My Pepperoni Sauce Moment

Gail Simmons shares her finale highlights and lowlights. Finale! We start with Sarah and Paul selecting their sous-chefs. Were you surprised that no one selected Marco?
Gail Simmons: I thought it was great that they put him in the mix. I’m disappointed that no one got Marco because he is such a massive talent and would have been such an asset. But what was unusual about the way they did it was that they kind of put the chefs in our shoes for a little. They had to only judge based on what was in front of them; it didn’t matter if they knew people’s backgrounds, who they were, what they did before, it was just all on this dish and it gives people a chance. You don’t necessary know who you’re choosing based on one course. It doesn’t matter if you know they’re a great chef, and if it’s not great or you don’t like it at that moment, you make a very different decision. So, I thought it was really smart and there are so many factors that go into it -- all these chefs are talented. Were you surprised that Sarah selected Tyler because she thought that Heather made that dish?
GS: You can’t make that s--t up. Does she really have that dish in her restaurant? That’s so weird.
GS: It was a little weird, but you know there aren’t that many brand new flavor combinations. It’s possible. I felt badly for her because I know that freaked her out, but Tyler could be great actually and I think in the end he really did pull through for her. He’s young, we could tell, and he’s got more confidence than experience right now. This challenge, where all you want to do is win -- you aren’t there to mentor at that moment. So we go to their restaurants. You started at Paul’s. What was your first reaction when you got to Qi? Tom really liked the simplicity of the menu.
GS: I’m with Tom, Mark McEwen, Cat Cora and, Marco. Overall, I was excited for the menu because I’m always excited by Paul’s food. And I knew this was sort of his to lose. He had done so well over the course of the season -- I think he reached $45-50,000 in wins alone and that’s before he actually won the season. Obviously, whatever he does you’re excited to sample. There were a couple of questions I had on the menu. I thought it was an unusual menu and I wasn’t quite sure while reading it how it was going to go. The fact that he didn’t have any meat, the fact that he had two egg courses -- first the chawanmushi and then the congee -- was interesting, and they could be great or they could go wrong. I was a little nervous for him but also excited to see what he had in mind. Because you know that he did it for a reason, you just have to put yourself in his So your group’s chawanmushi was perfect, and the other group’s was not. 
GS: For both Paul and Sarah, there was one course where the two groups experienced very differently and that made it difficult to judge but also really interesting for the dialogue between us. Paul’s chawanmushi was perfect for us and trampled for Padma’s team. Then again, Sarah’s veal cheek dish did not go over well for Padma’s team and Sarah was smart enough to fix it for our team. Whether or not it was successful is another story altogether. But we had two experiences -- the dish had changed and evolved as the night went along. But what is kind of interesting about doing it this way, as opposed to how we used to do the finale where we ate everything at the same time, is that it’s much more like it is in a real restaurant. Next Paul had his grilled sea bass with the dashi.
GS: I thought this was the best dish that Paul made. Every single one of us, every chef and judge was blown away because it was perfect. It was balanced -- there were pickled radishes, the mushrooms, the crispy skin, the whole package. That broth. Every element was thoughtful, was delicious, was tasty, and just enjoyable. Then we have the congee where you thought maybe it should have been a meat course.
GS: It’s not that I needed it to be a meat. I got over that when I understood the feeling that he was going for. Obviously it had an Asian influence, and he didn’t need to put a big steak on the plate, and that he wanted to focus all on fresh seafood. Looking at that in the end, my question became: he really gave us two egg dishes, and I thought that was a strange choice. The chawanmushi, that smooth custard and then the scrambled egg with the congee, both with fish, which just was a little bit odd. Granted the congee was more rich, so you experienced it very differently, but it was my least favorite course on Paul’s menu. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t good, and I would still eat it again. Hugh apologizes in his blog for cutting you off at Judges’ Table.
GS: Really?! I actually thought that was great because I’m often asked if we ever disagree and why don’t they show more of it or how the conversation goes. I’m glad they kept that in because it shows we all have different opinions. For dessert, Paul served the coconut ice cream and it had this spicy element with the Thai chili foam.
