Bravotv.com: This week we have Nyesha facing off with Jen. . .
Gail Simmons: This is an interesting duel. One I wouldn't have necessarily thought to put together, but I'm so glad someone did. I think they were well-suited to each other. Both competitive and very serious chefs. Both left their seasons a bit earlier than we anticipated, Jen during All-Stars, and Nyesha in Texas. They both had a cross to bear.
Bravotv.com: It seemed like they were both (not gunning for each other) but picking challenges that were going to give the other one a bit of a run for their money, some way or another.
GS: They did. I think their challenges succeeded in exactly what they set out to do. They were both pretty sure of what would provoke the other person, which gave them a serious leg up. Jen was banking on the fact that Nyesha didn't have enough experience with uni in its raw form, and she was right. Nyesha knew that bacon and eggs would push a button in Jen because that's how she left the show last time. That being said, it was one of the best eating challenges for me, simply in terms of the theme. We had an uni challenge -- one of my favorite foods. And an egg and bacon challenge -- one of my favorite combinations, and a steak challenge, which no one can complain about. I was really happy. Not sure whether or not they were.
Bravotv.com: Let's start with the uni challenge, what did you think about what the ladies turned out?
GS: The challenge was very difficult. Extracting the uni "tongues" as Jen called them (which are really the reproductive parts of the sea urchin) is not easy as you can see. It can be painful if you're not experienced. Having 30 minutes to do it and create a dish is definitely difficult. They both did delicate dishes, as they should because uni is a delicate ingredient. I think the real challenge for Nyesha was just making sure she had enough uni to use. The dish itself came naturally to her. Jen's dish of uni with Japanese omelette and bonito was very unexpected actually. Uni is like the egg in texture, plus the salmon roe, which is fish eggs, they were both salty and briny. It as a fantastic combination of ingredients and textures. I think she used lemon zest in there that brightened it all up. There was a beautiful fattiness and the salty flavoring which the dish had inherently was a home run. Clearly she prepared for this, but it took a lot of skill. It wasn't by any means something she could do with her eyes closed. I loved that she went for a dish that as unique and truly exciting to eat. Nyesha did a great job too. The green apple sorbet and the kombu both played against the uni beautifully. It just didn't have the amount of finesse that Jen's had. The kombu broth was rich, dark, pungent, flavorful, but it didn't come together in the same way that Jen's plate had. Clearly Jen's had been thought out to the last detail -- and it showed.
Bravotv.com: Going to Nyesha's challenge for Jen with the bacon and eggs, Jen had some problems getting her eggs poached the way she wanted.
GS: Jen did a difficult thing; she decided to poach them in their shell. Really she wasn't poaching them at all, she was soft-boiling them. But she kept calling them poached. I think Jen shot herself in the foot here. She had this idea of she wanted to make. She wanted these eggs to be "soft boiled," so when she peeled them and cut into them they were still oozing yolk a little bit. But she slightly overcooked them. That said, we never knew that wasn't her intention until she called them soft-poached, which they weren't. If she had called them hard or medium-boiled eggs, I probably would have said, "Wow, they're perfect. They're still gently soft, they're still bright yellow in the center, they still have that creamy texture, but they're cooked all the way through." It was about intention, and I think she had a chance there to just spin the story to her advantage, and she chose not to, which is a rookie move.
That said, even if those eggs were cooked exactly as she wanted them to be, Nyesha's dish was more interesting. She fried her eggs in a nest of vegetables and potatoes. She put the entire thing in the fryer! The potatoes and the vegetables were crispy on the outside and piping hot and that egg was still creamy and runny inside. The yolk was soft and created a sauce that coated the potatoes around it when you cut into it. It was a new, unique way to cook bacon and eggs. I loved it; we all loved it. We unanimously loved Jen's urchin dish better and Nyesha's bacon and egg dish better. This is an example of when choosing the challenge and having your opponent be caught off guard really paid off for both of them.
Bravotv.com: Let's get into the cop-themed main duel, full of hilarious police-jokes, starting with the culinary crime, pairing cheese and seafood.
