Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Big Showdown

Gail Simmons on Ilan Hall's big finish.

So that was it. The big showdown. The last hurrah. I'm relieved. Not because the season has come to an end, but because it culminated with an appreciation for the purpose of the game and focus on the ultimate prize. No backstabbing, no drama, no childish tactics. It was finally about serious cooking for the love of great food. What we all enjoyed most was the absolute dichotomy in cooking styles of our two finalists. It was very exciting to witness two young chefs at more or less the same stage in their careers take such different inspiration from the same choice of products and the same mission: to cook the best five course meal they possibly could.
One of the highlights of being on the Big Island of Hawaii was discovering its incredible produce. The farmer's market where Ilan and Marcel chose their ingredients was made up of some of the state's spectacular meat, fish, fruit and vegetable purveyors. While the two teams shopped for our dinners, Padma and I perused the stalls, tasting fresh hearts of palm, pristine wild mushrooms, spicy macadamia nuts, rich chocolate, fuchsia carrots and at least a half dozen tropical fruits we had never seen before in our lives. Many of these specialties made it onto our plates in unexpected ways. As one of the farmers told me that day, Hawaii's complex microclimates allow for year-round harvesting of foods that we on the Mainland associate only with summer. For example, Ilan's first course of Pan con Tomate with Angulas -- baby eels -- and Osetra Caviar may have been clever and pretty, but I was more excited to taste the ripe, sweetness of fresh tomato in the dish.
Although Angulas are a delicacy, which when served fresh can be a dramatic addition to a meal, the canned version was out of place on an island known for its exceptional seafood. I worried he was off to a rocky start. But his Pan Roasted Moi -- native Hawaiian fish -- with Macadamia Gazpacho more than made up for what the first course lacked. This was the same type of clever combination that had won him a place in the finale -- a thoughtful presentation of a typically Spanish dish, using unmistakably Hawaiian ingredients, elevating it to something even more delicious. It was our clear favorite of the whole meal.

The Grilled Squab and Shrimp with Foie Gras was equally rich and flavorful. The Beef Short Rib with Mushrooms and Romanesco was striking both visually and on the palate. It may have been tougher than I was used to, but the sharp color and texture contrasts served to spotlight Hawaii's revered grass-fed beef. Ilan's Tangelo and Vanilla Bean soup with Exotic Fruit and Fried Bay Leaf sealed the deal. It was sweet and tart enough to satisfy our dessert craving, but not too fussy that he had to worry about his lack of pastry skill.

Marcel made a few obvious mistakes along the way. We did not know the extent to which he forgot certain key ingredients, (or the lack of direction he seemed to have once they began their final preparation). His first course of Uni -- sea urchin -- in Vanilla and Meyer Lemon Gelee was a daring choice and we ate up the story of walking on the beach that accompanied it. It was an intricate starter with layers of flavor and texture, unlike anything I had eaten before.

His salad was clearly a disappointment. It was attractive and fresh but the simplicity of the dish gave his secret shortcoming away. If his original idea for the vinaigrette had worked, it could have been an entirely different conversation. The risk he took in serving something he hadn't yet mastered did not pay off in the end. Next came his Hearts of Palm with Maitake Mushrooms, Kaffir Lime Sauce and Sea Beans. As the saying goes, silence is a virtue. Had he not told us he was missing the kampachi, we never would have known. Sure, we were stunned that he chose to serve two vegetarian courses in a row, but we were also thrilled at how innovative this course was, regardless of who cooked it! The blend of flavors was outstanding and also unlike anything we had eaten to this point.

The Seared Strip Loin with Spring Garlic Puree and Taro Ball looked like a piece of art. The beef was well seasoned and cooked, but the taro was far too dry and difficult to eat without it falling apart. Marcel's dessert was almost as clever as Ilan's had been.

