Gail: This Was a Very Controversial Judges Table

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

I love Palm Springs. It was the perfect place for a challenge like this. It has a very colorful history, it’s magnificently beautiful, it has a burgeoning culinary scene and it's the heart of a lot of farming in that part of California, it’s date country. What I loved the most about this challenge in terms of the history of Top Chef, is that in season one in San Francisco we catered a gay wedding, but at the time it was just a ceremony. Gay marriage was not legal and ten years later, 13 seasons later, we’re revisiting a very similar challenge back in California, but this time we’re really going all out, doing it for 25 couples. Ten years later we’ve come so far as a country and gay marriage is now legal and celebrated. We were all so, so proud that we could do this challenge on such a huge scale.

I think the chefs were really excited too. Obviously it hit home for many of them and that was really special. Also, I think it meant a lot to all of them to know that they were bringing so much joy to so many people. Art Smith, our dear friend who has been on the show with us many times and has really been a champion for marriage equality in this country, was the perfect fit as a guest judge. Of course he’s always emotional and passionate, whether he’s cooking or talking about his husband, Jesus. I think it was a really touching day for everybody. 

And by the way it was my birthday. After judges table they presented me with a big cake. We had a big karaoke party the night before with the crew, which was hilarious. So it was a whole week of celebrating. 

The best part of the challenge was that 90% of the food was terrific. The chefs worked really well together, with the exception of maybe two teams, and they presented really thoughtful, delicious food that overall was perfect for a wedding of this nature. There was a balanced buffet of hot and cold dishes which were easy to mix on your plate and complimented each other. Personally I loved that a few people did beautiful vegetarian options. There was beef, there was chicken, but none of it was run of the mill wedding food. You could see on Tom’s face throughout the whole episode how good the food was. He was so happy because of the day, and you could see his pride that the chefs really pulled it off. 

Another element of the food that really impressed me was that the chefs recreated a lot of culturally significant dishes – the southern pork belly, that southern pickled shrimp salad, the dirty rice that Isaac made, the Swiss chard stuffed chicken from Jason and Angelina. It was all so creative and relevant to the people who cooked it which really came through to all of us. It was homey and tasty in flavor, but it still felt refined.

Overall my favorites were definitely Kwame and Wesley's pickled shrimp salad and that Swiss chard chicken. I loved Isaac’s dirty rice too. I also loved Amar and Chad’s pork – they were all standouts. And the dessert Marjorie and Carl made was beautiful. Marjorie is really killing it on the dessert front. In the same way she won the pop up challenge with her fruit dessert, this was simple and highlighted the ripe apricot. It wasn’t a fancy pastry because we had the huge, outrageous cake, but it felt smart and rich and decadent. It was really elegant above everything else, so way to go Marjorie and Carl!

Unfortunately the dishes that were made by people that got along the least were the worst dishes and that’s how it works. It comes out in your food. If you’re not seeing eye to eye, if you’re not really communicating with your partner, the food suffers and comes across as confused. It definitely showed through in Karen and Giselle’s eggplant and asparagus and again in Phillip and Kwame’s steak dish. The steak was cooked fine, the eggplant relish was great, but the potato cream was a real issue. I’m not sure if really was what Phillip was going for or if he was just trying to cover for himself. Truthfully I think Phillip was going for something similar to it, but far less gummy, more airy, with the taste of mashed potatoes, but a light and fluffy texture. Regardless, the potatoes were overcooked and then the process of putting them through the iSi made them gummy and sticky and gloopy. There was no way to argue it otherwise so I guess he felt like he had to defend it with all of his might, to us and to his fellow chefs. This seemed to alienate them. Standing up for himself meant stretching his intentions for the dish into very grey territory, and he wouldn’t own up to the fact that it wasn’t a good dish. If that’s truly how you wanted it to be then we’ll take that into consideration, but regardless of how you wanted it to come out or not, it still has to taste good. It still has to be well executed and makes sense, and this was a resounding #fail in texture. No matter what he said, no matter what story he tried to spin, none of us liked it.

I was surprised at how readily the other chefs spoke out against Philip. This was a very controversial judges table. All we had to do was sit quietly and wait for them to do all the dirty work for us. We didn’t even have to ask questions. But this had clearly been building, this had clearly been an issue with Phillip for some time, you could see it over the course of the last few episodes. He talks a big game. He’s very earnest, but comes across as arrogant, at least when he talks about his food and I think it’s starting to get to some of the other contestants. He’s lucky he didn’t go home this time. Kwame’s relish and the way he cooked his steak saved him, but if he doesn’t change his attitude this is going to keep kicking him in the butt.

Then there was Karen and Giselle. You could tell there was tension between them when they were cooking. We didn’t see behind the scenes, we didn’t know, but when we ate the food we could tell something was off balance. The asparagus was undercooked, the mushrooms seemed overcooked. The dish just didn’t come together. It felt like five different ingredients thrown randomly onto a plate. It didn’t taste cohesive, it didn’t taste like a complete dish. And as soon as we started questioning them the truth came out, Karen really seemed to carry the brunt of the work, Giselle seemed uncertain and to not pull her weight, which forced Karen to have to compensate and clearly make mistakes as she didn’t have a partner to carry their side of the work. I don’t know if it was that Giselle didn’t like the dish or she didn’t understand the dish or she didn’t know how to cook the dish. It’s unclear which part of the equation wasn’t working for Giselle. But it didn’t come together and she didn’t speak up and own anything that they made. For all of us, that's just not how a chef works. She didn’t show her leadership. She did not work as an equal partner to Karen and it showed in the food. Unfortunately as sweet and smart as Giselle is, this was not her day. So we sent her home.

And now I will send you all off to San Diego, home of craft beer and Richard Blais' amazing hairdos! 

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Gail Simmons

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