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Let Them Eat Cake

Gail Simmons explains why the high school challenge is her favorite.

By Gail Simmons

Gail Simmons: Sorry I haven't been able to blog for the past two weeks. I was working on the show, shooting Top Chef All-Stars, and promoting Top Chef: Just Desserts. I'll be doing a weekly Q+A as often as I can going forward. I'll leave the full blogs to my fellow judges. How was premiere day?
Premiere day was fantastic! I don't know if anyone checked out the dessert trucks with my head on them, but it was pretty much my mother-in-law's favorite day of the year. I was super-excited about it, because I really think the world would be a better place if everyone just ate a little more cake. And when I say a little, I do mean just a little, because no one needs a massive piece of cake, no one needs four of them a day. A little piece of cake a day, or just a square of chocolate really helps. It releases serotonin, it makes you happy, and I think it's important for the world. That's why we made this show! 

Speaking of which, I warned you Bravo-nians, that this show would get kooky. I think the first two episodes show that there are innate differences between a chef in a savory kitchen and a chef in a pastry kitchen. I keep getting asked that question, "What's the difference, are they so different?" And I what I tell journalists and everyone else is this: You wouldn't ask your psychiatrist to perform open-heart surgery on you. They're both doctors, but that doesn't mean they should do each other's jobs. That's the very loose and exaggerated metaphor I use. In some ways the job of chefs in the savory kitchen is easier because they can tweak the taste, and season as they go, improvise, be spontaneous, and feel their way along until they come to their final dish. Pastry chefs do not have that luxury. Once they whip it up and put it in the oven, how it comes out is how it comes out, and there's only so much they can do to fix it if it is not perfect. It's a much more precise art and therefore requires it's practitioners to be very steady of hand, very patient and meticulous. There cannot be an ounce of second-guessing or an ounce of hesitation in the pastry kitchen. I think that's where our pastry chefs get into a lot of trouble this season, we are putting them in very intense high-pressure situations. And as Johnny Iuzzini said just the other day in an interview which really rang true for me, "Chefs rely on two things more than anything else: time and materials." And when you take those two things away from them, everything goes bananas. The result is Top Chef: Just Desserts. 

I'm happy to report, and I hope it's obvious, how talented these pastry chefs really are. That is first and foremost our priority on the show. Whatever happens in the kitchen, whatever happens in the house, in the Stew Room, is what it is, but we will always treat our chefs with dignity, reverence and respect. How they treat each other is another story. 

So Episode 3…

Two words: Sylvia Weinstock.
She is a genius. She is an extraordinary woman. She is in her 80s, and she touched our show during that episode in a way we really didn't think was possible. Did you ever see The Incredibles? She looks like Edna Mode. She is the Edna Mode of the pastry world. She is so smart, so down to earth, so wise, and really was a pleasure to work with. She was kind to all of our contestants, and she set a good example of how you can give great feedback by being constructive without being too critical. She really had such empathy for our pastry chefs. I learned so much from her over the two days she spent with us. Listen to your elders, they have a lot to teach you.
Of course we did a wedding cake challenge with her. And most of the chefs created really beautiful pieces. Erika won, she used butter cream instead of fondant, which is more difficult simply because it melts more easily, but it has better texture and better flavor. Mrs. Weinstock certainly prefers it. Erika's cake was beautiful, simple, and tasted great. The combination of flavors was excellent. On the flip side, we were very disappointed in Seth for not even attempting to do the challenge. I think we were clear that you need to make an effort. If you don't step up to the plate and take a swing, we don't expect you to hit a homerun every time, but we hope you can rise to the challenge. Seth seems to have an issue with leaving his comfort zone, but whether you like it or not, that is the entire point of this competition. We get you to try things you haven't tried to see how well rounded you are as a pastry chef. Be it pastry, baking or cake decorating, we are testing all of these skills for a reason. It's never going to serve you well if you don't even try. In fact we have much more respect for contestants who try and fail than for those who don't try at all. For example, even though Malika's cake fell, her flavors were good and we acknowledged that. For her, time and structure were the issue. What did you think of the bake sale challenge?
This was one of my favorite challenges of all time on any season of Top Chef. I loved working with the glee club and pep squad kids, who were so much fun. High school is not a fun place all the time, so to get a chance to throw a bake sale for them was awesome. Did you hear the song they wrote for us? I thought it was amazing! The best part of this challenge was that, just as we've been forcing all of our chefs out of their comfort zones, asking them to do things like be cake designers or have them plate complicated architectural desserts, we then forced all of the fancy, formally trained pastry chefs become bakers. Baking cookies, cakes, crispies, brownies, bars, is a different craft all together and you have to think about them in a different way. They need to be portable, they need to be accessible for all ages, they need to be nostalgic in flavor and appropriate for the audience or venue, they need to be fun, and of course delicious. It was so much fun to go into the school and not only raise money towards their goals, but also to get our chefs out into the world, interacting with customers, which is a really important part of being a business owner and a professional. Unfortunately, it proved to be quite difficult for some of our chefs. 

The main difference between the two teams seemed to be that the pep squad team really played to what was appropriate for a bake sale and glee club team tried to elevate the desserts a little too much, which made them a bit inaccessible. Johnny taught me this (he teaches me a lot of stuff on the subject): it's the simplest things that, when done well always are the best, especially with desserts. You associate them with your childhood, you're nostalgic about them, they bring back taste memories. I mean, there's really nothing better than a perfectly-baked chocolate chip cookie. That cookie from Erika and that amazing crispy chocolate bar from Eric were great examples of this. That said, when you make really simple things that people are familiar with, you leave yourself open to everyone's opinions and people are more apt to scrutinize your work. It is hard to fine the balance between the two but the best desserts are able to do it well. Compared to Top Chef, we're seeing these chefs explaining a lot more about what's going on behind the scenes when they're at Judges' Table. Are you noticing that as well?
Yes, and I think it's for good reason. I watched this episode with my husband and he gave me two pieces of feedback, which I thought were useful as I look to him for viewer response. I figure, if he's thinking it and he's not a professional pastry chef, everyone else is probably thinking it too. First, he is used to the language of Top Chef, talking about the doneness of meat or the thickness of a sauce, the language of the savory kitchen. He explained that all of a sudden our audience has been introduced to a whole new language, and he's been so amazed at how many words he doesn't know. So he winds up having to pay closer attention, which is exciting as its a new world for most people. He assumed it was just going to be chocolate, butter, sugar. But it's actually all chemistry, and so much more in depth than he imagined. The second piece of feedback, which I love, is that you cannot watch this show without something sweet in front of you. He says it makes him so hungry and makes him really crave sugar. To that I say: Eat more cake people! That's the point!

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