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Gail on the Real Reason CJ Won

Gail explains why she was disappointed in Tiffani's final dish.

By Gail Simmons Here we are.
Gail Simmons: Welcome to the Top Chef Duels finale. It was a very exciting road, for me at least, paved with so much good food -- and the best is yet to come. This series of duels (and especially the final episode) are unlike any challenges that came before and unlike any finale we’ve done. It started with nine chefs, who all won their respective duels of the last nine weeks, as well as the winner of The Knockout. Hooray for Tiffani! I was not surprised Tiffani came back. She has always been a super strong cook. She was in the very first finale of Top Chef ever! She went before her time in All-Stars. In her duel against Dale she fought a good fight. I’m glad she’s back. I’m happy to eat her food anytime she wants to cook it for me.

Our first challenge was a little untraditional -- create an all-black dish. Black food, especially altogether, is not common. But when you start paying attention to black ingredients, they exist -- black truffles, black figs, huitlacoche is sort of black-ish, blackberries, squid ink, black mission figs. The use of black here was open to some interpretation, but people really got into the spirit. It’s hard to do, but they all did beautifully. Ten dishes that had completely different styles, ten completely different directions and perspectives on black food, it was fascinating to me.

[video_clip_url:] CJ and Tiffani moved on immediately.
GS: Specifically, Tiffani and CJ made incredibly memorable, creative black dishes. CJ’s black bass with huitlacoche and dark chocolate was so modern and of the moment. Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn, often called Mexican truffles, because, like truffles, it has a very complex, earthy flavor. It was not only delicious, but the presentation and the combination of ingredients was really striking. Tiffani did something equally interesting. She made fried sesame chicken using black-skinned chicken. The sauce had squid ink, so it was a deep black, beautiful, glossy sauce, but when you tasted it, it had so much brightness, and the coconut she added changed the texture and taste completely from what you expected. In a way, your mind played a trick on you, as you expected the dish to be rich and dark in the way CJ’s was, but hers was just the opposite -- bright, fresh, sweet, and spicy. It really left an impression on me.

Then we ask our chefs to do an all white dish. I like the way Kevin described how a white dish was easier in a way, because with black you have to char or cook or manipulate ingredients more, but with white you can use things in their more natural state. There’s more white food, like cauliflower, white corn, noodles, rice, bread, scallops, coconut, etc. But somehow in this duel we had many more recurring flavors. I was still really proud and amazed at what our chefs created.

The reason Takashi and Kevin won was because they showed us white in a way we would have never ourselves imagined. Takashi made us a roll that he called a winter roll, with beautiful stark white ingredients: scallops, halibut, squid, white asparagus, and bread! He used the inside of a baguette in his roll, which at first didn’t seem to make sense, but when you tasted it, the chewiness and the way it absorbed the flavors around it, was really delicious. It delivered on presentation and certainly on taste.

Kevin is just so talented at coaxing flavor simply out of food. His chowder with scallops was one of the best clam chowders I’ve ever eaten. It was so modern, and at the same time so pure. He really stayed true to that promise of less being more in this case. He put it together in such a refined way, but still allowed the ingredients to sing. The Main Duel covers the original reasons you would be dueling -- love, honor and pride…
GS: For the first course, love, Kevin and Tiffani used their spouses as inspiration, but Takashi channeled his father and, well, CJ just loves peas. We need to find CJ a girlfriend. That’s the moral of this episode. He also needs a vacation, which hopefully he’ll take now, and a girlfriend to go with him.

His dish was deceptively simple. He used chrysanthemums and herbs, but it still looked like a simple bowl of peas with some pretty garnish. When you tasted it, though, there were so many fresh notes. The peas were barely cooked, but not raw. There was no starchiness, just the sweetness came through. It was like eating spring, which is when we shot this, so peas were very much in season. He really took advantage of the season in the most pure way, which is also part of his story: cooking ingredients when they’re at their peak.

