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Bravotv.com: This week we have Stefan and CJ, who have a very strong rivalry.
Gail Simmons: This definitely is the first episode where there was a real rivalry, and it was clear they had bones to pick with each other. I think that happens with Stefan and a lot of people.
I've come to like Stefan over the years I've known him. He pushes people, though. There's an extreme cockiness and arrogance to him. I really believe he doesn't mean for it come across that way. I could be giving him too much credit, but I feel like there's an element that is lost in translation, so to speak. There's something about the intonation of his voice that makes him seem more arrogant, and I think he doesn't realize how it comes across. CJ just calls him out on it, which I appreciate -- so there is an element of rivalry between them for sure.
Bravotv.com: And that comes across in their challenges for each other.
GS: They both really went for it in their challenges, trying to be smart with each other and do something that the think the other wouldn't be able to manage. Stephan's smoking challenge is a good one -- it's hard to smoke something well in such a short time -- and something we haven't had before. They both cooked beautiful dishes. Stefan's salmon was perfect in its execution. Texturally it was so light and delicate and delicious. The dill, mustard, and potato together are a classic combination for a reason. It was just really safe. Not just safe, almost boring. As much as I enjoyed eating it, it wasn't that creative, and considering it was his challenge, I was expecting a little more.
Then there was CJ's pike-perch. He's changed his cooking style so much in the past year. This dish was really creative and interesting, exactly what I was looking for from this challenge. Show me real smoke, but show me delicate usage so I'm not getting a acrid mouthful. Show me smoke that does something different and improves the dish. That's what CJ did. He brought in so many other flavors. The perch had a little bit of a tricky texture, but it didn't bother me at all. I enjoyed it.
Bravotv.com: And then CJ's butt challenge. . .
GS: I thought that was kind of funny. It wasn't so much that he thought Stefan wouldn't be good at cooking butts. It was more to be cheeky and funny and do something a little out there – use the butt of any animal, which really can mean the hind legs and that whole area.
I loved how their styles were completely opposite. Stefan did a Thai coconut soup with pork butt dumplings. I found the dumplings a little bit spongy. But it was a delicious dish. The soup was really thick. He called it a soup, but it really ate like sauce, so it was intense. I couldn't have eaten a whole bowl of it, that's for sure.
CJ made Fava Beans, Morrels, and thinly sliced Grilled Pork. It was so much greater than the sum of its parts. The sauce felt so rich and had so much depth. I was amazed he made it in 30 minutes. He seemed to have given it so much preparation and thought. It was impressive.
Bravotv.com: So CJ sweeps the first two rounds.
GS: But not by a wide margin. Stefan really did a great job too.
Bravotv.com: And then there was the main Duel.
Shaliene Woodley joined us, which was fun. The chefs went out foraging. They had to do three dishes: one from the sea, one from the sky, and one from the air, incorporating their foraged ingredients. They used several I had never tasted, so I didn't have as clear a point of reference to judge this challenge as I usually do, which I really enjoyed. It was a challenge for me too, to understand the flavors and to understand their intentions when they were making each dish.
Stefan's lobster bisque was tremendous. It was elegant and refined. He still was able to infuse flavors that tasted interesting and different. The lobster was fantastic. It didn't scream "into the woods" but it didn't have to in this case. CJ clearly cooks in a way that is more rustic, but he also is always bringing home the idea of what foraging is -- those woodsy moments, with his black bass on the rock, the forest floor mélange that the pressed into the fish and showed on the plate. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Stefan has a much more subtle hand, and that can work for or against him. In the case of the lobster bisque it definitely worked for him. We still got that essence of forest elements that he used but his own flavors and point of view also came through.
CJ's first course was interesting in its description, but when you tasted it some of those flavors were lost. The crudo presentation was well intentioned but wasn't as successful as he hoped. As much as I appreciated all the stones and twigs, when you put them on the plate in front of someone it's not always appealing. You definitely get the smell and the idea -- but then all you get to eat are these two small pieces of fish on top of a rock. The fish got overshadowed by the plate. I think he spent too much time on presentation and not enough time on the flavors of the fish itself.
That said, his next course had the opposite effect. He plated with that same rustic style, but the roast duck and nettles and all his other foraged flavors really came through. It felt hearty, purposeful and abundant. You really did get the feeling that it was a wild dish, like it was something hunted and gathered. But it also tasted totally delicious. The duck was meticulously cooked and crispy, the fat was rendered perfectly. The power of the forest really came through.
Stefan used a lot of herbs and leaves and foraged items in his galantine too. It was a beautiful dish, an incredibly, skillfully prepared dish and one you really don’t see very often anymore. But for me it was a little bland and didn't have that foraged element we hoped for. I think it's just not his style. In this case, it worked against him. We wanted that punch of flavor. We wanted to feel a little more that we were getting these woodsy notes and we didn't. But the man sure makes a good "Ph-ucken." Can't deny that.
For the last course, every element on Stefan's plate was great, except the goat itself. The acorn mash was super smart, interesting and clearly gave us that foraged feeling. I love goat when it’s cooked properly. Unfortunately, when he braised it, he maybe didn't have enough time or he cooled it out of the liquid which made it tense up. It really made all the difference. It was a clear error. It wasn't inedible, but it was up against CJ's best dish of the night.
CJ's braised rabbit was phenomenal. It was moist and tender. The "rabbit tobacco" he wrapped it in to roast I've never had before, and it's a magical ingredient. It tasted like he put brandy in the dish. Shaliene was amazed too. It was so elegantly conceived -- balanced and interesting. I hope I get to eat it again. I have to get my hands on some rabbit tobacco. I bet it's growing right now all around me and I don't even know it!
And so CJ swept the whole episode, which amazingly is the first time that's happened. CJ moves on to the finale and Stefan retires and moves back to Finland, apparently. But to say that CJ won by a landslide is not true. Stefan cooked incredibly well. He's a precise, elegant, strong chef. I hope I get to eat his food again one day. . .