Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

"Gail! Gail!"

After leaving the show to get married, Simmons comments on the first Toby Young episode.

If judges were allowed to keep in touch with cheftestants, I would have called Carla as soon as I watched this episode to thank her profusely for her hilarious and much appreciated shout-out! I laughed so hard I nearly fell off the couch when she called my name in her interview after having met Toby Young, the British writer who took my place while I got married. Although I was flattered that she missed me. I was also happy to hear that Toby's arrival prompted a challenge in which our chefs were free to cook without any limitations, serving family-style plates for the judges--and, as it turns out, a table of their fellow chefs--to critique. When I learned the parameters of the challenge, my hope was that the chefs would quit complaining about how they never get the opportunity to cook their own food, and instead turn out a table of great-tasting dishes.

No such luck.

I did feel some relief when a few of the dishes served that evening appeared to be worth eating: creative, appetizing, and appealing. I could almost taste the bright, harmonious flavors in Jamie's winning Seared Scallops with Fennel, Garlic, Oranges & Olives and Stefan's Duck Breast sounded as hearty and savory as the judges claimed it to be. I was thrilled at the description of Ariane's Skate Wing with Pineapple. It was an otherwise classic skate preparation, given an inventive spin with the addition of the caramelized pineapple, which I imagine lent a subtly sweet and tart flavor that melded exceptionally with the nuttiness of the brown butter. I was intrigued by the description of Leah's Seared Rouget Encrusted in Bread, but it seemed as though the judges were divided on its level of success. What surprised me most was learning that several chefs chose to cook dishes they had made many times before, but which then proceeded to fail miserably. Radhika's Curried Crab Bisque and Melissa's Raw Tuna Tacos are two such examples. Carla's Scallops on top of Risotto with Gremolata appeared simple and relatively uninteresting, but the combination of flavors and ideas could have been excellent had she not made a mess of that overly garlicky Gremolata. She second-guessed herself in making the dish in the first place, even though her instincts told her to cook something vegetarian, and for some reason she was not be able to recover. Eugene, on the other hand, made a dish that truly did go out on a limb and I applaud him for the risk he took in attempting it. The idea of his Two Fish Swimming was dramatic and definitely caught everyone's attention. That said, it is at least the second time he has stretched himself far beyond his own capabilities and presented food which severely missed the mark (the new sushi he devised for my bridal shower comes to mind here). I agree with Tom wholeheartedly in that Eugene allows his enthusiasm for creative cooking to take him to a place where his skill cannot yet go. His dishes may have potential in theory, but they need to be articulated, honed, and fully thought through before they can be served as finished concepts. Perhaps his palate also should be called into question. Across the board, the judges and chefs who ate his dish felt his combination of tomato, basil, and daikon radish was a poor choice.

Eugene and Melissa may have been on the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their poor reviews (one dish being dull and uninspired and the other overly complex), but both showed a lack of skill and thoughtfulness in execution. For this, they were both forced to leave. I do believe the challenge gave both of them, as well as the remaining contestants, a taste of what it is like to judge food from the other side of the table. For me, the most interesting part of this episode was witnessing how easy it was for them to criticize their peers' mistakes, how quick they all were to point out the minute details that made each dish sing or fall flat. Only time will tell if any of them are able to embrace the scrutiny and apply it to their own cooking.

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