Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Nothing as it Seems

Gail Simmons discusses Jamie's demise and explains why this was her favorite challenge of the season to date.

Editor's Note: Gail couldn't get to a computer this week, so we had the pleasure to speak to her on the phone and get her take on this week's episode.

You have the great Eric Ripert as a guest on this episode. Let's talk about him a little bit.

First off, I think that this elimination challenge was the best challenge to date this season. I'm really jealous that I wasn't there, not only because Eric Ripert is one of my favorite people, but also because he's one of my favorite chefs. What I loved the most about this episode was that we really learned something. We learned a lot actually. I really learned a lot too.

To me, the most important thing about the challenge they were given, re-creating a dish they had eaten once, was not only about skill, but was really about palate. It was about understanding your palate and about tasting, and then re-creating those flavors from memory. That is such a difficult thing to do. Such in italics. It's especially hard tasting something only once that is so sophisticated. The beauty of Eric's food is that it is simple and light-handed, but that doesn't mean it's easy. The word simple does not mean easy. I was really impressed with the outcome from all the chefs. I didn't think that any of them would come as close as they did. It appeared as if most of them passed the test. They may not have been spot on, but they really understood even the more complicated techniques that he used. I thought that was awesome. I thought the whole challenge was really excellent.

Were you surprised that Jamie was sent home?

No. She went home because she didn't like her dish as much as anything else. From the get-go she knew this was not a technique she liked. She didn't want to do the bass right off the bat. It was her least favorite dish, so I think a lot of it became attitude. I love Jamie, I loved her from the first day, and I actually think she's a great talent. I have a lot of friends in San Francisco who are obsessed with her restaurant. I know she had a shot at being Top Chef just as much as anyone, but I know she can be negative when she doesn't like what she's doing. That is a problem for chefs, because it's easy for them to forget that they're not cooking for themselves, they're cooking for customers. There are always going to be tasks, dishes, flavor profiles and combinations, and ingredients you might not like or might not be your favorite thing to do.

You can argue that as an executive chef of restaurant you'll never have to do something you don't want to, but even that's not true, especially now. If a customer comes into your restaurant and pays $100 a person or more, as they would be at Le Bernardin, and a customer says, "I want a side of Caesar Salad with my fish" or something like that, that's what you do for them. Cooking cannot be about your ego. Chefs often get into a lot of trouble when they stop cooking for other people, and they start cooking for themselves only. I think Jamie can fall into that trap. I think part of her demise on this episode was that her head wasn't in the game because she didn't love what she was doing. She saw the challenge as a hindrance to her success.

She had to braise the celery, which was a problem.

I have to say, that shouldn't really be such a difficult task. That's a pretty elementary technique, actually. She added too much salt and then reduced it too much and that's what happens. It seemed that it was inedible, and that's a big deal.

What did you think about Carla? She really whipped out traditional French cooking skills.

I thought she was amazing. I thought she was super strong in this episode and I'm proud of her. She has been one to watch this season because she's unassuming. She's not the fancy, highbrow, classically trained chef. Her food is more comfort, more soul food, heavy on the vegetables and on the love. And love goes along way. I think she was successful because this challenge was about the palate, and that's where she's really strong. She said before in the taste test Quickfire that she could taste something and the ingredients would pop into her head. I think that's an advantage, and she really nailed it because her dish was not easy. Granted, I wouldn't say that Stefan's dish was easy, but it was the most straightforward. It was asparagus, roast lobster, and hollandaise. It had the least components and it had a classic sauce, but he won the Quickfire so he had that advantage. Good for him and I'll be seeing him in Pebble Beach. I'm looking forward to hanging with him.

Let's go back to that Quickfire. Hosea is supposedly a real seafood guy, but he had trouble with 2 out of the 3 fish.

First of all, I thought that the Quickfire was just as good as the Elimination Challenge. I thought the whole thing was a really great package that was all about skill, and I took away a lot from it. I hope our viewers did too. Now that we're down to the last few chefs, we're really at a place where there's no margin for error. Everyone's good, everyone's talented, and we've gotten rid of all the question marks so it's anyone's game at this point. Back to Hosea. Yes, Hosea is the "fish guy," but there's a category of fish where the anatomy of fish is all the same, but something like eel doesn't fall into that category. He's probably not serving eel at his restaurant. I have a feeling that's not the kind of restaurant it is. Yes, it's a seafood restaurant, but it might be more classic, American seafood that have much different preparations. The arctic char he was fine with, but the sardine and the eel are not fish that you see on most American fish menus. They're complicated. If he had all the time in the world, I'm sure he would have done a beautiful job. The pressure was the timing. Everyone who knows how to fillet a basic fish knows it's all the same deal, except the eel, which is a whole other story. It's all timing, especially a sardine with tiny little bones. It's hard when you're doing it quickly. There are also two things I have to say about working with fish. One, I bet he has a fish butcher at his restaurant breaking down the fish. Two, fish are, by nature, just so delicate. They're fresh and they're tiny and you really need that delicate hand.

What did you think about Leah giving up on that Arctic Char?

I thought that was lame. I'm not saying that anyone can do it with eyes closed, but that was the one fish that was the least complicated. It's like any other fish. If you've filleted any other kind of fish, it's textbook. She's very easy to give up if she can't do something. If she had just focused and paid attention she could have done it. She said she did fish at her restaurant, but her experience with fish on the show has been pretty poor. Restaurant Wars set off some kind of chain reaction and I think it depleted her confidence.

Can you give us a little teaser about the Finale?

What I can tell you is that I had the most amazing time in New Orleans. I can't believe how dynamic the city is, and how good and diverse the food is. You will get to see a lot of that on the show. New Orleans will really show the true colors of the remaining chefs. Nothing is as it seems. Nothing.

 

Editor's Note: Follow Gail as she travels to her favorite foodie hotspots in New York City HERE.

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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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