his acclaimed pastry chef wife Claudia exemplify the best of the chef world in every way; their talent and their kindness are widely known. We all miss Gerry and his contribution to food every day.

And now the bottom three: Phillip, Kwame, and Jason...

Ten years ago Kwame was in a dark place and he choose to use that dark place to inspire his dish. But his emotions prevented him for executing it very well. The concept was fine and could have been really exciting. I love jerk and I'm always excited to have it! But he fell short in every stage -- he cut his hand badly, he just was not himself. The dish was not appealing, the consistency was grainy, we couldn't taste the spices, the blue cheese overpowered everything, it was off balance, as was he.

Phillip...where to begin? He has so much talent and I don't doubt that he's a great cook, but his intentions can be so off. He made a ceviche and had a great story, the idea was perfectly fine, but his ceviche wasn't well seasoned, it wasn't mixed together, so when we ate it, it looked and tasted totally flat. It didn’t have the acid it needed, even though the first thing he told us about it was that it was really “lime-driven”. What really struck me when I watched the episode was how he kept saying he had to “cook to please the judges”. I think this is really interesting and not for the reason everyone probably assumes: of course you have to cook to please the judges, that's no secret! Who else is there to please?! But as Tom said, we're not looking for anything specific. To please the judges, you just have to MAKE GOOD FOOD. That's it, but that's obvious. What else are we looking for? It's a cooking show about making good food or making bad food, and when you make bad food you go home. That's the game. It's really transparent. If you look at all of the winning dishes over the last ten years you'll see that they're varied, they're all over the map. Why do people win challenges? Because the food tastes good. That's the commonality between every great dish, because that's WHAT COOKING IS ABOUT. So I have no idea what he's talking about. Or if he's trying to cook to our individual likes and dislikes, but there are four of us, with four very different palates, so you can't ever cook in one singular way.

Finally Jason. I've known Jason for a long time. He's a 2010 Food & Wine Best New Chef and I've always been a fan of his cooking. I know how talented he is and had eaten his food several times before he was on the show. You could tell he wasn’t immensely happy the last few episodes. Top Chef isn't for everyone. Just because you're a great chef doesn't mean this type of competition is your sweet spot. Some people thrive in it and some don't, emotionally and in terms of your work in the kitchen. Jason, I think emotionally just wasn't up for it. His reason for being eliminated was basic -- there wasn't nearly enough seasoning in his dish, which would have been fine otherwise. We know he can cook, but this was not a balanced dish. He knew it, we knew it. Again this just shows that this competition is about making good food in the moment, ever episode, challenge to challenge. You have one bad day and unfortunately you're gone. We'll miss Jason, but I know in my heart he'll land on his feet.

 
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Gail Simmons

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