Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Closer Than Ever

Gail Simmons spills the spicy New Orleans scoop.

The finalists come down to New Orleans. Tell us a little bit about the city.

New Orleans totally exceeded my expectations. The city looks great and there's still clearly devestation that I was prepared for, but it was beautiful and the people were so incredibly gracious. It was so fun to be there because the food is so unlike any place I've ever been. It's so unique to the little corner of the world and different from anywhere at all. It made it the perfect place for the finale, especially this finale because the cast is so diverse. I think that really added it's own element. For me, the best part was getting to do some exploring, eat at some really great restaurants, and get to understand the flavor and food from the source and then eat the chefs' versions. It was a great comparison. So beautiful and so much fun. We had a blast.

For the quickfire an eliminated chef had the opportunity to come back. What did you think about that twist?

I think that Jeff did the best and he got it. I think all 3 of them were excellent. I've also said any of them could have been in the final four. These were the top contestants across the board. They were all consistant, they were all talented, and they will all have successful careers. They all bring something different. At the end of the day it became who was the most focused because it was thrown at them at the last minute. They had no idea what they were in for. I'm sure they didn't even do that much studying up on New Orleans cuisine because they might have thought they would be following someone else's directions. I think that Jeff obviously knew the most, he spent time in the South and he understood the food. Leah and Jamie didn't. He wanted to redeem himself so badly and I think he carried some resentment because of the way he left the show. He took a chance and he went for it. It was great to see.

Coming back from a hiatus, did you notice a change in the chefs?

I definitely did. I was flattered to know they missed me. I mean Carla just melted my heart. I think she's got the most fabulous personality. They all do. It was a lot of fun to come back and know that they hadn't forgotten about me. I think they changed, yeah. With every finale we purposely do it a few months later and they come back while the show has been on the air, and now they get it. All the pieces have come together. They've spent the last few months watching themselves on camera and understanding the editing process and reliving those experiences as a viewer would live them. They have a lot of perspective and a lot of them have been humbled. In the case of Stefan, although he did still seem kind of cocky in this episode, I did notice a change. When the chefs come back they've now had some time to prepare, they understand how long hours are stressful, they're coming to the finale much more prepared and ready to fight.

The chefs had to cook for Emeril Lagasse. How was working with him?

So much fun. Emeril was so much fun to work with, he is honestly a TV pro. He's an excellent chef. To me the most engaging and charming inspirational thing about him is his passion for New Orleans. It's so evident in everything he does and being there with him really made it special. I think he enjoyed every second he was on the show. He just had fun, he was proud to be in New Orleans with us and to show New Orleans to us and he was supportive of all the chefs. He was great to work with.

They have to cook for a masquerade ball. Tell us about that experience.

It was really exciting and it was a beautiful location. The one thing about New Orleans is the people are so gracious, whether they knew we were from Top Chef or recognized us or didn't. New Orleans was Top Chef crazy. You would think we were Brad and Angelina. The reception we got everywhere from people you wouldn't believe. From store clerks to the street car conductor, everywhere we went people were so excited and appreciative of the show. More then anything they were just so warm and hospitable. The guests at the ball couldn't have been more lovely and enthusiastic. They might have been too enthusiastic because they just loved everything! They were really poster children for the fan club or something.

The challenge was great and it allowed them to incorporate something of their own with New Orleans. A few of them did dishes that didn't incorporate Creole cuisine. To use flavors that are so rich that are so unique they really all go in. For the most part the food was really good.

Fabio's was kind of messy and overcooked which is why he went home sadly, to all of our chagrin. He has an infectious personality and he's a talented chef. He was the least successful of the evening.

There were some issues with Jeff's and also with his Sterno transferring the food over. He had to win it to stay in it so he was under a lot of pressure.

Hosea's was good. It was solid and it tasted great, but it was not as good as the others.

Here's the thing. At this point, everything was good. At this point in the competition it's not like one person is terrible, there's not a huge scale at this point. It's all about the minutia and the detail and that's the only way we have to judge and make decisions. And we have to make decisions. The reason we are there is to send someone away. We're not doing it because we have nothing better to do. That's the game of the competition. You have to eliminate someone and it comes down the real minutia of every single piece.

Were you surprised that Carla had such a problem shucking oysters?

I didn't know until I watched it. Tom mentioned when we were all eating that she wasn't doing very well with it before. I didn't realize until I watched and you would never had known. It's just like eating in a restaurant. You don't know what's going on behind-the-scenes and frankly you don't care. As long as it gets to you and it's good. That can't play in to the decisions that I make and maybe it can play in a little more to Tom, but ultimately I look at what's before me. It doesn't make any difference to me and if she had failed then I would have thought why did she do that, but that's not what happened. In this case it didn't matter because what we got in the end was beautiful. She really outshown the other contestants that night.

