Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Restaurant Wars Part 1

Gail Simmons tells all about Season 3's restaurant wars.

In January 2003, the New York restaurant community went to war and -- for better or worse -- I was on the front lines. I was working for Daniel Boulud's empire of acclaimed French restaurants, which included New York's DANIEL, Cafe Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne, and others set to open in Palm Beach and Las Vegas.

I managed special events, cookbook projects and publicity, making me one of the first to learn he would be adding fresh black truffles to his already famous $29 DB Burger and charging an unprecedented $50 for the dish. This may not sound like a reason to get out the battle armor, but let me explain: To begin with, this was no ordinary burger. It comprised an exterior of ground sirloin with a filling of boned short ribs braised in red wine, plus foie gras, black truffles and a mirepoix of root vegetables. Its homemade bun was topped with toasted Parmesan and layered with fresh horseradish mayonnaise, tomato confit, fresh tomato and frisee lettuce. The extra layer of black truffles sliced and placed on top of the patty doubled not only its cost, but also its glam factor. Chef Daniel called it the DB Burger Royale.

Within hours of the Burger Royale having been added to the menu, the "New York Post" published an article about it and what followed was a literal feeding frenzy. Press from across the country and around the world descended on DB Bistro to taste the phenomenon, critique it, and get in on the action. Never before had someone charged such a high amount for something otherwise so ubiquitous. Enhancing the excitement, Old Homestead, a downtown landmark steakhouse, had just added a $41 burger -- made of Kobe beef -- to its menu. With the DB Burger Royale on the scene, the battle for the best and most expensive burger was on. For weeks, all we could do to keep the press and public at bay was make as many burgers as possible and answer the call to flip that burger for every celebrity and media outlet in town. No one could get enough of what had come to be called the New York Burger Wars. In fact, Daniel's PR Director, Georgette Farkas, and I had to cook many of the burgers ourselves to keep up with the numerous press requests at all hours of the day and night. We even joked that one day we should write a book called "Flipping Burgers in Four-Inch Heels". So to all those who commented on my blog last week about Sara N's dismissal performance -- yes, I have been in her position before and managed to power through by focusing on the intense job at hand. I do commiserate with her, though, knowing how much pain my feet were in by the end of each day in the most inappropriate cooking shoes.

Only when the commotion died down did we realize that a serious trend in upscale dining had taken root: the idea of creating a luxurious version of a very traditional, all-American dish. It was extraordinary to witness the nation's reaction. From coast to coast, high-end burgers began popping up on menus everywhere. And the rest, as they say, is history. gail_308_02_320x240.jpg

As you can see, Daniel Boulud knows a thing or two about burgers. So when I discovered he was the judge of a "Top Chef" Burger Quickfire Challenge, I knew this would be a thrilling episode. I was glad to see that CJ's seafood burger won. It seemed well thought out and looked appetizing, a definite departure from the regular beef burger, without stretching the definition of what a burger should be. (To me this means a cooked patty between two halves of a bun.)

As for the Restaurant Wars, I am sure viewers are frustrated that no one was eliminated this week, but I believe it was a very smart way to end the night. Giving them another chance to prove themselves, and perfect their separate visions, more closely resembles the process most restaurants go through when they are opening. Even the best restaurants go through a period of trial and error in their first few weeks...even months. All aspects of running such a tightly orchestrated machine must be practiced and analyzed in order for it to run smoothly. Having the opportunity to learn from their mistakes will only enable both Restaurant April and The Garage to make enormous improvements their second time around. gail_308_03_320x240.jpg

Clearly, both teams were not at all equipped to handle what the challenge required in the time they were given. Building a restaurant from concept to service, with a full menu, in 24 hours is no easy task, especially because attention to detail in the front and back of the house must be an absolute priority.

I was just as miffed as the diners when I saw Dale place scented candles all over his dining room. I was also completely confused by Howie and Sara M's heavy menu of wild mushroom risotto and braised lamb shanks, which appeared far too rich for the heat of an April night in Miami. I cannot imagine how any of their guests could have gotten through it. Why didn't they create a restaurant that fit their location?

Did seasonality get thrown out with the dishwater? In addition, Tre's smoked potatoes were the perfect example of a dish that worked in theory but should have been altered or removed when it did not work in practice. He knew those spuds burned in the smoker but sent them out anyway. Knowing how the judges feel about all these elements will hopefully allow the contestants to put out a truly excellent product next week. Until then, I guess we'll all have to stay tuned ... And as for the book about my adventures flipping fancy burgers, you never know what the future may bring, so stay tuned for that too!

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Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Richard Blais congratulates Doug Adams on his admirable run and knows (from experience) this is just the beginning for this talented chef.

Doug Adams is not Top Chef.

Doug Adams is, however, the poster chef for what this competition is all about. A jumping off point for unrecognized or yet truly discovered talent.

Mr. Adams, yes I'm saying Mister because it pays respect to the man, and also because that's how The New York Times goes about things, came on to this season touting his resume of being a working class sous chef from Portland.

Doug Adams is not Top Chef. Doug Adams is, however, the poster chef for what this competition is all about.

Richard Blais

Sous chefs are on the line everyday (sous chefs from Portland I imagine are also butchering whole animals and foraging for botanicals, buts that's for a different blog). They are hands-on, blue collar grinders and early on Doug uses this statement to separate himself from the contestants who maybe are clipboard surfing, or worse, not even really in a restaurant at this stage of their careers. And although this is a part of his strategy or drive, and a very honest personal understanding and awareness of self, I have news for you...

Doug Adams is no longer a sous chef.

Sure, he may actually, technically still carry the title tonight, I'm not certain to be honest, but by his performance this season on Top Chef, he is now ready for the next stage in his career, and this is what can happen and should happen after Top Chef.

I can't imagine someone not taking a chance with giving Doug the opportunity to run a small restaurant. I can't imagine that someone out there tonight, hearing about Doug's goal of operating a Montana restaurant, connected in some way to hunting and fishing won't contact him. I can't imagine it; because it happened to me... My restaurant Juniper & Ivy in San Diego is a direct connection from my performance on Top Chef, and my gut tells me it had very little to do with "winning."

The fact is, winning is overrated.

Winning is fun. It may get you some cash or secure your ego, yes, but really, six months after this thing runs out on television, we are all just "that guy or girl from Top Chef.

Throughout this season, Doug has demonstrated everything one looks for in a great business partner. He cooks delicious, relatable, soulful food. He does it with a smile on his face. He cooks with a sense of authorship and knowledge of place and time. And perhaps most importantly (no, not his epic beard), most importantly, he communicates with his colleagues professionally and with integrity. I'd guess every cheftestant likes him. I know every judge likes him. He takes risks, like roasting a whole lobe of Foie gras, or say, blending up an aioli of ant eggs. Which, by the way, are you kidding me? Maybe he takes these chances because it's part of the game, but I think more so because Doug is a curious cook, which is a sure tell sign of a chef ready to do their own thing.

Doug, it may seem like I never had anything positive to say about your food, and maybe indeed that's how it played out on television, but it's not the case, Chef.

Congrats on an amazing run, one for all future contestants to take note of. And when rooms become available at your resort in Montana, I'm booking...

@RichardBlais (Instagram & Twitter)

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