Where Ilan had kept to the simplest use of ingredients, allowing Hawaii's vibrant fruits to speak for themselves, Marcel took one last opportunity to demonstrate his scientific tendencies. His Caviar and Blini with Kona Coffee and Hawaiian Chocolate Mousse showed skill and (at last!) a sweet sense of humor. If only he had more time to make more coffee caviar. This is the kind of dish I have a feeling we will all see perfected in years to come, the type of instant classic conceived by a young chef determined to make his mark on the world.

I think it is clear why, of the two, we chose Ilan as our Top Chef. They both have the passion and drive to be successful in whatever they now decide to do. But at that meal, Ilan's food reflected not just a capable hand, but also the ability to direct a team in creating the exact meal he envisioned from the start. It was consistent, considerate and, above all else, really fun to eat.

After all, isn't that what it's all about? Thanks again to everyone who participated in our blogs, voiced their opinions and came along on such a wild ride. See you next season!

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Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Gail dishes on Doug Adams' flawless return to the competition and why Melissa King's dish failed to hit the right artistic note.

Bravotv.com: This week we had the Last Chance Kitchen finale between George and Doug, and Doug ended up returning to the competition.

Gail Simmons: It looked like a really close battle -- Tom was really happy with both of their dishes. I will say if I had to put money on it, I would have guessed it would be between George and Doug at the end. They really are two of our stronger competitors. Obviously George was just coming off of his elimination, and it didn't surprise me that Doug stayed at the top of Last Chance Kitchen since being eliminated. I was thrilled to see him in Mexico with us.

Bravotv.com: Great! So he comes back, he wins and then onto the Quickfire Challenge. Any thoughts on this part of the competition?

GS: I'll just say that I’m a big, big fan of Chef Olvera, and I’m so glad we were able to get him on the show. His main restaurant, Pujol, is in Mexico City, but he has Moxi at the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel, where we were  lucky enough to eat the night that I landed, and a new restaurant here in New York that I am really excited about called Cosme. His food is very much rooted in Mexican ingredients and Mexican cooking, but his food is so modern. He really is one of the most talented chefs in the world at this moment, and I’m glad he judged the prickly pear Quickfire. They filmed it right in the center square of San Miguel; it is an amazingly gorgeous place. It was a really great setting for our first challenge in Mexico.

Bravotv.com: Then we have the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a dish inspired by an artist's piece of work, and Doug won with his brisket.

GS:  This challenge is interesting, because San Miguel is such a mecca for artists; it’s an artist colony that has produced incredible work for years. The city itself is so visually inspiring, as are the artists that work there. Their work is so varied, so vast. What was unique in this challenge was that it forced the chefs to take inspiration from an unusual source and think about their dish in a different way. All of the artists are very different, from a graffiti artist to someone who does more abstract landscapes. It was truly exciting to see what the artists did with the canvases they were given and what they shared with the chefs.

I tasted Doug’s dish first and understood it in an instant; it needed no explanation. But when he did talk about it, I realized it had so much depth not only in flavor, but in its purpose. He had an immediate connection with the artist he was paired with -- they were both from Texas and she reminded him a lot of his mother. There was a deep sense of home and comfort between them, which I think allowed him to cook so purely, so simply. The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not "chef it up" too much, he kept it pure. He modeled the presentation of the dish exactly off of the painting itself with those colors from the Mexican landscape -- the deep reds of the earth, those dark greens and browns -- which made perfect sense. His brisket obviously tasted like Texas, but it definitely had an air of Mexico. It had the tomatillo, the masa, and even the red brisket itself was reminiscent of Mexican flavors, since Mexican cuisine has had such an influence on Texas to begin with. The dish was about his roots on a lot of levels. I devoured all of it, it was so hardy and comforting, but it had an elegance and finesse to it in the plating -- the ingredients he chose to put side by side as opposed to stewing them together -- made it special.

The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not 'chef it up' too much, he kept it pure.

Gail Simmons

Bravotv.com: And then we had Gregory's grilled strip loin with ancho chile, beets, cilantro puree, and valencia orange sauce.

