Gail Simmons

Gail Simmons describes what it felt like to be a diner during the dim sum disaster.

on Jan 5, 2011

Happy New Year!

Let me start the first blog of 2011 by saying this: The only scenario more stressful and uncomfortable than sitting in a room full of angry, hungry diners for hours on end and not being able to serve them is sitting in a room full of angry, hungry diners for hours on end while you are served food and they aren’t. That just about sums up how this challenge played out for us. But I am getting ahead of myself…

It began as a relatively straightforward idea: Drawing on the immense influence and historical significance of New York’s Chinatown, we challenged our chefs to create and execute dim sum service for a few hundred local diners at famed Chinese restaurant Grand Harmony. We asked each chef to prepare at least one dish, but also requested that they work together as a team to serve the meal on traditional dim sum trolleys in the massive dining room. As the winner of the Quickfire Challenge Mike Isabella had immunity (and a new Toyota Prius), so he agreed to expedite. Casey and Carla selflessly volunteered to work the dining room trolleys. For anyone wondering, dim sum is a Cantonese term referring to a family meal made up of small portions on plates or in steamer baskets, served from breakfast to midday, usually with tea. Having grown up in Toronto, another North American dim sum capital, I have come to love the leisurely ritual of dim sum on weekends with a large group of friends and family, and dozens of dishes stacked up in front of us. Sadly, there was nothing leisurely or friendly about our Top Chef dim sum experience.

Right away we realized the task at hand was more formidable than it initially appeared. The first issue: Our chefs had to shop at a traditional Chinese market for their food, forcing them to seek out and use unfamiliar ingredients. But that’s part of the fun, right? Then there was the question of the enormous –- and foreign –- kitchen they had to use. Not only was it one floor below the restaurant’s dining room, requiring them to rely on a system of dumbwaiters, stairs, and trolleys to get the food up to the dining room, but it was stocked with equipment mostly alien to our crew of fine-dining cheftestants –- full of giant steamers, deep fryers, and colossal stockpots –- no ordinary pots and pans, no high-efficiency ovens. To top it off, our highly skilled group of chefs apparently could not get out of their own way to save their lives! From what I was told by Tom when he visited the kitchen, along with what I garnered from speaking with the chefs after the fact and watching the episode, they could not help but plate their food as if they were in an upscale restaurant, not a fast and furious dim sum palace stuffed to the gills with ravenous customers. Our chefs seemed to plate one or two dishes at a time, gingerly placing each piece of watercress just so, carefully drizzling each individual sauce in perfectly symmetrical dots, and slowly garnishing each fried dumpling with just the right number of sesame seeds or Chinese chives! Looking back, it’s a wonder they got anything accomplished at all. They were completely out of their element and we definitely felt it upstairs.