GS: There was a little bit of an issue because the other team had a little bit overcooked puffed rice, and they didn’t like it as much as we did. And then the four of us at our table thought it was a stroke of genius. This to me was the perfect Asian dessert because it encompassed everything that a great dish should have: it had sweetness, salty, bitter, sour, spicy. Every bite had a crunch and I adored it. It was so fresh and light. Thank God we had Paul’s meal first because Sarah’s meal was a lot heavier, in a good way, but I’m glad the tables were not reversed. Did you find it amusing at all that it took a second for Barbara Lynch to kind of step back and not be the head chef?
GS: It’s totally normal, but I think in the end it ended well. I loved that that Sarah had to deal with Tyler and that sort of set of circumstances in her kitchen and Paul had to deal with the opposite set of circumstances. Paul had a way more experienced kitchen whereas Sarah had to sort of babysit Tyler. On the other end, Paul, in contrast, had to deal with coming to a real ground with a chef who owns multiple restaurants and has been cooking for probably ten years longer than he has. That was another big lesson I think. On to Monte Verde. So this was a heavier meal overall. Starting with the spot prawns and coconut over the pasta.
GS: It was a tartare. She chopped up spot prawns raw and treated them with the coconut and the chili. I thought this was Sarah’s masterpiece. I’ve never seen this before, a raw tartare you fold it into your pasta. I was incredibly impressed. That hit home and it really was a killer dish, one that I think about all the time, I crave. I’m going to Chicago next week, and I really hope it’s on Sarah’s menu. It was just an inspired creation. Her pasta was perfect, as it always is, the spot prawns -- you can’t get anything more fresh and local than that. The spices were so cool. Was this your pepperoni sauce moment?
GS: This was a pepperoni sauce moment! Next she did the rye-crusted steelhead trout with the beets that were undercooked/under-pickled.
GS: This was Sarah’s least interesting course, not that it wasn’t good -- it was very nice, the rye-crusted trout was beautifully-cooked -- it was just not interesting. It didn’t have the same inspiration that the other courses she made did. The fish was lovely, the beets were raw. It was seasoned well it, but it just didn’t excite me the same way that her first course did. Were you guys surprised at all to see her bring in other influences besides Italian?
GS: Yes, as I said on the show I really think she took more risk in that way because as she told us when she was explaining her dishes and her menu concept, that not only did she want to show us her Italian and German roots and what she loved to cook, she also wanted to show us how much she learned over the course of the season and give a nod to the flavors that she’s been introduced to. So she really took a risk. She brought in that dashi, which was really a nod to Paul. Which I thought was generous and courageous of her. That said, as much as I applaud her for doing it, and as much as I thought it was a very interesting course, it was the least delicious course that she made. I didn’t love the flavor. I thought the dashi was an interesting thing to do and I respected the reasons she did it, but I personally didn’t think it worked. I was the odd man out. I didn’t like the dashi -- it had a brininess that to me didn’t fit well. I don’t really want a fishy flavor with my meat. I think it was better for us than it was for Padma’s team. This dish, although it was her riskiest , boldest dish, I think it was the least successful, for a number of reasons. Everyone seemed to love her dessert.
GS: Yes, her dessert was fantastic. The roasted white chocolate was super-cool, beautiful hazelnut cake, delicious flavors, very similar flavors actually to the dish she cooked in the Whistler challenge. That final dish that she made with the rabbit with cherries and the hazelnuts. It was a very similar flavor profile if you can imagine rabbit and hazelnut cake. It sounds weird but there were a lot of similar flavors and elements there. It was spectacular, I was very happy. I would be happy if I ever got to eat that How long were you deliberating?
GS: We were there until almost 6 o’clock in the morning. It was a really long one, it was seven or eight hours, as it should be in the finale. We wanted to take our time and we really were split, we had some frustrating moments -- and not because we disagreed and were angry and arguing but because we all were proud and excited by both meals. We didn’t want to have to make this decision. But that’s our job, good problem to have. So Paul won.
GS: In the end, we chose Paul because overall in his menu we just thought the tiny details he managed were a little better and the dishes flowed a little more, and by a hair, by a measly hair, we thought his meal was a little more complete, a little more mature. That said, Sarah is a stupendous talent and I know it was hard for her because she put everything, and I mean everything, into this competition. And she deserves an enormous amount of praise and celebration and lots of success. 


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