In Bloom

Gail Simmons explains why she's excited for the new season in D.C. and handicaps the first competition.

I was ecstatic to learn we would be shooting our seventh season of Top Chef in Washington, D.C. This meant not only would I be close to home (New York City), but I would also get to visit the nation’s capital for the first time in over 20 years! Not to mention that coming off of such a strong sixth season in Las Vegas. I was more than a little curious to know how our new crop of chefs would measure up.

I arrived in town the morning of our first Elimination Challenge and was immediately taken by the beauty of the city in full bloom. Spring is definitely the best time to visit D.C. The snow has melted away and the oppressive heat and humidity of another Southern summer hasn’t yet set in. It was just our luck (and perhaps some clever planning by our producers) that the first week of our shoot coincided with the city’s fabled Cherry Blossom Festival. For about two weeks each April, Washington is blanketed in the soft pinks and creams of almost 7,000 cherry trees, flowering simultaneously. The trees—many situated around the Tidal Basin at the base of the National Mall—were a gift from Japan to the United States as a symbol of lasting friendship. About 3,000 trees were planted in 1912, another 3,800 in 1965. A number of festive cultural events and activities planned around D.C. at this time help celebrate the season and commemorate this generous gift. As we pulled up to the Mellon Auditorium, the gilded hall where our first challenge took place, I remember thinking how fitting the moment felt, as if the trees were welcoming us to town, inspiring our chefs with their unique visual beauty.

The challenge we put to the cheftestants required a little more introspection. Just as every part of the country is represented in the Capital, we asked each chef to create a dish that reflected their roots and personal story. They would serve tasting portions of their dish to 300 young Washington professionals at a Cherry Blossom Gala to kick off the festival. After a thrilling first Quickfire on the roof of the Newseum, the 17 chefs were divided into four teams in which they would compete head-to-head, as chosen by the top finishers in the Quickfire: speed demon Kenny, D.C. local Tim, precision-focused Kevin and our first Quickfire winner, Angelo.

It is always a bit dizzying to taste the food in that first Elimination. Meeting the chefs and keeping their names straight, let alone each of their dishes, can be quite a task. Thankfully, the challenge required that we focus only on one group of four to five dishes at a time, choosing the best from within each group as eligible for the win, while the weakest would be up for elimination. Seven seasons into the show, I understand how terribly nervous our chefs are in this first challenge and have come to expect a certain level of disorganization, considering they are cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen, surrounded by cameras, strange equipment and competitors they do not know (or trust). As usual, we tasted a number of delicious dishes which showed exceptional promise; while a handful of others were unappetizing disappointments. Although it did not make it into the top four, honorable mention must go to Arnold for his Kaffir Lime & Thai Basil Cake. Considering he is not a pastry chef, making a dessert for a large crowd, especially for the first Elimination, is a risky move. Arnold pulled it off with flying colors. The cake was moist, light, and tasted exactly as described: a balance of fresh herbs and tropical Southeast Asian undertones—and was a clever window into his history and personality. Kelly’s Colorado Grass-Fed Steak was another standout, even if she was not the strongest in her group. Her food was cooked with an expert hand, seasoned well, and reflected not just her origins, but also her cooking philosophy.

In retrospect, it is interesting to note that three of our four Quickfire winners were again at the top of their groups in the Elimination Challenge, but the fourth, Tim, did not make the top four. In fact, he found himself at the bottom of the pile. The best dishes of the day assured me we were in for an exciting season. They exemplified a diverse range of styles, cultural influences and backgrounds, not unlike Washington, D.C., itself. Kevin’s striking Pennsylvania Lamb with Meyer Lemon-Pistachio Marmalade, Spring Onions & Natural Jus echoed the patience and focus he showed in the Quickfire. At first look, Kenny’s Colorado-inspired Cinnamon Coffee Rubbed Trout, Black Bean Mole, Goat Cheese Polenta & Quinoa seemed a bit scattered, but came together beautifully when we tasted it. It is rare that someone presents us with a number of seemingly disparate ingredients that add up to something harmonious and insightful. Alex’s deconstructed ode to his Russian roots was outstanding in concept, presentation, and flavor. The pieces of his Short Rib Borscht with Crème Fraîche looked thoroughly modern, but their sum was unmistakably earthy and sweetly reminiscent of his immigrant past.

But it was Angelo’s Arctic Char with Pickled Shallots, Chilled Tapioca & Smoked Bacon Froth that captured our attention. As we watched him assemble each portion on individual spoons, I worried that the size of each piece of arctic char would be too big for a single bite. And again, as I saw him place chilies, a large sprig of dill and an ample dollop of bacon froth on top, I worried that the multitude of strong flavors would overpower his delicate, beautiful fish. How wrong I was! The final bite was cool and clean, with bright accents from each of the well-conceived condiments, which highlighted the soft texture and taste of the fish, instead of hiding it. The fish paid homage to his childhood in Connecticut, while the supporting components showed off his knowledge of Asian cuisine. We were duly impressed and chose him, once again, as our winner.I should hope it was clear as to why we chose our bottom four contestants as up for elimination. Poor Jacqueline knew well before we told her that her Duo of Hudson Valley Chicken Liver and Port Wine Mousse was off in both seasoning and texture. Liver mousse should be rich, savory, smooth, and fatty. Hers was just the opposite. This was particularly disappointing considering the green apple and sour cherries she chose to serve with it, which would have paired perfectly as tart counterpoints. Stephen gave us a lovely story about his home state of Ohio with a Potato Crusted Rib Eye and Celery Root Puree, but the choice to deep-fry small “nuggets” of such good quality (not to mention expensive) meat was misguided. All we tasted was the grease, and not even his homemade Scarlet Stadium Mustard could cut it. Tim’s Pan Seared Maryland Rockfish with Pickled Leek, Dill & Grilled Crostino could have been a winner if only he had paid attention to a few crucial details. Choosing to serve this particular fish with its skin was his first mistake. It did not crisp as he’d hoped, so was difficult to cut into bite-size pieces and unpleasant to chew. In addition, his plates were substantially oversauced by not one but two different preparations, making it impossible to differentiate between them and drowning the fish in the process. My final issue with his plate was the “grilled crostino” he placed on top as a garnish. It was far too thick, cumbersome, and in my opinion served no purpose in the context of the dish.

However, nothing that day confounded us more than John’s Maple Mousse Napoleon with Crisp Macadamia Nuts & Vanilla Sauce. If, being from Michigan, John wanted to create a dish centered on maple syrup there were umpteen more skillful ways to do so. I still have no idea why he chose to make us a dessert in the first place, especially one with only three components, a third of which he bought frozen. Unfortunately, the mousse did not have a trace of maple flavor, and watching him work at his station we could not help but notice his state of disarray. Whereas even the three other bottom chefs’ at least showed attempts at ambition, technique, and skill with their food, John’s dish felt amateur and lacking in creativity. To simply bake off pre-made puff pastry and top it with overly-sweet, yet somehow under-flavored, mousse was not enough to pass muster with the judges. Not in the seventh season of Top Chef, and certainly not in Washington, D.C., a town where plenty of strong “candidates” have prevailed against far greater odds. 

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