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Gail Judges Two of Her Favorites

Gail talks about the healing powers of food and how Art and Kevin's Duel felt so personal.

By Gail Simmons We have a very Southern Duel this week – Kevin and Art.
Gail Simmons: Two of my favorite chefs, both for their cooking and their friendship. I've known them both a long time. Obviously Kevin since Top Chef Season 6, and Art since Top Chef Season 4 when he was a guest judge and we did a challenge for his charity, Common Threads, in Chicago. I was so moved by that challenge that I actually became very active with Common Threads, and I've spent the last many years since that season working with them on a number of projects and events. Kevin I've seen many times over the years as well, and he has remained one of my all-time favorite contestants. I think he's one of the smartest chefs I know and one of the most talented. So this was a very personal duel for me in a lot of ways.

[video_clip_url:] They begin by butchering an entire side of pork.
GS: It was way more intense than it even looked on camera. They didn't even show a lot of the craziness; including the fact that because Art wasn't necessarily prepared for this challenge he didn't bring the proper saw needed to butcher the carcass of the pig. He was given a saw but it was not the right kind and not sharp enough. And he ended up slicing his hand open -- which is why in the second half of the challenge you can see that he’s wearing a glove. He was bleeding quite a lot, and cursing even more. It's sort of amazing in this day and age when a chef of his caliber says I don't need to butcher because I have chefs to do it. That may be true. But it's uncommon these days because chefs are so in tune with where their food comes from, for young chefs of Kevin's generation it would be unheard of to not know how to butcher your own meat. I guess Art just never went that way. He started as a personal chef for so many years first, so he never needed to cook a whole pig. It's an interesting conundrum that came up and a REALLY hard challenge.

Kevin was amazing to watch. He was just an artist with that pig. Art struggled, but ultimately got a dish on the table, and not just a dish, but a very good one. Smothered pork chops are a quick classic. They are not the most inventive in the world, but a good smothered porkchop is simply delicious. It's a comfort food dish -- a beautiful Southern dish -- and we were all happy to eat it.

Kevin cooked something a lot more inventive, a lot more interesting. He put his own spin on a mix of Southern and Asian food with his "shaking pork" and for me it was the better dish. And then, from one critter to another.
GS: The critter fry was sort of a strange challenge I guess, but totally legit and fun to watch. Cook a critter and make a baked cake to go with it. Though it sounded strange at the onset, when you think of dishes that work that way, like chicken and waffles, it makes perfect sense. There was corncake and there were hoe cakes, all really classic Southern things that both Kevin and Art are great at making. I was surprised that Kevin seemed thrown by the challenge; he almost forgot to fry his quail. Both dishes were wonderful, but Art was clearly more prepared and has real skill when it comes to frying food. He nailed it. His rabbit and hoe cake took the day. So we go into the Duel.
GS: Healing! The power of food to heal various ailments. I have to admit, I have not watched a lot of Grey's Anatomy, but what I know about it is that every doctor is beautiful and there is a lot of drama. It was really lovely having the cast on the show with us. I'm fascinated by the medical drama world because you have to assume this role, and learn all these medical facts. I always wonder what's real and what plots and pieces of the show are realistic or ridiculous, it seems like it's a bit of both. And they were all so darn attractive, as all doctors on television always are.


Our first course was a dish to alleviate stress. Kevin went in a direction I never thought he'd go. His dish, salmon with orange and asparagus, was well made and well-presented, it was just not what I would expect his to make to combat stress. I like that he went the medical route because he wanted to show us the literal qualities that can de-stress you, but it seemed a little bit out of place for in terms of Kevin's style. The technique was there, but it felt like I could have eaten that dish in any French restaurant as the standard salmon dish. I know understanding the properties of the ingredients makes a difference in terms of their de-stressing qualities, but it was a little boring to eat.

Art's chicken and dumplings on the other hand were outrageously good. I totally understood the mental association of de-stressing there. Imagine when you aren't feeling well, the dish played similarly to that feeling of comfort you get from a home made chicken soup. If you have anxiety it's a dish like this that calms you down and gives you peace of mind. He made it in the most refined, beautiful way that was also unexpected from Art, in the sense of how finessed it was. He's rustic and classic in his cooking style, but he truly updated his chicken and dumplings, which is something that can be dangerous to do. There happened to be a lot of Southerners at the table, including Hugh and a few of the actors. People have very strong associations with chicken and dumplings. Everyone in the world has some association with chicken soup. Even if you live in Asia, America, or Europe, your mother made a variation of chicken soup. So for me, that first course was all about Art. And his biscuits were immaculate by the way. It was a lot of biscuits and cakes that day. But carbs are the best for mental healing.

For the second coarse, both chefs nailed the idea of homesickness. Clearly these were dishes that were important to them as children and brought them back to their roots. So it just came down to which dish was better in terms of technique. I gave this one to Kevin because I hadn’t eaten a dish as well conceived as that in a very long time. It was brilliant -- all these very classic flavors that were reconstructed into the most beautiful, elegant flavored food. The word potlikker is a Southern word meaning all of the stuff at the bottom of the stew pot when you make stewed beans. He just gave us so many flavors and so much tradition in one beautiful plate that no matter where you are from, it made you think of home. So course two was Kevin's win.

Not that I'm discounting how well Art fried chicken, he's a fried chicken master -- and he won with his rabbit. I just didn't think it hit home in the same way. His technique was standard and I guess I was hoping we could see a little more from him as we all know he does this well already. Against Kevin's dish it just didn't compare.

Finally, dessert: There was a lot of debate at the table about this -- Art's chocolate cake versus Kevin's banana pudding. Neither dish was all that that inventive or new. They are both straightforward in a lot of ways. I thought it was sweet and telling that both men used their grandmothers as the point to talk about a broken heart, as opposed to them talking about a love interest or the one that got away. But that’s typical of two Southern boys, and I think it brought up a lot of emotion in both of them.

As much as I thought Art did a lovely job with the cake, I wasn’t a fan of the rhubarb and strawberry sauce with it. I’m just not a fan of strawberries and chocolate, or rhubarb and chocolate. The cake was beautiful in a rough way, but a little bit dry between the layers. I wanted it to be richer -- and I think the sauce detracted from that.

Kevin's banana pudding, although too large a portion for one person and very, very sweet, was absolutely a homerun for me. I could see how it could heal a broken heart. If I was going through a bad breakup I'd want to dive right into it and drown my sorrows. It was a pretty standard banana pudding underneath, but with this incredibly beautiful torched, bruléed merengue on top that sealed in the moisture and the heat and all that creamy pudding goodness. I had to restrain myself form eating the whole thing. It was kind of a combo of a banana cream pie, with that beautiful top, and classic banana pudding. I know people are going to think "He makes this in his restaurant every day," but in truth Art cooked a lot of thing he makes in his restaurant every day as well, including chicken and dumplings, biscuits and fried chicken. That doesn't matter to us because they're doing it on their own and in the context of this challenge.

Which is why in the end, after a lot of talk at the table, we agreed that Kevin took that third course, as well as that second course. So he won the Duel overall, and will be moving on to our finale next week. It was a great episode. We all walked away from that table eight pounds heavier, but feeling good about ourselves, thoroughly mentally and emotionally healed!

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