Tiffani’s spicy sashimi with tangerine and yuzu (plus a piece of grilled avocado that I loved so much) punched you in the face with flavor, made our mouths water wanting more. Before she had her current restaurant, she worked at an outstanding sushi restaurant in Boston. She knows what she’s doing and she does it really well. Kevin’s dish was also delicious -- not as interesting or as creative and deft in technique as I expected from him, though, to be honest. 

After coming off such a strong dish in the white challenge, Takashi's totally fell flat for me. The tuna and the uni were lovely, but he added two or three too many ingredients, both in terms of the vegetables garnish and the dressing. To me, the dish was incredibly over-dressed. I don’t know if that was his intention or he made a mistake. It just seemed so unlike him. He doesn’t make mistakes like that. He’s usually so refined, and his dishes are so tight. But this felt a little messy. The beauty of that fresh tuna got lost under the pile of garnish and dressing he poured on top. Unfortunately he was the first to leave the finale dinner.

[video_clip_url:] Then we get to honor with Kevin, CJ and Tiffani…
GS: Tiffani and CJ chose to honor places they were from, and Kevin chose to honor his mentor. CJ’s crispy duck confit with oranges and blueberries was totally unexpected. The texture of the duck confit was crisp and chewy, almost like jerky, and I loved it. It was purposely this way, which was really enjoyable and exciting. You so rarely see that texture in fine dining. It was a fun, creative dish and really well balanced. Tiffani’s lobster gnocchi was also delicious. The gnocchi was impeccable, the corn puree and the lobster sauce were technically stunning. It’s obviously a classic New England flavor combination. I think we all wish that lobster sauce had a little more of a punch, a little more depth. But overall it was a wonderful dish.

Kevin, again, didn’t give us the dish I hoped for, because I know he can do differently. I liked the idea behind it, but the sous vide duck was tough. The pistou he made to go with it was a little salty. He’s an aggressive seasoner, but usually just on that verge of perfectly seasoned. It was the weakest in of the three dishes in that course. 

So, now we're down to two. And our third course: pride. Neither dish was perfect, to be honest, and both a little surprising for the season finale of a show -- for $100,000 dollars! CJ’s was…again, totally surprising. He chose to not do a dessert, which he didn’t have to do. But his fish was not a traditional fish course by any means. Instead, he very slowly roasted fish, with these beautiful muscat grapes. It was an amazing combination. He showed us a distinct point of view, which is so different from the last time we ate his food. He was really pushing our perception of flavor and technique. It made me think about traditional presentation, which he turned on its head a little bit. But the execution was not 100%. I’m sure if he made it a few more times, tweaked it a little bit, it would be perfect. The thought was there and so was the flavor. It was an excellent dish.

I had mixed emotions about Tiffani’s dessert. Yes, she makes a great biscuit. I think we are all clear on that. And I love a great biscuit. But to make a biscuit as your final dish for the finale of a show at this level, I question. Especially because she made a biscuit before on this show in her duel, in the beginning of her episode with Dale just a few weeks before this. I know she has more range than that, and she could have done something else, something more challenging. The blackberries and the ice cream were well done. I can’t criticize, and I won’t criticize their execution, but I thought it was boring and not what I wanted from her at that moment. If you think of all of the dishes she has cooked for us, even over the course of that day, what she made in the black challenge, what she made in her episode, and what she made for the first two courses of this meal even, that sashimi and the lobster and gnocchi, then a biscuit with ice cream. . .it just didn't impress us enough.

For that reason, as well as the lingering emotion we all felt toward all of CJ's courses (Those peas! The duck! The technique he showed with this fish and grape course!), we made our decision. We all agreed that CJ showed us such range, that he challenged himself as a cook, which I don’t think Tiffani did in the same way. He certainly gave us a lot to think and talk about. Many bites we’ll remember for years to come. He’s really very talented, and I believe that of all the chefs who've cooked for us on Top Chef, he has stretched himself in a way that’s rare. People change styles all the time, but I think it’s more than just a phase for him. I think he really changed his way of thinking about food, evolved his method and his point of view, and in turn, changed the way we all think about food, too.

Congratulations, CJ Jacobson. You are the winner of Top Chef Duels! Well deserved.


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