GS: To host the cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine was a thrill for all of us. I'm a fan of the show. The actors are fantastic but definitely not super-adventurous foodies, although they came ready to eat and have a great time at the table. They were so excited to be there no matter what the challenge was. And we gave them plenty of material with this one, which made it fun for everyone. But I think the funniest person at the table that night may actually have been Daniel Boulud!
The cop-themed food was sort of silly, but in the end it created great challenges for our chefs, and they cooked great food. Cheese and seafood is a cardinal sin, especially in Italy. It's something you don't see very often because of the delicate nature of fish and seafood, and the heavy, richness of cheese that coats your palette. That's not to say it can't be done well. I've definitely seen it done really well over the years in very smart ways. But it was clearly something neither of the chefs wanted to do.
In this course, I preferred Jen's dish. It may have seemed like a bit of a "cop-out", using a Parmesan crust for scallops, but it integrated naturally into the rest of the dish, with the peas, fava, lemon, and butter. It made sense, it didn't feel forced; it felt natural. It gave the slightest hint of savory-ness and saltiness to the dish.
Nyesha definitely went bold, pairing blue cheese and tuna. It was probably the most polarizing dish of the season so far in terms of splitting the table on what people thought. I did not think it worked. I think it felt contrived. She didn't have to choose blue cheese. She purposefully chose such a strong pungent cheese for her tuna. I think if she had used another cheese it might have worked better, one that wasn't so in-your-face, so funky and strong could have worked. Every other component on her plate was beautifully prepared; the cured tuna, celery, uni, blood orange. It was just that blue cheese that took the dish in an entirely different direction. For me, it didn't balance as well as it should have.
Bravotv.com: Then you had the steak-out.
GS: Both of their steak dishes were excellent. I loved the charcoal tuile that hid the steak Nyesha made. And I loved that beautiful watermelon radish salad Jen placed on top of her steak. Both had striking presentations. We all agreed that they were equal dishes in a lot of ways. Nyesha's steak might have been cooked a little better, it was cooked more evenly, pink and juicy in the center; with just the right amount of char. However, we thought all the accouterments Jen put with her dish worked a little better. It was more balanced. The smoked potatoes, the watermelon radish, the kimchi rhubarb ketchup (I want to steal that), were spot on -- creative and delicious. So this was a hard one to judge because it came out as a tie for this course.
Bravotv.com: And then for dessert, doughnuts.
GS: Doughnuts are a great way to finish, and I was actually surprised that neither of them did very well. Both had great ideas, both used coffee, and paired them with other complimentary ingredients, but neither made a very good doughnut. I know they're not pastry chefs, and a doughnut is harder to make than it seems. You need time, especially if you're making a yeast-base, for it to rise before you fry it. Both of their doughnuts were thin and dense, they tasted greasy, and didn't have a lot of air, yeastiness or cakey-ness in the center. When you think of the actual doughnuts they presented, both of them failed. Or, they both succeeded in failing as we joked at the table. Really we had to judge the course on what they chose to put with their doughnut, not the actual doughnuts themselves. The majority of us liked Jen's doughnut dish. Although we liked the coffee cream that Nyesha put with hers, she soaked the donut in it, which made the donut even more soggy and dense than it already was. Jen served hers with more interesting components; the cocoa nibs, the coffee and the almond cream. It all just tasted better.
Bravotv.com: So the win goes to Jen.
GS: It seemed really dramatic, like I was the one to make the final decision. It would have worked out that way any way. As much as I loved all of the food Nyesha made that day, I thought Jen's first course and third course were stronger, which is why she won. That said, thinking about the last time before Duels when I saw Nyesha, she's come such a long way. I'm so impressed with the food she's making now. I'd like to eat it again the next time I see her, hopefully she’ll do one of her pop up restaurants near me again soon.
Bravotv.com: Next week is the battle of Top Chef winners Kristen and Stephanie.
GS: I'm SO excited for this one because they're both incredibly competitive and creative, but they're both incredibly humble chefs too, probably the two most humble chefs of all our winners. It'll be a different kind of challenge.