Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Coming Full Circle

Gail Simmons imparts some wisdom about the basics of cooking

Just back from a whirlwind weekend in Los Angeles for the 59th Annual Emmy Awards. Top Chef was nominated for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, an incredible feat in itself, and we were all so honored to be there and celebrate. Tom, Padma, Ilan, and I were overwhelmed by the incredible outpouring of enthusiasm and support for the show, not only from the fans we met along the way, but also from some of the very actors, directors, and producers whom we revere for their own television accomplishments.

Never in a million years could I have imagined the likes of Patricia Heaton, Rex Lee, Judith Light, and the producers of Ugly Betty or The Sopranos telling me how much they love watching each week! It was the thrill of a lifetime and an experience I will not soon forget. Even though we did not win in our category (Amazing Race has taken the title five years in a row!), we partied the night away with our producers and friends, knowing Top Chef will only get better and we will be back to kick butt next year!

Now, on to this week's episode. I do not normally discuss Quickfire Challenges, but can't help but touch on a few details this time around. I know I railed against Hung a few weeks back when he did not pick up the crawfish he dropped on the floor in the Seafood Quickfire, and I must tell you I seethed again when he spilled a bottle of oil on the floor last week during their challenge to make breakfast for Padma at their apartment. Well, this time I will happily defend his choice to not answer his fellow contestants' questions on how to replicate the Paupiette of Sea Bass at Le Cirque.

I too must remind myself on occasion that most challenges are not meant to be team efforts, are not meant to prove your ability to play nice. They are meant to be competitive, to test each chef's skill and speed. It drove us crazy at times how lovey-dovey the cast could be and how easily they forgot that, at the end of the day, there is only room for one winner. But not Hung. In this instance especially, I applaud his choice to keep his secrets to himself, even if it meant frustrating the others. He worked hard to execute that dish well and it paid off with a win.

Another notable issue in this Quickfire was that of gender. Casey touched upon it when she entered the Le Cirque kitchen and I have to add my point of view. Many years ago, upon graduating from culinary school, I was sent out into the world of New York restaurants and decided my first stop would be Le Cirque, in its previous location at the New York Palace Hotel. I was just an apprentice and was initially assigned to the hot appetizer, pasta, and risotto station. Although I learned an enormous amount, I was the only female in a kitchen consisting of well over 40 people, from dishwashers to sauciers. It was a very difficult place to work. Along with the obvious physical stresses that any kitchen imposes, there was an undercurrent that made me feel as if I had to prove myself just a little more than everyone else because I was a girl. Could I have imagined it?

I used to think so. But now I know Casey noticed it too. It appears as though not much has changed since I was there, judging from her experience. And do not think I believe this is by any means an anomaly. It pains me to think that even in 2007, most top kitchens in the country are still heavily male dominated. I did not keep in touch with any of the people I worked with at Le Cirque, but I do remember the young cook who led my station. He had recently graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He was very talented, and confident enough to let you know he was willing to do whatever it took to succeed (sound like anyone we know?). His name was Jason Kallert, and watching the Quickfire Challenge I discovered, after all these years, that he is still in fact at Le Cirque, although now in the role of Executive Sous-chef. How far we all have come!

And how fitting that this week's episode took us from that temple of classic haute cuisine back again to culinary school to taste a humbler side of the classics, in an Elimination Challenge requiring the chefs to showcase three kitchen staples: potatoes, chicken, and onions. Surprisingly, our esteemed guests, the deans of the French Culinary Institute, were just as modest and approachable as the ingredients our chefs had to prepare. But what they lacked in self-importance, they made up for in attention to detail and knowledge of their craft. Even Tom felt awe-inspired by their collective presence.

It is always at this point in the competition, when we know the remaining chefs well and understand that they are all strong contenders, when we can really begin to appreciate their individual cooking styles, and this challenge was no exception. Hung's finely focused Sous Vide Butter-Poached Chicken,Crisp Chicken Skin, and Pommes Dauphin echoed the astuteness and precision he has brought to our table from the start. Although his potatoes could have been lighter in texture, his dish was beautifully prepared and presented. No one could argue with that.

Dale's Honey Truffle Duet of Chicken with Potato Puree may have failed in concept, but it still showed the creative and fun-loving nature that has made his food so appealing all along. Brian's Peasant Spring Harvest Pie tasted of the strong, risk-taking flavors we had come to expect from him. His charisma and passion came through with each bite. Casey's Coq au Vin, while not a traditional version from the books of the French masters, was her own tasty spin on a piece of her past. It had a rich, complex flavor that told me it had been made with attention and care.

Even Sara's Fricassee of Chicken with Couscous was in its own way a classic. It had all the signature elements of her very own style -- couscous being integral to almost everything she made. I am sorry she felt I was mistaken when I said the chicken was undercooked. I promise I would never have mentioned it unless I was sure. Chefs Jacques Torres and Andre Soltner were witnesses, and even if you cannot trust me, you can surely trust them.

That was one, but not the only reason, we felt her dish was the weakest and sent her home. I believe she is on the brink of a very successful career and can't wait to taste her cheese, wherever she makes it. What disappointed me more than anything about her departure was that it left us, once again, with only one woman in the kitchen. Next stop, Aspen, Colorado for our finale. See you there!

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. 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. 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. 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 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. 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. 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. 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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