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Bravotv.com: What was it like sitting at that esteemed dining table?
Gail Simmons: It really was an incredible table of people. Everyone was so enthusiastic and passionate about food and about these particular chefs. I could never have imagined in my whole life that I would get the chance in my career to sit and talk food with all of them, and it was pretty great -- these amazing critics of world renown whom I've been reading and following my entire adult life! Everyone had so much to offer in terms of their insight and excitement about the meal, so we had a lot of fun that day.
Bravotv.com: Let’s start with Jen’s dishes.
GS: Across the board, the first course of dishes was exceptional -- there was almost nothing wrong with any of them. I think they were three of the strongest dishes we got all night Of the three, Jen's was by far the simplest. It was a galette using sunchokes, which gave a great flavor, with caviar and the salmon. But the really unique part of the dish was the pickled apple. It gave a crunch, a sourness, a sweetness, and it brought the whole dish together. It was definitely an ode to the man who taught her to cook, the man who raised her. It was a dish that looked simpler than it was when you ate it. There's a reason classics are classics. And hers really did give a nod to a very traditional way of cooking, whereas the other two were much more intellectualized. I really liked the freshness of Jen's first course.
She then made this amazing paella gnocchi, which I think was Jen's strongest dish of the night. I loved the textures. I loved that she took something as traditional as paella and gave it to us in its exactness in terms of flavor, but totally changed the texture of the dish, making it gnocchi instead of rice. Coating the gnocchi itself with some rice flour gave it crunch to recreate the idea of socarrat, which are those crispy pieces of rice that get cooked on the bottom of the dish. The flavors were bold, strong and really made an impact on me when I ate it.
The Wolfgang Puck dish was excellent -- it really was made well. It certainly reminded us all of Wolfgang Puck's Chinois on Main. There was no fault to it at all either.
Jen’s dessert was definitely her weakest dish of the night, though. I know she based it on her sous chef’s dish, but as we said, she was too literal with it, she did not have to do it that way. I think she was possibly overwhelmed and wasn't able to get out of the head space of using every component and doing it in a similar way to what he had done. It was her demise unfortunately. To me, the dessert just wasn't cohesive, there were far too many ingredients on the plate, far too many flavors that I didn't think went well together. It needed to be edited. Texturally, it felt sort of off too. I didn't love the Bavarian or the heavy smokiness of the macademia nuts -- they were a overpowering. On top of it, she had a few fruit components that I think clashed with the rest of the dish.
That's not to say Jen didn't cook well in her meal. She did an incredible job; she cooked some of the best dishes that day that she cooked all season. It really came down to whose dishes were best, not just whose dishes were worst. In this case, there were no bad dishes that night. Jen should be very proud of how she did the whole season and especially in that final meal.
Bravotv.com: On to Bryan. What was it like telling him that he was runner-up… again.
GS: I never thought about it that way. When we told Doug that he was the winner I wasn't thinking, "Poor Bryan, he's runner-up, again." I actually looked at it, and I hope Bryan does too, as the glass is half full. Bryan was runner-up in Season 6, arguably our hardest season ever of Top Chef (except for the upcoming Season 11 of course) and the only person he didn't beat out was his brother. Four years later, he competed and again was second best out of 13 of the strongest MASTERS in this country. And the only person he didn't beat out was Douglas Keane, who presided over the final meal he cooked back in Season 6. It just shows how far he's come as a chef and how truly awesome he is! I think it really says something about his skill and perseverance. Bryan is such an extraordinary talent, and he's an amazing person, too. He has a depth of spirit and personality that I really respect. His food is delicious, but its also so intelligent, and I'm always impressed with him. I hope he doesn't feel like he lost at that meal, but that he won second place, a silver medal! Which is a pretty good place to be.Bravotv.com: He started with the salad which was the riff on Chesapeake Chicken.
GS: That salad was fantastic. It reminded me in a lot of ways of the “Cobb salad” he made at Restaurant Wars. He took a dish that was very classic and not only turned the food on its head but gave it to us in a way that I think improved the dish immensely, not an easy thing to do. The components of the dish were so unusual, and the textures with which he composed them were so truly satisfying.
His cod was absolutely beautiful and very restrained too. I really enjoyed it. His beef seemed a little heavy to me. It just seemed to weigh down the menu. There was a lot of it, but also, it was a dark dish. It didn't have a lot of levity; it didn't have a counterpoint. And I think that's what we were all looking for. It was executed well. The meat was cooked well, the components were executed well, but it just didn't have the same soulfulness that the other dishes he made that night, and that some of the dishes his fellow chefs made that night, had. It didn't feel as… complex. There was that seaweed potato that he stole from his brother too that I love as an idea, but when we ate it, it was a little bit gummy and a little salty. It didn't come through in the way I hoped.
His final dessert was exquisite though; it was really a work of art. That white on white on white. It was breathtaking to behold. And the way he plated it in this shattered, deconstructed way, was so beautiful. The flavors were great, too, although I felt used three very strong flavors: coconut, lavender, and vanilla, and I sort of wished he had taken one away so you could focus on the others, because it all just melted together and you lost the individuality of each of them.
Bravotv.com: Finally, we have Doug.
GS: Doug was at a serious disadvantage in that he didn't have his sous chef during his whole prep day, but I was amazed to hear that he felt that it focused him. It certainly didn't hurt him in the long run. It's quite extraordinary and a true testament to who he is as a chef that he was able to power through on his own and accomplish as much as he did. Wow, that billi bi soup… billi bi is a very traditional French soup going back hundreds of years. It's a very interesting soup that you don't see often in America… he created the essence of that soup with mussels and fennel puree. It had so much flavor, and it was so pure. Those two components eaten separately were divine, eaten together were even better.
He then gave us the ocean trout dish, which to me was the masterpiece of the entire season. When I think of Top Chef Masters Season 5, I will forever long for Doug's ocean trout. It looked like a jewel box, a Japanese gift to us. We know how deft he is at creating Japanese broths, and this was no exception. It had complete balance. It was intelligent and made with such care you couldn't help but fall in love with it.
His duck was, I think, if you can find anything wrong with any of his dishes, his weakest course. I felt my particular piece of duck was a little grey, a little overcooked. I would have liked it to be a little more pink, so that it wasn't as tough. But that tamarind sauce really did transport us.
Finally, his dessert, was such an impressive final note to end on for so many reasons. One: his plating. It was this grey mass that came to the table, a color you rarely see in food. It wasn't beige, it wasn't brown -- it was grey. That was fascinating to me. And then he had all these other textual components on top with -- matcha, shattered miso custard. Everything had a balance of savory and sweet, the miso and the sesame, and the green tea which has tannins, so it makes your mouth pucker a little bit. It was so lovely when you ate it all together. It had this velvety texture, this lightness and smoothness. It had just enough sweetness too, just barely enough to make it taste like a true dessert, which was perfect for all of us at the end of such a big meal. It was so beautiful. I hope that he makes it again.
We're so proud of Doug. It was such a difficult decision. I know we say that every year, but it's true. All the food we ate that night was exceptional and heartfelt from three chefs who really are at the top of the heap. I am so proud that Doug was the winner. I've known him a long time, and I have so much respect and admiration for him. I think he cooked his heart out from beginning to end, and I just will be thrilled to see whatever he does next.
Bravotv.com: Anything else you want to add to the whole season?
GS: I loved it! It was so much fun!
Bravotv.com: Ready for Top Chef in New Orleans?
GS: Born ready! On to New Orleans. It’s going to be over the top, insanely, unbelievably fun. And sweaty, but amazing.