Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Taking The Lead

Gail Simmons on why restaurant wars took 2 episodes to perfect.

Before delving into this controversial episode, I wanted to respond to those who have been asking where I've been the last few episodes. Thanks so much for your interest and support. Rest assured I will be returning to the show in two weeks for the duration.

The season was taped during the month of April, a very busy time at Food & Wine magazine. It is not only when the annual Food & Wine Best New Chef awards are announced at a splashy gala celebration in New York, but is also just weeks away from the biggest event of our year, the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen -- the production and management of which I am largely responsible for. At the same time, Bravo was looking for more ways to incorporate other judges into what is already a limited panel of only four seats. Putting Ted Allen in my place for a few weeks provided this opportunity, and allowed me to get back to New York and catch up on work at Food & Wine.

Now, on to Quatre (formerly The Garage) vs. Restaurant April and our friend Tre's unfortunate departure. Trust me when I tell you I was just as devastated to learn about it as I am sure many of you were. He was certainly one chef I had my eye on to win this whole competition. His impressive cooking talent and positive relationships with fellow competitors made him a favorite of everyone in the cast and crew. I am sure people are going to be outraged that someone so competent, accomplished, and clearly worthy of the title could be cut at this stage of the game.

To this, I can only stress again the complicated, but ultimately fair nature of the judging process. The judges must choose who wins and who loses each episode based on what is on their plates, as well as what they learn from the contestants at Judges' Tables during each individual challenge. It would be impossible to base choices simply on the knowledge that someone has done better in the past, even if we know they are capable of more. If that were the case, there would be no common standard on which to base our decisions and no consistency to the process. It would also negate the point of the specific challenges, which measure the different skill sets necessary to be a top chef.

As the outcome of the Restaurant Wars demonstrates, we as judges must put ourselves in the place of a restaurant diner, who is not there to read the chef's bio or be sympathetic to problems behind the scenes. To illustrate, consider a time when you have gone to a restaurant and had a bad meal. Did you care if the chef who cooked it was having a bad day? Did you take into consideration that he or she may be an incredible talent but was not demonstrating the leadership necessary to ensure the kitchen carried out his or her vision? When was the last time you told your server it was totally fine that your food was overcooked or poorly seasoned and were sorry to hear that the chef was not working up to their potential?

I am quite sure that most of us dine out, we are not overly concerned with the dynamics behind the kitchen door or issues with the chain of command of those who work there. I do not mean to sound callous, but the truth is that when we dine out, we expect to be well served and well fed. Chances are, we will not return or give the restaurant a good review if the experience proves otherwise. For better or worse, the responsibility for success or failure falls on the chef. That is simply the role of the leader in a kitchen.

Sara won this challenge because her entire team worked together to give the diners a superior experience. As the chef in that kitchen, she gets the credit for their improvements since the soft opening. Unless directly at fault for a specific failure, the front of the house, the sous-chefs, and line cooks can't be held responsible for mistakes resulting from poor direction or decision-making. It is the price you pay for being the boss, and holds true for any industry. In the case of Restaurant April, the menu had a few serious flaws and the team made a few fatal mistakes. Ultimately, Tre knew the time had come for him to stand up for his team and take the hit. I believe he did so with grace and will return to his own kitchen a better leader.

On a positive note, I just returned from the Russian River Valley Winegrowers' Grape to Glass Weekend in Sonoma, CA, where Top Chef Season Two winner Ilan Hall and I were guest speakers. It was the first time since his appearance at the Classic in Aspen that we had the chance to spend time together and I was thoroughly impressed by his charm and knowledge. I think Ilan has officially become full-blown grown up since we all saw him last!

Together we gave a wine and food pairing seminar, matching Sonoma Valley wines with some of his favorite Spanish ingredients, such as Manchego cheese, jamón, piquillo peppers, membrillo (quince paste), and marcona almonds. Ilan was a hit with festival attendees. His passion for these flavors and his stories of their significance to Spanish culture were very interesting. I was also excited to hear what he has been up to since we were last in touch. He has used his winnings on some incredible epicurean travel (Spain, Romania, London), put a down payment on a home and is slowly, secretly planning his dream restaurant. Pretty fantastic for a 25-year-old.