Bravotv.com: Were you aware of the tension between Mike and Richard at the beginning of the episode?
Gail Simmons: I have to assume there are a lot of emotions at this point. Obviously
they have a love-hate relationship. They've been in this together the whole way through, and I think they respect each other and each other's cooking. But that is what it comes down to when there's just one human being standing in the way of your success.
Bravotv.com: This finale was a little different than seasons past conceptually since normally we ask them to make the meal of a lifetime, but this season we wanted them to make the restaurant of their dreams. What did you think about this change?
GS: I thought it was great and needed. In a regular finale you just have to make one meal side-by-side for a table of judges, and this was taking it to the next level. We wanted them to cook the food that they would make if they had their own restaurant. Not Restaurant Wars where you have to cooperate, but the way a restaurant is usually run where there is one chef in the kitchen and it's that chef's vision. We also wanted to make sure that it incorporated the ability to run all the moving parts of a restaurant. They didn't have to deal with construction since we gave them spaces that were already designed, but they had to communicate with the front of the house, they had to feed many people besides just the judges in multiple seatings at different times. They had to direct their team in the kitchen, plus being at the front of the house to make sure the food is coming out the way they want in the right time frame exactly how they envisioned it. I think it was a great challenge just because it upped the stress but also upped the reality factor, so you can see what they're made of when it's down to the final moments.
Bravotv.com: Another difference this year was how they chose their sous-chefs. They had to do a blind tasting. Were you surprised how it turned out?
GS:You have to remember one important thing: as much as they all work together and know each other well, they don't taste each other's food that often. They never ever get each other's finished plates -- they only maybe taste each other's food while it's being prepared. For that reason it's actually not a surprise that they don't know each other's food that well. They see each other's style in the kitchen, their cooking abilities, and their knowledge, but they never actually see the finished product, so it's actually an interesting exercise. I know that the results of whom they chose weren't what they wanted necessarily or what they expected. But in the end I think it worked out really well.
Bravotv.com: You guys were split up for two judging times. You were with Tom, Curtis, and Art Smith, and you went to Mike's restaurant first. What was that experience like? What did you think of the restaurant and the concept?
GS: I'm not going to talk about the aesthetics of the restaurant obviously. But I thought it was great. I thought it was timely in terms of the food we're all eating these days. In New York, L.A., Chicago, San Francisco, etc. the restaurants I've been going back to and the restaurants that are getting all the hype are the scaled down, simplified but really flavor forward Italian restaurants. And Italian-American plays on using great Italian ingredients, really refined cooking, but in a very casual way and in a way that really highlights the ingredients. I feel like that's exactly what restaurant Iz was. The menu read beautifully at first glance. There were certainly small problems with some of the dishes; they weren't all completely perfect. But overall I was really impressed with the thoughtfulness of the food and the restraint that Mike showed while cooking, which is something that we hadn't always seen before. He didn't come out guns blazing in this challenge, he kind of led us through the courses, and they just built on one another slowly and beautifully. The first course was very light, very simple, beets with mozzarella, and chocolate truffle vinaigrette. It was simple, it was clean. That chocolate vinaigrette was actually very subtle and worked really, really well. It was one of those pairings that you wouldn't necessarily think would be intuitive, but it wasn't sweet chocolate, it was just that cocoa flavor, and it really played into the earthiness of the beets. It was a great counterpoint to the mozzarella. It almost looked like balsamic, so it was a kind of funny play on balsamic. It had that same quality -- a little bit of acid and a little bit of sweetness that made the mozzarella better. It was simple and it was great.