I'm sure people will wonder why we picked her over Stefan. Stefan made a beignet and she made a beignet and his was stuffed with apple and it had a nice sauce and it was a well prepared dessert. It wasn't piping hot like beignets need to be. Hers was piping hot, it was savory, and it showed this extra level of care. And her oyster stew was the same. It was unique, it was her own, and she added some beautiful touches that really brought the dish to light and really added to the complexity of the taste of the stew. They were just flawless. Her cocktail was good too. It was nice and refreshing after other cocktails. Most of the other cocktails were very sweet. Stefan's was well executed and there's no question he doesn't have the skill, but it's that little piece of thoughtfulness that he's lacking. He's sort of on auto-pilot. It's more of an assembly line with him and with Carla you can really see her mind working with the dishes she produced. That's why she won.

What were you thinking when Team Euro finally broke-up?

They both really added a lot to the show together and their relationship was so fantastic, Stefan and Fabio. It's sad that the last episode won't really be able to feature it. I have a feeling that they are lifelong friends. That's what's great about the show too. It's a bromance waiting to happen. All the contestants are fun people. Talented, young, smart people with great careers ahead.

Can you give us a teaser for part II of the finale?

This was torturous for us. It's a really close race. I'm really content with how it turned out and I know in my heart of hearts we made the right choice. It was closer than ever before. It could have gone so many ways.

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Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

Richard Blais explains why Mei Lin won, and why we'll definitely be hearing from Gregory Gourdet soon.

The finale of Top Chef is the one absolute every season. Make the best meal of your life, in a multi-course tasting format for a room of the "who's who" in the culinary industry.

If you get to the finals, it's the type of thing you can prepare for. Every finalist should have a few four to five course menus floating around their heads, including a dessert, and all complete with options and Plan B's transcribed to their moleskins. And although the knowledge of what's coming is helpful, the format does not play to every chef's strengths.

There aren't too many restaurants committed to such meal services. Which means less chefs experienced with how to "write" and execute them. A progressive meal has to have a certain flow about it. And even the stereotypical versions of the "menu degustation" could force a contestant into cooking a dish that's not in their wheelhouse, for instance a straight forward fish course because "it belongs there."

Tonight, Mei Lin has a slight advantage. She cooks in a restaurant every day that showcases a tasting menu. Her food has been the epitome of a modern tasting menu all season. Many previous times, to a fault. Mei's food is small and precise. Beautiful to look at, and intellectually stimulating to discuss. Cold sometimes, every once in a while a shaved radish plated with tweezers heavy. It's not for everyone. It's not for everyday. But it's the type of food that when done well, can win Top Chef. Win James Beard Award noms. Win Best New Chef honors. Win Michelin stars.

Her future could indeed be bright.

What struck me most about Mei's food tonight however, wasn't technique. Technique and presentation often can get in the way of flavor. But tonight Mei delivered a few courses that were deeply satisfying. Soulful, delicious food that also was presented at a high level and cooked with surgeon's precision. That congee though...combined with a simple dessert that took yogurt and granola to another planet, won her the day. Her other two courses were fine, but suffered from the strains of modernity. Overly plated (the duck) and technically overwrought (the fried octopus).

Gregory on the other hand, it's just not his finest work. You can hear it in his voice as he's explaining his food. He's cooking improv, an ode to Mexico. The problem is, this isn't a jam session at a local cantina. This is a studio session where the chefs should be cooking practiced and refined pieces.

His octopus was a highlight and featured the unusual combination of passion fruit and avocado. It was an explosive start. The following two courses unraveled a bit, with the soup being good, but way too unrefined for the moment and technically problematic (the crispy shrimp heads), and the fish course bordering on dessert with the sugary carrot purée.

The mole was authentic and delicious, the rib cooked perfectly, but the dish felt a little incomplete. I believe Gregory had the better ideas, but just needed to think them through a bit more.

His sadness after the fact, I can attest, is profound. Tearful. Absolute emptiness. Close to the feeling of the sudden loss of a loved one. This may shock some of you, because it is indeed just a game. The mere thought of feeling that way over such silliness is well, silly. But not for us. This isn't the Super Bowl where an athlete loses and they can shake it off. Jump in their Bentley and start thinking about next season. There is no next season. There is no guaranteed pay day for the runner-up. The ten wins you had before don't matter. It just ends. Suddenly. And it's rather sad.

The good thing is, this is certainly, 100%, not the last time you will hear from Gregory. I waxed last week about Doug's professionalism, all of which is very true. But Gregory... Gregory is a special talent. His food (and I can say HIS type of food, because it's unique to him), is a study in refined, exotic comfort. What the man can do with a one-pot meal of braised anything, some chilies, sugar, vinegar, herbs, and spices is beyond impressive. Rarely do I taste food that makes me jealous as a cook. Rarely do I taste food that makes me start thinking about a new restaurant concept. The word inspiring in cooking competitions is sort of like the word "love," when it gets used too much, it loses it luster. Gregory's food however. I love it. It is inspiring.

Congrats to Mei and Gregory! Tom was right, I can't wait to one day say I saw you two way back when, in Mexico, in a little kitchen, before the bright lights, fancy kitchens, and big stages that lay ahead for both of you.

See you next season. I hope!

Richard Blais
@RichardBlais - Twitter and Instagram

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