Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Dear Richard

Gail Simmons dishes on the Bahamas and has a message for Richard.

Bravotv.com: This week the chefs head to the Bahamas. How was that as a finale location?
Gail Simmons: It was beautiful. We happened to be there for over two full weeks, which coincided nicely with two of NY's major snowstorms this winter, so I couldn't have been more pleased to be there. The beaches were gorgeous, the water was beautiful, the weather was completely perfect, and we had a lot of fun.

Bravotv.com: For the Quickfire, all the chefs had to compete against the Top Chefs from their season. What did you think about that concept?
GS: It was a great idea and very intense. There's risks involved with doing a Quickfire like that –- you obviously want the contestants to win since there's more at stake for them. But if the former Top Chef loses, does that discredit them? I don't think it does, and I hope our audience doesn't think that either, because as you know, we judge every challenge on its stand-alone merit. You can lose one day and win the next, and that's what cooking is about. So I thought it played out very well.

Bravotv.com: And a few of them did beat their season's Top Chef.
GS: Mike Isabella beat Michael Voltaggio, which I thought was fascinating and fun to watch. Richard beat Stephanie, and Tiffany beat Kevin. It's important to keep in mind that the finalists are more in practice right now. The past Top Chefs haven't been in the game for a while. And they all had almost no resources, they barely had running water, so I didn’t take it too seriously, but I think it was fun.

Bravotv.com: It was interesting that Hosea felt like he still had something to prove.
GS: I guess there are some haters out there, but at the end of the day he won fair and square so it doesn't even matter. We know the truth and how good a chef he still is.Bravotv.com: The Elimination Challenge was to cook for Bahamian royalty, which was sort of accurate…
GS: We actually didn't understand it either at first. We understood the chefs were cooking for the King of Junkanoo, but it was only when we sat down with himthat we realized he was not royalty at all. Either way, we became very intimate with Junkanoo, and we really enjoyed learning about it. And it was very exciting aside from a few kitchen disasters.

Bravotv.com: Right, so the kitchen catches on fire, and the chefs are told that after it was cleaned, they can return to the kitchen and re-do their dishes.
GS: Yes, we had to do that because it would be impossible to force them to get the exact same ingredients again and make the exact same dish, when there was really no way of policing it. It also didn't seem fair that they would have had so much time to sit and think about it. We wanted to give everyone the option to change their dish if they wanted to. I don't think it really made that big of a difference in the end. They still had to cook and execute it, and as you could see, even having the opportunity to change their dishes did not mean that the food improved.

Bravotv.com: The two people who changed their dishes were Richard and Antonia. Antonia was probably the one who took it from a high dish to a low dish. Do you think that was a good strategy?
GS: I think it was good for the atmosphere of where we were eating. The fact that she chose to change the refinement level of the dish is not what was wrong with it. What was wrong with her fried shrimp and grits dish was that the shrimp was overcooked and the meat that was in the grits was a very odd choice and didn't really go with the rest of the dish. It was ill-conceived, and that was why we had a problem it. Bravotv.com: Overall the dishes seemed weak. What did you think?
GS: I would say that compared to the food we got in last week's episode, at the end of our time in New York which was a high point for the season if not for the entire series, this was quite a disappointment. And there were many factors that led to this. They're now in the Bahamas where everything is new – the location, the kitchen, the ingredients, are not the same as they were in New York. Also, it had been several months between New York and the finale. We shot the season in September and this took place in January, so they had time off, to train but at the same time they were not in the heat of competition, so they were a little bit soft and out of practice. Even Mike Isabella's dish, which won that challenge, was not the best we've seen from him by any means. They were also very limited in the kitchen that day with what they were allowed to cook and how. There were just fryers and flat tops. It was a really hard challenge, but as Tom said, it's going to be hard from here on in. I can assure you, the food does improve on the next episode. Too bad Eric Ripert was our guest judge. We really wanted him to be proud of how far we've come since we last saw him in D.C. and the chefs did not put their besst feet forward, so to speak.
 
Bravotv.com: Carla ended up going home.
GS: We thought Carla's was the least successful. There were two major problems with her pork: the cooking of the medallions we received was very uneven. Mine was really quite raw in the center, Tom's was undercooked if not raw, although Eric's was cooked well. But we can't judge just on Eric's. We need to judge on what we all received, and inconsistency is a big problem. Even though Carla promised us that everyone else was served a piece that was properly cooked, we also cannot judge on what the rest of the diners got. We can only judge on what's in front of us and mine was quite inedible – I'm not interested in eating raw pork. Eric's problem with it was that there needed to be a counterpoint to the dish, and there wasn't. This is something we talk about all the time with food. For a dish to be successful, there needs to be balance. In this instance there were sweet potatoes, applesauce, and the apple chip. All three components were very sweet, as is the inherent flavor of the pork. There was nothing to counterbalance all that sweetness – there needed to be acid, there needed to be a stronger textural or taste component, to balance the intense sweetness of the dish. Eric said it was almost like a dessert it was so sweet. The sweetness didn't bother me as much, because clearly I am a big sugarhead, but I did understand his point and objectively that is an issue.
 
Bravotv.com: And Mike won the first Bahamian challenge.
GS: We were really excited. He came to the Bahamas very prepared. Not only were we really surprised how far he's come from Season 6 to now, but he also improved from New York to the Bahamas. It was so impressive. This challenge for Mike reminded me of when Kevin Sbraga arrived in Singapore. That's not foreshadowing, I just remember right out of the gate you could tell Kevin had been training. He had his game face on and Mike does too. We will see if he can sustain it…My other comment is about Richard. His food was good; I liked a lot of it. It had its flaws, but overall I thought his dish was interesting with the turnip cannelloni and the mustard. (Look out for mustard! For some reason in the Bahamas mustard and mustard seeds are a running theme. I don't know why. I love mustard. It is my No. 1, all-time, hands down, no contest, favorite condiment ever. EVER! I am a mustard fiend.) But Richard has to lay-off of the self-loathing. I know it's sincere, and I know the poor guy can't help himself, but come on! Have some confidence or pretend to have some confidence. That's how you get confidence. Fake it till you make it, because if anyone has to see him make a great dish and complain about it one more time, I cannot be responsible for the actions taken by our viewers. And I don't blame them if they're exasperated by it. He's so talented and so awesome, he needs to stop all the worrying. I love him, but I think he could use a therapist.

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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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