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Gail's Favorite Thing About Top Chef
Gail shares how this Duel showed off her favorite part of Top Chef and how much she missed mike and Antonia.
Bravotv.com: So this week we have family facing off with Mike and Antonia!
Gail Simmons: What a fun episode! I love these two!
I was really looking forward to this Duel in particular because I love how they both cook. They have this hilarious connection and familial bond. When they were on Top Chef All-Stars, they were constantly at each other's throats -- so it was a great surprise (but did make sense) when we found out they're related. And they have just gotten closer ever since!
Bravotv.com: So they start with Antonia taking off by doing something that she loves and does all the time at her restaurant – rice balls.
GS: A pretty straightforward challenge I think. This seems to be a theme with Duels -- you either decide to do something you know very well OR something your know your opponent does poorly. She went for something that she knows she's really good at it. She definitely knows how to make arincini.
Hers was enormous. It was the size of a softball. I've never eaten such a big rice ball in my life. But it was really excellent, light with classic flavors -- basil, tomato, Locatelli cheese. It was highly seasoned -- almost to the point of being too salty. But when you ate everything together, it was just delicious, gooey in the center, and piping hot. That girl knows how to make a ball. There's not much more to say.
I was impressed that Michael stopped to think about how to do his differently. He plays with a lot of Eastern Mediterranean flavors, so he went the route of Kebe, which is a play on a rice and ground meat. Usually it's formed into a slightly different shape. He had great seasoning and sweetness with cinnamon and raisin. It was a really interesting twist. But it was a little under-seasoned and after first tasting Antonia's, we all agreed that her rice ball was slightly better. So she won her challenge.
Bravotv.com: And then Mike gave her a two-part challenge, first speed and then cooking with a protein determined by that speed.
GS: Mike went for the jugular. He posed a really difficult challenge -- a relay race of cleaning seafood, which was tough enough on its own, and then they had to make a dish with either what they chose or were given. Mike clearly breezed through it, but Antonia still did it in 16 minutes. I'm sure that must have felt like a lifetime, but she still had 14 minutes to make a dish. What was most amazing about his challenge was that they finished it and did it well. When we came back to the kitchen, we had beautiful food in front of us. That is my favorite thing about Top Chef in general -- somehow they all get it done. It's quite miraculous, really.
Mike made this really intense Spicy Prawn Scampi Soup. I was completely impressed that he was able to extract so much flavor out of his seafood and their shells in time to make a soup in 20 minutes. It was very spicy, with Italian peppers, but he added this dollop of cool yogurt to balance it out. What an intense, excellent dish, rich and savory.
And Antonia, considering that she had only 14 minutes, also made a great dish. She grilled that mackerel beautifully. It was the smartest way to do it, throw it right on the grill, whole, and serve it with a simple salad. That's what I call quick, smart cooking. If she had more time she could have done more and could have won, but because of the challenge that was posed and the time constraint, Mike's dish was just slightly more complex. So he won.
In both of this episode's "mini duels" it was really close. They both made excellent food for each other's challenges so hats off to them. And they were adorable in the process with their funny little banter and bickering, cracking us up the whole time. I said on the show how much I'd missed them and I did. It was great to be back in the kitchen with both of them.
Bravotv.com: So then we gave them the main duel.
GS: An Italian feast for their families -- three courses: the first a classic family heirloom dish, the second a carbonara, and the third a modern play on an Italian dessert. It was great seeing how they both interacted with their families. Everyone puts on a very different face when their mom or dad or daughter or wife is in the room. That was really fun to see, especially with Mike – he’s humbled by his mom for sure. I could tell that Antonia was really touched by having her daughter there. It was also fun to see Mike’s wife and Antonia’s brother cooking as sous chefs. It made them rethink how they act in the kitchen. Such a fun little exercise.
Bravotv.com: So we start off first with the heirloom dish. Antonia, here and throughout this challenge, takes a more traditional bent.
GS: I think Antonia is a more traditional Italian chef. As much as he grew up in a traditional Italian family, Mike's cooking is a little more out-of-the-ordinary. He experiments with more modern techniques and flavors from other parts of Europe and America. He worked in a Greek restaurant for years. He has a Greek restaurant now. He uses a lot of Middle Eastern spice in his food.
We expected the styles of food we got from both of them and both were outstanding. That first course, Antonia did a Fra Diavolo that was just beautifully plated and very balanced. The one thing I noticed when I watched the episode was that her sous-chef was cutting bread at one point. But when we got that dish at the table everyone wanted a piece of bread to sop up the soup and we didn't get it. I don't know what happened but that was too bad. It was the one thing that would have made the dish perfect.
Mike made this beautiful braised octopus served over artichoke puree. Also a delicious dish -- very interesting and more modern. I’ve had octopus from him before, and he cooks it well. But if memory serves, it wasn’t as tender as we wished it would have been. It was a bright fresh dish and certainly a departure from how his mother would have made it.
The second course was carbonara. Mike made his own bucatini, which was heavenly. I did prefer Mike's carbonara dish to Antonia's because I loved the texture of that pasta. Otherwise his bucatini carbonara was pretty traditional. For me carbonara is about how the egg coats the pasta. Although Antonia did a great job with her egg raviolo, I missed the long noodle that you can slurp with all of that rich sauce. Antonia chose a difficult dish to cook, because you need to make sure the egg is runny while the pasta is cooked through. She executed it perfectly.
And then the desserts, which were both a bit simple -- a basil panna cotta from Michael and a spumoni/cannoli dish from Antonia. The flavors in Mike's dish were really fresh and harmonious. The basil was subtle and really went well with the strawberries he used. But the panna cotta didn't set up. Panna cotta is one of those desserts that, if too firm, you're disappointed in because, but if too soft, becomes soupy. "Panna cotta" means "cooked cream." You want it to be set enough to have a creamy, thick texture but still be soft in the center, and supple. It was a very large portion and because of that the "soupy-ness" of it was even more apparent. Antonia's was very simple, but her cannoli "shards" were really crisp and the cherries she used went well with them.
This was a tough one. We loved them both, and we had to make our decision in front of their families. It was hilarious to see how their families were trying to defend their honor. After thinking it through dish by dish we agreed that two out of three of Antonia's courses were stronger that day, so she was our winner. We were just so honored and happy to be able to eat BOTH of their food again. They are great competitors and being around them in the kitchen just makes me happy!