Bravotv.com: So let's talk this week's episode.
Gail Simmons: I thought this was the most exciting episode of the season so far! It was such a fascinating Duel to watch because Stephanie and Kristen have such different styles. Watching them cook against each other was riveting. I thought the way that they each cook was so well showcased in this episode too, in terms of seeing their actual technique. The food each of them chose to cook was not only different from their opponent's, but so beautiful and so inspiring. I just love love loved it.
Bravotv.com: To start Stephanie challenges Kristen to do something inspired by Thai street food. . .
GS: It was clear how uncomfortable this challenge made Kristen. It's completely out of the realm of how she usually cooks. Street food is casual, strong-flavored, and kind of messy. And it had to be Thai-inspired, which is a cuisine Kristen doesn't know that well, so it was a great challenge for her. They both made really interesting food and very different dishes.
All that considered, Kristen did a great job. It was as rustic as I'd ever seen from her. Kristen is never going to give you a messy dish. It's always going to be composed. She stays true to that -- and managed to work those Thai flavors into her style. I love that Kristen never compromises how refined her food is, no matter what the challenge ahead of her may be. I loved the fish sauce, the lime, the caramelized flavor from the peanuts and the sauce that went into her steak. Stephanie, though, made this spiced lamb and shrimp pancake essentially, the Hoi Todd, and it just smacked you in the face with flavor – which is what we were all really looking for, especially from a Thai street food dish. She gave us a dish that was bold, and, although it wasn't pretty, it really delivered on the challenge. Which is why she won.
Kristen's challenge was equally difficult for Stephanie -- doing a refined pasta dish from scratch. I'm glad both of them knew that they didn't necessarily need to roll out spaghetti or tagliatelle or a long pasta. They both knew to make something stuffed, which is definitely faster and easier, in terms of making the dough and there being less steps involved. I was fascinated watching the two of them make pasta. I thought it was a beautiful dance in the kitchen, again with completely different styles. Kristen's dance was more of a ballet, very classic and graceful. Stephanie was a modern dance interpretation, with some jazz hands in there!
When we came out to taste the food, I had no idea who made which dish. When I found out it was Kristen who made the manti, the Turkish dumpling with lamb and yogurt sauce, I was actually quite surprised. It is not a style that I'm used to tasting from her. The flavors seemed to be really out-of-the-box from what Kristen usually makes. I loved that she stretched herself with those flavors, and an irregular-shaped dumpling. It wasn't the perfect angoletti or the perfect tortellini that we've seen from her before. It was a little bit rustic, if I can use that word. It felt subtle and tender too. Her dumpling was beautifully cooked. The sauce really made it sing.
Stephanie's filled pasta was really interesting too. It worked out well, even though she was clearly struggling to get it done. The chimichurri sauce had great flavor. I adored her idea of using chimichurri as a pasta sauce. Chimichurri is an Argentinian sauce usually used on steak or fish. The filling in her pasta wasn't as successful as Kristen's though. So it was Kristen who took that challenge.
Bravotv.com: Then we went to the Garden of Eden.
GS: With a giant snake! I can’t believe they brought in this crazy python. It totally freaked all of us out, slithering around set all day. They kept it in a giant box that took five people to carry it. It made us all a bit uncomfortable, but was kind of awesome. The theme was a bit silly and a bit of a stretch in a lot of ways, but it forced the chefs to produce food using beautiful ingredients and create truly interesting dishes.
Their first dish was about masculine and feminine, and they both went pretty literal here -- Stephanie made a mussel with perilla sauce and a razor clam with shrimp and red onion butter. The opposing sides of that dish were very different, which was what I liked about it. They had totally different points of view that still fit perfectly together, like masculine and feminine should, complimenting each other.
Kristen's dish was immaculate in its presentation -- caviar and swordfish with lemon, parsley chips, and perfectly sliced caper berries. I definitely understood the masculine/feminine point of view on the plate, but to me the elements didn't eat as one cohesive dish. It felt a bit disconnected, like there were all of these scattered pieces, and I didn't quite know how they spoke to each other. I didn't understand the conversation the ingredients were having together on the plate. For me, as much as the individual pieces were made beautifully and tasted great, they didn't completely come together.
Then we had the second course -- temptation: Stephanie's list of ingredients seemed endless. Ultimately it was halibut with blueberries and apple nuoc cham with brown butter and miso, and then of course these beautiful vegetables that went on top. I think it was clear watching the show that this dish really blew us away. She had a thousand ingredients, but it all worked exactly as it should have. We did not know how many ingredients were in there because they all combined so well. The sauce she made had such complexity to it and it was really soaked up by the vegetables, by the fish. Every bite had crunch, had texture. You wanted to slurp that sauce with a straw, it was so bright and acidic. There were sweet elements, there were savory elements. There was acid. There was a richness from the miso. It hit every point on your tongue and I wanted to keep coming back for more, which is the definition of temptation, right? You could not stop yourself from eating it.
Kristen's seafood chowder with potato, fluke, and oysters -- if I'd eaten that dish on its own in a restaurant, I would have been completely satisfied. Her technique was spot-on. It was plated in the most elegant way. I understood her interpretation of temptation: fried oysters with a deep creaminess from the chowder, the potato and miso together. But it felt too subtle and a little bit tight, a little bit stifled compared to Stephanie's explosion of flavor. As much as it had tempting components and in theory was really tempting, like her first course, it just lacked that little bit of deliciousness, of the total soulfulness that Stephanie’s gave us.
For dessert, the exact opposite happened. Stephanie knew she blew this one. It wasn't a great dessert. She over thought it. She piled on three, four, five too many ingredients; she got carried away in the idea of sin, but didn't think of how all the parts actually went together. There was pomegranate, passion fruit, chocolate, bourbon, coffee, and she threw it all on the plate together in a way that was not successful. Maybe a few of those flavors would have worked but not all of them at once. It felt and tasted like a dessert that was a germ of a good idea but that had not been fully realized yet. It need serious editing.
Kristen's was delicious and unique. It wasn't what I would go to instinctively in terms of total sin. You don't think of fig and pink peppercorns as that sinful but when they played together on this elegantly plated sundae, it all worked. It had texture and a dark bitterness from the cocoa nib. The meringue gave it crunch. It seemed to have a really complex creaminess, and a toasted flavor from the tahini that brought it all together. It was a great sundae!
Then we had to figure out who won. It was the most difficult decision all season, except for the finale, I think, because they cook from such different places, just like Kristen said. Kristen clearly won the dessert course. Stephanie clearly won the main course. So that first course was what we were split on. I gave it to Stephanie because I thought her dish had more depth even if it wasn’t as elegant as Kristen’s. But it was not unanimous by any means. After what felt like forever, we decided Stephanie's first course edged out Kristen's just by a hair, and so, she won the Duel.
There were so many moments in the episode that I loved. Even that moment when Stephanie explained how organized and regimented Kristen's side of the room was, that Kristen's cooks call her Chef and Stephanie explains how "I don't let my chefs call me 'chef,' they call me 'Steph' because it sounds the same, but it makes me feel less old." You can just tell by that (for Kristen, it's not because she's old. She's quite a bit younger than Stephanie), by explaining her technique and her training that the way they run their kitchens are totally different. I respect both of these women so much. I just love them. I love eating their food. I love spending time with them. I couldn’t be more thrilled for both of them and how successful they’ve become.
Bravotv.com: Now Kristen has one more chance to win with The Knockout.
GS: She’s done it before, don’t underestimate her, she could do it again!