Judging As A Viewer

Gail Simmons on why comfort food should never be too fancy.

So here's the scoop: while this episode was shooting, I flew back to NYC from Miami for the Food & Wine Best New Chef Awards, an annual bash to announce the recipients of the most coveted award Food & Wine bestows on up-and-coming culinary stars each year (next to Top Chef, of course). Thankfully, Queer Eye's food guy Ted Allen, who had filled in for me on a few episodes of Season Two, jumped into the competition and took my place at the Judges Table. As much as I thought I would be protective of my seat, I could not have asked for a more gracious and like-minded co-judge.

Writing about an episode I was not in is a good exercise in understanding how viewers must feel at home, relying on the judges for descriptions of what you cannot taste, smell or touch. Watching this episode for the first time just last week, I found myself literally shouting at the television, enraged at how nonchalant Hung was when he dropped that crayfish on the floor while fishing for seafood, at the start of the Quickfire Challenge. "What kind of person, let alone someone who calls himself a chef, doesn't clean up after himself!" I yelled, "Who does he think he is!" The looks on the other contestants' faces proved I was not the only one who thought his behavior was outlandish. I am still mystified as to why no one made him pick it up. Respect for ingredients as well as for the people working around you is the first rule of the kitchen and, to be frank, of life in general. For that gesture alone, I was glad he did not win immunity. Aren't you?

I was really excited to see Chef Alfred Portale as the guest judge this week. I totally fell in love with his restaurant Gotham Bar & Grill when I moved to New York almost a decade ago. Eating there for the first time as a culinary student I vividly remember how daring and beautiful his food was. Each plate was constructed like fine art, thoughtfully contrasting color and flavor, texture and proportion. But no matter how avant-garde it appeared, it never tasted off balance or over the top. So many restaurants come and go in New York City, but Gotham is the real deal and will probably outlast all of us. How fitting that he was the guest judge of an Elimination Challenge focused on reinventing American classic comfort foods. I only wish he could have done the cooking. Growing up, I definitely ate some of these foods and, once in a while, I still do.

My mom likes to tell people I was weaned on leek quiche and , but I know for a fact that my brothers and I ate mac 'n' cheese, meatloaf and lasagnaand pate as often as we could. I also had a serious addiction to mashed potatoes and would consume mountains of the stuff in one sitting if given the chance. We never ate tuna casserole exactly, but (I cannot believe I am admitting this) one of the first dishes I remember cooking was a casserole of sorts, made of frozen hash browns, canned cheddar and broccoli soup, sour cream, mushrooms and breadcrumbs. I have no idea who taught me the recipe. What I do know is that it was a huge hit with my friends and made for great leftovers, which tasted even better for breakfast the next day.

But leftovers are only as good as the original meal and I thought most of the dishes our 13 chefs served at the Elks Club Lodge looked pretty unappetizing to start. It seemed as if many of them failed to remember how to make the dish well, before attempting to update it. They were so preoccupied with adding fancy flourishes that many, such as Micah and CJ, did not bother to think if they would want to eat what they cooked themselves. Substituting leaner meats, low fat dairy products and whole grains certainly helps to lower cholesterol, but that is just one of the criteria which go into making the judges and guests happy.

The chefs who fell short in this challenge seemed to be those who skimped on the traditional flavors people have come to expect from this food and which make it so enjoyable in the first place. Regardless, watching the challenge brought up for me an even bigger issue: if contestants battling for the title of Top Chef can't make a decent meatloaf, I am not so sure I want to eat their more elaborate food! Obviously, Padma, Tom, Ted and Alfred felt the same, which is why Micah was told to pack her knives this episode.

I did cheer loudly when Howie won the day and placed near the top of the elimination challenge. It was great to see someone who had been at the bottom of the barrel for the past two episodes rise to the top. I also thought making an apple cider jus instead of the customary applesauce was very clever. It exemplified what I think the challenge asked them all to execute -- retain those same great flavors but package them in a more modern, less heavy-handed way. Let me know what your favorite American classic comfort food is and feel free to ask me questions about the show, the food or filming TC3 in Miami. I would love to hear from you and will try to answer a few questions in my next blog.

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