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Bravotv.com: How did you feel when you heard the concept of Top Chef Duels -- that all these great chefs were coming back to go head-to-head?
Gail Simmons: It's a really exciting way change up the show. We've met so many talented chefs over the years. Now that we've done 12 seasons, many have gone on to do incredible things, open amazing restaurants all over the country, win awards. This was a chance to bring them back, see how they are doing, and how far they've come. It's also a chance to really focus on their food. The great thing about Duels is that it all takes place in the kitchen. We've stripped away the other elements -- the house, the shopping, the drama -- and just focused on two chefs head-to-head, cooking their hearts out.
Bravotv.com: How did you feel seeing Richard and Marcel come together?
GS: This pairing is so great. It's the perfect way to kick off the season. I think Marcel and Richard are obviously similar in some ways, but have had very different trajectories in terms of what they've done since they've been on Top Chef. Interestingly, both of them have mellowed. They've realized the gadgets and gimmicks of modernist cooking, while interesting and fun and thought-provoking, are not the only way to cook and not always the best. Both of them have also been humbled, I think, by the work that they do. They both came ready to have fun with a lot of respect for each other -- but with that same sense of competitiveness that they've always had.
Bravotv.com: Marcel gets the first choice of the challenge and he tries to throw Richard off with the fire and ice dessert. What did you think of that?
GS: It was a departure for Marcel. It actually wasn't the challenge I imagined he would create. But that's sort of what’s great about Marcel -- he never ceases to surprise you. Just when you think you know him, he’ll do something different. I was glad that he chose to do a dessert. I think that that's something chefs often shy away from. It showed his vulnerability and his willingness to take risks. The hot and cold element was perhaps a little silly, but in terms of dessert, that's something that really does occur. Temperature contrasts are much more visible in dessert than in savory food. You rarely eat something frozen in the savory kitchen. I thought it was great that they both ended up cooking with similar ingredients – pineapple, coconut, and a quick ice cream.
Bravotv.com: What did you think of each of their dishes?
GS: Marcel's ice cream was phenomenal, refreshing and crisp; it had coconut and kefir lime and a little peach. His microwave cake is something we've all seen a million times. And cashew is a very mild flavor so it didn't really hold up. If he had just done that ice cream -- he would have won for me.
Bravotv.com: And then Richard sort of Richard-ed his own plate. He put a lot of things into his dessert. . .
GS: It's funny because Richard has really fought against his instincts to clutter and do a million things at once. That was certainly his downfall when he was a competitor on the show years ago. He got into the Top Chef Kitchen and it made him have memories of challenges past, so he over composed his dish I think.
But it was still pretty great. Peach, pineapple, and coconut were flavorful together. The dish was so well composed, it didn't feel like the dish was thought of on the spot 30 minutes before -– which is why he won.
Bravotv.com: Then Richard gets a chance to toss out a challenge and he picks burgers. . .
GS: Marcel did a challenge that he thought would play to his own strengths. It seemed like Richard was doing the burgers challenge to play to Marcel's weakness -- to keep things simple. With a burger, you can't do a lot of tricks. And they both gave us great burgers.
While Richard made his burger, he kept sneering, watching Marcel and saying "that's not a very interesting burger." But what Marcel actually did was make a simple, excellent burger. For food like burgers, we all have such a clear point of reference. Burgers are something everyone loves and has such a strong opinion about. It's not something I want someone to reinvent or flip on its head. I want it to just be really beefy and juicy with a great garnish and the flavor combinations that I adore. Although I loved Richard's dish, especially his kimchi ketchup, there was something about Marcel's that just invited you to dig right in. It was really one of the tastiest burgers I've had in a long time.
Bravotv.com: And then we get into the Duel, which is three courses that are all plays on the five senses. . .
GS: Richard's meal overall had a really distinct theme, a clear point of view. I think that's why Richard did so well in this whole challenge. Marcel's bone marrow, scallop mouse, and hearts of palm dish was so delicious and well presented. I loved both of their first courses. They both succeeded at what they were trying to do and the dishes really did look like illusions, both Marcel's bone marrow and Richard's cherry and foie gras. Richard’s was a heavier dish, a richer dish. It had that chicken liver mouse, the dark cherry, the vanilla and a lot of very warm flavors, as did his whole menu actually. Marcel took a lighter approach and I was really appreciative of that. His scallop mouse and hearts of palm were delicate and clean tasting. For me, Marcel took the first course.
Bravotv.com: Then the aromatic dishes. . .
GS: This was a bit crazy for us, and hilarious. Basically, we all wore little bras on our faces! I was very skeptical, but it ended up being fun. You forget how much you use your sense of sight when you’re eating. It was a great test for all of us to really think about what we were putting in our mouths. And finding it!
Marcel did this decadent Thai-inspired seafood bowl, which had enormous flavor and strong, seductive aromatics on its own. But I didn't love the menthol that he wafted around the table. It was harsh and detracted from the delicate seafood essence and Thai-chili/lemongrass scent of the actual dish. He also put a piece of sea urchin toast on the side that only bothered me because we were blindfolded and you couldn't see it there to know to eat it. Also, what did it do for the aromatics? Half the people missed it! The dish itself, that Thai seafood soup was great on its own. But in this instance it was Marcel over-using some of the elements which worked against him.
Richard's dish was interesting because he is such an aesthetic chef. He focuses so much on how things look, and when he didn’t have to, he made a dish that wasn’t very visually appealing. But it didn't matter! It really did taste smoky and fantastic, with this amazing aroma of campfire. I didn't know about the pasta-making incident until I watched the episode. The pasta was perfect and the duck ragu was intense. The cherry wood smoke that carried us from the first course into this one. It was a true olfactory experience. The only thing is I would have liked the duck to have been cut into bigger pieces, as Wolfgang suggested. You couldn't really differentiate the duck flavor per se. It could have been any meat.
Bravotv.com: And then they did dessert.
GS: They took completely different routes on the road to dessert. Marcel did this 40+ different textured dragon fruit dish that reminded me a lot of a dessert we were served by Kevin Sbraga in Singapore. Marcel's dish was beautiful t behold -- but interestingly, because he chose to flash-freeze the different elements using liquid nitrogen, you couldn't tell the elements apart by taste when you ate them because they were so cold. It ended up feeling the same texturally in your mouth and tasting all the same because you would get a bite of 10 things at once and it was very hard to determine what each one was.
Richard made this enormous, insane chocolate extravaganza with a giant chocolate log/cigar stuffed with chocolate mousse. It was really skillfully crafted. The whole point of this course was to be textural. Whereas in Marcel's [dessert], he had all these different textural pieces that ended up having the same texture, Richard's course had very distinct textures. Texture doesn't always mean crunchy or sandy. Things like chewy, smooth, pop, creaminess -- all of these factors balanced each other out and played off each other in Richard's dessert.
Bravotv.com: And so the win ended up going to Richard. Why did you decide to go with him?
GS: It wasn't a simple decision. It wasn't as if Marcel failed in anything he did. He gave us some very delicious, well-conceived food. But when we took apart each course and looked at them against each other we determined that Richard, especially his second two courses, delivered a little more on the challenge. The olfactory experience and the textural experiences were more successful. There was an elegant theme that ran through his meal which you couldn't help but notice, and made us all understand Richard's very specific point of view. He's a very thoughtful chef and that kind of thinking put him over the top. He gave us three courses that not only succeeded at what we asked him to do in them individually, but when they came together, ate as one beautiful menu as a whole.
Next week: P!NK. Yay!!!