GS: Gregory’s dish was excellent too. He did a perfectly grilled strip loin. He was worried about it before we tasted it, but it came out perfectly. He made three incredible sauces to go with it, which drew a lot of inspiration from his artist's painting. The first was this ancho chile sauce and then this beautiful green cilantro puree. The ancho chiles were reminiscent of the peasant farming, the green cilantro tying into the earth. Then there was the orange sauce, which completely changed the dish. When you first tasted it, the dish was earthy, it was deep and complex, it had the Mexican chiles that really shone through with the beef. Then you got a splash of that orange sauce, and it balanced everything out in a way that surprised us. It was so inspired, you could tell that it echoed the sunshine in the painting. It conveyed the artist’s vision of this peasant toiling in the soil through this glorious sunshine, and that’s exactly how the dish tasted.

It was a really close battle between Gregory and Doug in this challenge; both of them did such a great job. Ultimately we chose Doug, because we thought there was an unmistakable depth to his food and it was completely flawless.

Bravotv.com: Let's move on to Mei, who had the snapper and bass crudo with chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles.

GS: In true Mei fashion, her dish was completed beautifully and precise. It was very tightly conceptualized -- every drizzle, every piece of fish, every garnish was perfectly placed, and it was a gorgeous plate of food. I loved her relationship with the artist she worked with, Bea. They had a lovely conversation, which was great to see, and the dish clearly reflected Bea’s work. The chicken skin, the fish, the splashes of color were all inspirations from the painting. Every bite of Mei's dish had a little surprise; there was a little spice, a tiny bit of salt, and a beautiful splash of sweetness, which made it so fun and so playful.

My only criticism of Mei’s food comes from a presentation standpoint. Because Bea’s art was so outrageous and so loud and loose and free in a way, we had hoped that Mei’s food would’ve reflected that. We thought it would have allowed her to loosen up her presentation a little bit. Of course, I respect that she stayed true to who she is and how she presents her food. It was a dish that took a lot of technical skill and was really enjoyable when we ate it, we had just hoped to see more playfulness.

Bravotv.com: And then we had Melissa's smoked eggplant ravioli with shrimp, chorizo, and cotija.

GS: Melissa’s dish was absolutely decadent, delicious, delightful. We all agreed that her smoked eggplant ravioli was perfectly made -- it was smoky, very rich, and the pasta was well cooked. That alone was as good as anything else we had eaten that day. Where we thought she fell short, relative to the other dishes, was that there definitely was less cohesion between the artist's work and her dish. Shrimp, chorizo, cotija cheese, and eggplant can go together, but in the way she plated them, they weren’t really talking -- the shrimp was over here, the sauce was somewhere else, then there was the eggplant ravioli. There didn’t seem to be a line that connected them all. And when she described it in relation to the artwork, we really weren’t sure it conveyed that dramatic splash from the graffiti art. We needed more from her. There was such a direct conversation between Doug and his artist, and it really felt like they were working on the same piece of artwork together. Melissa’s dish, although tasty and very pretty, did not have that same depth. I’m not just talking about flavor; it’s really about the inspiration and the connection, not only between the ingredients on the plate, but between the chef and the artist. His work was really beautiful (and watching the show I regret not buying a piece from him at the time). But it can be hard to translate art, because it’s something so personal. In the end between the four of us we decided that on that day it was Melissa’s dish that did not measure up in terms of the inspiration and connection like the other dishes did. So she was eliminated.

Bravotv.com: It seemed like one of the tougher eliminations this season.

GS: Yes, it was. It always is at this stage of the season. But it was a really great challenge too. I think regardless of winning or losing, Melissa really loved the process and that was so great to see. It was an intellectual challenge that was hard to interpret, and I think they all did an incredible job. I’m really going to miss Melissa. I honestly think she is a huge talent, and I know she is going to do well wherever she goes next.
 

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