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Bravotv.com: We start with Shirley's self-professed "Weird Seafood" challenge. Both ladies end up cooking Geoduck.
Gail Simmons: I liked that Shirley went for it with a very Shirley-challenge. As far as seafood goes, I'm generally a fan, but I will say Geoduck is one of my least favorites. It's sort of disgusting to look at when it's raw -- but it's just a giant clam. Both chefs ended up doing really well, although in a way they did similar things. They both made salads, which was smart because they didn't have a lot of time.
I was actually surprised Brooke won the challenge. I thought Shirley's was more elegant and delicate. Her flavors were strong and bright, and she showcased the Geoduck in two different ways, fried and sliced thinly. Brooke's dish was really flavorful, but you couldn't taste the actual product because she coated it and fried it. But it was two against one.
Bravotv.com: So Brooke wins, and her challenge to Shirley is a pretty direct -- "you're not good at dessert so I'm going to give you not just a dessert but a vegan dessert."
GS: I thought that was very bold of her to say "I'm doing this challenge because I've done research on you. I don't think you’re going to be good at this, and I am." Vegan desserts are hard. All the things you fall back on when you think of dessert -- butter, egg, dairy, milk, cream -- go to the wayside.
I was really impressed with both desserts, as I said. I'm not talking about Top Chef Just Desserts, but over the years on Top Chef proper we have not had very many excellent desserts. These two were delicious -- creamy, imaginative, fresh, and satisfying.
It’s funny, I was against the grain for both of these challenges. Again, I loved Shirley’s dish. I loved that it wasn't heavy. The tapioca worked well. The coconut and green tea were a delicious combination. It was refreshing, not super decadent, as some people expect when they think of dessert. I know Curtis has a serious chocolate addiction, so Shirley’s dessert might not have been for him. Brooke certainly played to that chocolate addiction, whether she knew to do it or not.
Brooke's dessert was fantastic. It was rich and creamy. There was pistachio, torched orange, and banana mixed in with the chocolate mousse. It was a really beautifully executed dessert. My preference was Shirley's, but again two out of three. Brooke is now $20,000 richer!
By the way, I don't want people to think I didn't like Brooke’s food. I loved everything. I just liked Shirley's food a little more that specific day. Brooke did a phenomenal job and made very successful dishes in both challenges. It was a very even "duel" all the way through. They come from different backgrounds, but their food somehow has a lot of similarity. I think their skills are on par so it was a very exciting episode for us all.
Bravotv.com: Then there was The Duel.
GS: The circus came to town! This challenge was the one I was the most excited for the whole season – not just for Brooke and Shirley but because of our guest judge, P!nk! She's been a Top Chef fan for a long time and was totally up for the game. She loved being in the Top Chef kitchen and I think she was excited to see how it all worked behind-the-scenes. I was impressed at how completely ready she was to taste anything that was presented to her. She has a really adventurous spirit -- no surprise. So we created this circus theme for the meal that played off the acrobatics in her shows.
Bravotv.com: Three courses -- one dish to be dish to be served tableside, the second to include a three element entrée, and the third, a dessert that had to be at least six inches tall.
GS: It was so much fun to see how the chefs' minds worked with a challenge like this. Sometimes you just want them to cook simple, good food. But it's interesting to give people an outlandish challenge and see where they take it. And these two took it to very different places.
The first course started off the same way. They both made a broth for their dish and served it tableside. Not that theatrical really, but Brooke also used a little absinthe and set it on fire, which was a nice touch.
Brooke’s dish was beautiful when it came to the table. It was one of those dishes that I think if she had had a week to work on, would have been perfect. A couple of elements were a little off. Temperature-wise it didn't quite make sense. I loved the idea that she use absinthe, adding a little hint of licorice that goes so well with the fennel and the other elements of the dish. But she made this Fennel Gelee, which is dependent on temperature. It becomes liquid when it's warmed and it solidifies when it’s cold -- so she had to have it cold for it to be a Gelee, but then she poured hot broth over it and disintegrated it. I know that the theatrical twist was the point, but it ended up detracting from the dish. It seemed like a lot of work for very little reward, when she could have spent her time thinking more about the temperature of the dish as a whole and how the dish should be eaten.
Shirley's dish was so harmonious. It was very playful. I loved how we all had to get involved and mix it up. Ultimately it was an outstanding bowl of noodles, regardless of the challenge.
The next course was a bit of a toss-up. Shirley did her chicken three-ways. Individually they were each interesting and well prepared. But we did not necessarily see the conversation between the three elements, except for the fact that they were all chicken. Sometimes food done three ways seems like a bit of a cop out, it's not cohesive as a dish. I really liked certain elements like the devil eggs and the chicken wing. The middle, which was the poached chicken, was the least successful of the three. When you make three elements, you put yourself up to additional scrutiny. We're more apt to be harsher on a dish with three distinct elements separate from one another than one that's a singular complete plate of food.
Meanwhile Brooke combined three elements together into one dish. Hers didn't have the refinement Shirley's had, but it had the flavor. Surf, Turf, and Earth was a smart play on the challenge.
Then there was dessert. Shirley had a pastry chef which was 100 percent allowed. She prepared for that because she admittedly (as we know from the previous Duel) is not strong at dessert. And that was wise of her -- it was spectacular looking and very creative. I loved the earl grey flavor.
Brooke's beet and chocolate dessert was more rustic, but it was still quite a strong finish. Considering she's not a pastry chef, her team did a great job.
For the theatrics, refinement and creativity, I thought Shirley's meal was a little more interesting. We went back and forth between them for a long time. It was not a cut and dry decision. But after discussing it over and over again we decided Shirley had a slightly more successful menu and when eaten all together it was just a little more exciting -- which was the point of our circus challenge. So Shirley was our winner. But they should both feel pretty good about themselves. Brooke won $20,000 and Shirley gets to go on into the finale! I'm super proud of them both!