Just Desserts

Gail Simmons is excited the 'Top Chef: Just Desserts' cat is out of the bag, and reveals an unknown problem with this week's dishes.

Hooray — the secret’s out! Superstar pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini will be my partner in crime on our upcoming series, Top Chef: Just Desserts. As an intro to the show, which will premiere later this year, Top Chef served our D.C. contestants a taste of what’s to come: a dessert-inspired Quickfire Challenge, judged by Johnny and me. The theme: American Pie! No need to dwell too much on the many poor pies we tasted, except to say it proved once again just how much of a difference there is between savory and pastry chefs when it comes to precision. That’s not because our Season 7 chefs are not incredibly talented in their own right; just that it requires a very different skill set and body of knowledge to make a professional-quality dessert. The patience and technique needed to bake a stellar piecrust, and create a filling for it that was stable, imaginative and attractive, was only achieved by five or six of our 15 remaining chefs. While Kelly’s chocolate pie and Andrea’s citrus curd pie, for example, may have been pretty and well-executed, they certainly did not demonstrate anything very interesting or new. Stephen’s Curried Apple Pie with Saffron Sauce, on the other hand, may have been rustic in appearance, but was it unlike any pie I have ever tasted and somehow totally refreshing.

For both Johnny and me, Kenny’s play on Bananas Foster, with currants and Chinese Five Spice, was the clear winner. It was rich, balanced, and decadent, the way a great pie should be. Rest assured the sugar wizards on Top Chef: Just Desserts will outwhisk, -bake and -pipe any of these pies, pushing desserts to their limits. We have so many treats in store….

Before I get ahead of myself, though, let me move to this week’s Elimination Challenge. The episode took our savory cheftestants on a field trip to Mount Vernon, historic home of George Washington, not only the country’s first president, but the only president to never live in the White House. His former residence sits atop a picturesque mountainside on an exquisite piece of land, complete with astounding views of the Potomac River, surrounded by acres of manicured gardens. It was the perfect location for a summer BBQ, to which we invited 100 or so interns from Capitol Hill. The chefs were each challenged to cook an appropriate dish, on the open flames of a charcoal grill, for our sunny picnic lunch.

Despite how easy this challenge may have sounded, there were several obstacles in the chefs’ way. First of all, the weather was incredibly hot and humid—fiery, in fact. And a considerable wind made grilling difficult. Personally, I loved basking in the afternoon sunshine, but came back from the shoot with an angry sunburn, and required more than just a little magic from our makeup department at Judges’ Table later that night. I probably say this every time our chefs cook outside, but it is shocking to discover how few of them had ever used a charcoal grill or have experience cooking outdoors! I was astonished at how much trouble they all had managing the intensity of their flames. Making matters worse was a gaggle of pesky geese! Jealous of the feast, they took the opportunity to fly by our serving tables and bomb us with little surprises of their own. On one such occasion we barely escaped unscathed! Yuck….A word before we get into the food: Although this conversation was cut out of the final edit of the show, during Judges’ Table that evening we felt compelled to discuss the fact that at least five of the chefs used tomatoes in their dish or the salad they served with it. Perhaps there was a special on unripe tomatoes at the grocery store that day, but these were consistently the WORST, most mealy, tasteless tomatoes we had ever tasted. We were baffled that they all insisted on using them and not one chef questioned the time of year in which they were cooking (April) and quality of the product (exceptionally poor). In each case the choice to use the tomatoes detracted from the outcome of the food, which was, overall, unimpressive to begin with. Part of being a chef is to understand not just how to use an ingredient in a dish, but when—as well as when to exclude it for the sake of the plate’s integrity. I can only hope our chefs have since learned their lesson.

It pains me to say it, but of the 15 plates we sampled that afternoon, very few really excited us. Perhaps our chefs were too flustered by the circumstances to determine what makes good picnic food. Some tried to put out plates that were far too complicated and fussy for such a casual scenario, such as Stephen’s Bacon Wrapped Bass, Ratatouille & Olive Pine Nut Couscous. Others put out some of the most amateur food we have seen to date, including Kevin’s Puerto Rican Marinated Flank Steak with Rice & Beans and Tomato Avocado Salad. None, however, was less inspired than Tracey’s Italian Sausage Sliders with Tomato, Cucumber and Red Onion Salad. It showed little-to-no ingenuity, no professional finesse. Putting aside that the sliders were undercooked and overloaded with fennel seeds or that the oversized roll was left completely plain and dry, the concept itself was nowhere near what a chef at her level should be able to produce. As well meaning as she may be, it was time for her to pack her knives....

I will add that in watching the episode I was touched and charmed by her exit interview. Tracey has a great attitude and a balanced perspective on the competition, which will serve her well whatever she chooses to do next. She understands that she is not a bad chef but that, as all chefs do, she had a bad day. Unfortunately, in this game it only takes one bad day to send you home.

There were a few chefs who followed through on their promises, and for them we were truly thankful in the sweltering sun. Once again, Angelo’s Southeast Asian aesthetic shone. Both his Vietnamese-Style Lettuce Wraps and Smoked Egg Salad packed a punch of flavor and revitalized our palates. Amanda rebounded from her sorry state in the school cafeteria last week with excellent Dry-Rubbed Baby Back Ribs and deliciously tangy Grilled Asparagus with Smoked Bacon, Meyer Lemon and Hazelnut Vinaigrette. Guest judge Jonathan Waxman could not get enough if it and I did not blame him. Ed’s Grilled Tuna Loin Tartine with Lentil Hummus was certainly the most conducive in terms of design for a picnic lunch; its Mediterranean flavor combination was equally fitting and mouthwatering. But it was Arnold’s food that caught our attention and left us wanting more. His Sesame Lamb Kofta (essentially a spiced lamb meatball grilled on a skewer) & Tabouli Salad were easy to make, serve and eat in our outdoor setting; both retained moisture and lots of flavor, neither weighed us down in the heat. The gazpacho he served alongside the dish was cold and welcoming, if slightly thicker than I had hoped. He approached the challenge with a plan and, despite not having his restaurant team to back him up, still managed to give us the most exciting and well-prepared lunch of the day!

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