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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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Hugh Acheson weighs in on the finale showdown between Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet.

There is always a Top Chef winner but obviously some seasons have a less experienced assemblage of chefs, while others have veritable US Olympic-caliber culinary practitioners. (Congrats to Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or competition by the way! Silver! Silver!)

This particular season of Top Chef could have been a contest of mediocrity, but it bloomed into something very skilled and mature, which is good for judging, but makes writing a blog with poop jokes and rap humor very difficult. I have to say, I was a little worried at the beginning that the whole chef squadron was a little shaky. But early retreats by chefs with bigger egos than culinary skillsets allowed the true talent to rise without being malevolent fools. And that talent really was there. By mid season we were eating their visions on the plate, while watching them battle it out over the food and just the food.

The two most successful chefs of the season made it to the end, and they are ready to rumble in the most respective way they know how. One will plate most of their food on the side of the plate, incorporating Korean flavors and modern technique into the vittles, while the other will weave a more classic story and put food more in the center of the plate like regular people. Should be a good show no matter what, because at the end of the day, it’s just hard not to be really enamored with both of them. They are good people.

Gregory and Mei start out on a hot air balloon ride, because that’s how I like to start every day in Mexico. The country looks beautiful to me even if you are in a basket hoisted hundreds of feet into the air by hot air. The hotel I stayed in was the Casa di Sierra Nevada, which was AWESOME, so if you are looking for a vacation, go there. It's no party town, but it is plenty fun. Great food scene. And to put safety into perspective, I felt safer wandering around St. Miguel than I do my hometown. Anyway, the balloon ride looks like fun and allows for that finale moment of almost tearful reminiscence and contemplation.

So their balloon ride lands in a vineyard, and Tom and Padma are waiting to put a halt to this sentimentality. The task is put forward and the challenge, this final culinary joust, is to create a meal that is the meal of their lives. They pick their two sous chefs per person; Gregory picks Doug and George, while Mei picks Melissa and Rebecca.

They prep their menus after a good night’s sleep. The prep I will not talk about too much, but suffice it to say that each team seems very pro and super on top of things.

Traci des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, Gavin Kaysen, and Donnie Masterton are dining with us, all of them amazing chefs. Like amazing amazing. The kid’s table, at which I am the head, is made up of Sean, Traci, Gavin, and Gail. It is a super table. At the table I decide to hold true to the tourist warning of not drinking the water. I thus only drink wine and the phenomenal beauty of Casa Dragones tequila, a concoction that will make me sleep soundly (but probably by dessert) on the table.

Mei hits us with an octopus that I really, really like. It resounds with flavors of coconut, avocado, and fish sauce. It is deep. The only flaw is that maybe it is a bit over done. The over cooking made it kind of crunchy and she could easily have been cooking it to that point on purpose. Second course from her is a congee, with peanuts, carnitas, egg yolk, and hot sauce. It is so f----ing delicious. Like stylized comfort food that you just want to eat all the time. Comfort food, when perfect, is perhaps the hardest food to cook, because it is by definition food you are very familiar with, resulting in people having a lot of preconceived notions about it. This congee would have silenced all critics on congee. It was that good.

Mei is gliding through this meal. She has palpable confidence, but is still a nicely soft-spoken leader. In my years of watching people lead kitchens, I have always been more taken with the allegiance that soft-spoken leaders cultivate in their staffs. Her third course is a duck course, and like the congee, she has cooked duck at least twice this season, but in entirely different ways. This duck has kimchi, braised lettuce, and huitlacoche on the plate. Huitlacoche is corn smut, a term I just yelled in a coffee shop, making everyone uncomfortable. It is a good plate, but my refrain about duck skin continues. It was a bit chewy. All in all, the dish just was texturally challenged. It needed a crunchy texture. But it was good still. Her last is her version of yogurt dippin’ dots with strawberry-lime curd, milk crumble, and stuff. It was blow-you-away amazing. Very complex, but very successful. Tom says it is the best dessert on Top Chef he has ever had, and I definitely concur, though he has tasted many more than I have. The toasted yogurt base was amazing.

Gregory steps up with a brothy octopus with cashew milk, fresh prickly pear, and also xoconostle, which is the dried version of prickly pear, kind of like a prickly pear fruit roll up. It is a strong dish, and may be the winner in the Octopus Olympiad. His second was a strange soup that was redolent with flavor until you choked with a shrimp head lodged in your gullet. Strange and a little unrefined for me, and pretty much everyone else. It was a wanted textural element, but made a rustic soup weird. The whole dish needs to be compared to the comfort food of Mei’s congee, and in that context it is no contest.

Third course from Gregory is a bass with carrot sauce, tomatillo, vegetables, and pineapple. It is a strange dish. I am worried for Gregory at this point. It is not like the dish was bad, but the dish was just not a winner winner. Well, let’s not rest on that notion, because his next and final course is a stone cold stunner. Simple short ribs in mole with sweet potato. It is purity on the plate and equal to the idea of Mei’s congee in nailing comfort food. Kudos. He’s back on track. This is a close contest.

Judges' Table comes and we deliberate. I am not going to mince words and hold off on this: It is really close, but this season’s winner is definitely Mei. Well deserved. Gregory is the consummate pro in placing second and is going to be a force to be reckoned with in this restaurant world. His win versus addiction and his success in cooking shows one tough person with oodles of talent.

Mei. Mei. You rock. You are a chef’s chef. You make food that excites and makes us ponder. You are a leader and a super cool person. You are the winner and will always be a winner. Onwards.

Until next season. I loved this season. Thanks BOSTON. And thanks San Miguel di Allende. You are awesome places to work.

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