Bravotv.com: You judged the Quickfire this time.
Gail Simmons: I did, which was fun! A lot of pressure… I love that it was a relay race in the truest sense of the term. The sous chefs started it and handed the mise en place on to their chefs who then created the dishes, which is an interesting metaphor for how things work in the kitchen. Not that the sous chefs only do mise en place in a kitchen, but a sous chef preps and supports the chef, and the chef creates the overall vision. I ate a lot of raw lamb at day. A lot of raw lamb…
Bravotv.com: Some of the chefs went right in, but even Douglas said, “I don’t know how I’m going to mix these ingredients together.” Was that combination classic at all, or was it a difficult combination?
GS: It wasn’t an impossible combination; it wasn’t like weird ingredients. On their own, celery root, pomegranate, lamb, and squid are very common ingredients, but harmonizing them can be challenging. It takes a moment of pause to come up with something like that. Some chefs are really quick on their feet about the way they cook; they can just jump in and throw a dish together. Others need more time to think it through.
Bravotv.com: Sue’s lamb loin with the slaw won.
GS: It was surprisingly good considering how little time they had. The quality of some of the dishes was really exceptional. There was harmony on her plate; she made those ingredients feel completely organic and natural together, and it was delicious. She added pistachios, and sometimes all you need is a fifth ingredient to bring it all together. And I think the pistachios and pomegranate worked so well -- they’re both sort of Middle Eastern, traditional ingredients seen together all the time By using that fifth ingredient, she made it feel like she’d been cooking that dish for years.
Bravotv.com: This was our first elimination Quickfire. Richard was unfortunately sent home.
GS: I felt terrible. It was a really hard challenge because there was so much food and so much detail. He was at a disadvantage -- his sous chef finished last, so he finished the mise en place last and had the most prep to do; he had 10 minutes to cook his dish, and he just wasn’t able to pull it together. That’s where Battle of the Sous Chefs comes in to play. Also, he called his dish a tartare, but it wasn’t a tartare; it was more of a carpaccio. He had this problem in the last Elimination Challenge too where he called his dish a taradito, but it really wasn’t. Because he called it that, you have in your head an expectation of what it’s supposed to be, and then it doesn’t measure up to what the definition of that term really is.
Bravotv.com: On to the Elimination Challenge at the Asian night market.
GS: This was one of my favorite challenges of all my time on Top Chef just because it was just so beautiful that night, and it was just such a fun night. Also, it was a great challenge in terms of current culinary trends.Bravotv.com: And you got to hang out with Kathy Lee.
GS: Yes, hung out with Kathy Lee, which was hilarious. We had so much fun with her. She was a good sport when we were eating heart and shrimp heads and all sorts of things she didn’t want to eat. I think she thought we were all crazy.
Overall the food was really excellent. It also spoke to how integral sous chefs are again -- you have another set of hands that’s really capable and can work with you seamlessly. The collaboration between all the chefs that night that was so powerful, I thought. So many dishes were great, not just in the top three. It was hard to narrow it all down.
A few that weren’t in the top that I would mention: Certainly Franklin Becker’s duck burgers were flavorful, straightforward, well put together, and really focused. His eggplant fries weren’t great, which is why he wasn’t in the top, but the burger, if it had been alone, would have been on the top. Also David Burke has this crazy way of combining 5,000 ingredients, and sometimes it works for him and sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, it really doesn’t. So when it does, you kind of can’t help but think he’s a genius and completely understand why he got to where he is. His dish that night tasted really wonderfu,l and I loved it.
The top three dishes were the boldest in flavor, and also really embraced what we asked them to do, which was take a classic American dish and give it a creative Asian twist. The chicken dumplings from Bryan were completely brilliant. So flavorful. How he got the broth to taste so rich was impressive. The dumplings were delicate and soft, tons of fresh herbs and freshness from the snap peas made me love that broth even more. Douglas was very smart. He took a risk; he made a dessert. Visually and texturally, it was cookies and cream and a crispy rice square, but the flavors were all Asian. And then there was Sang, who nailed it. He made this amazing Burmese slaw with tons of dried shrimp buried beneath it, and a beautiful fried shrimp with a garlic aioli, along with the shrimp head that was crunchy and salty and spicy. All the judges went crazy for it.
I don’t know very much about Burmese cuisine, but James Oseland certainly does. He wrote a book about Asian food, very regionally. He spent a lot of time there, and he knew the exact dish that Sang was making. We all thought cole slaw was so American, but what Sang made was a version of a very traditional Burmese salad. I looked to James Oseland on this one because he’s so knowledgeable in this area, and he was so impressed by it.
Bravotv.com: Now we have the bottom. Sue and Jenn seemed like they hinged on the bread and what they chose to do with that bread that wasn’t very good.
GS: I feel badly that people are going to think we voted or penalized them for bread that they didn’t even make, but you must always take responsibility for what’s on your plate regardless of how it got there or if you made it by hand or not. Jenn had a vision of a banh mi, which I applaud and I love. The interior of the banh mi was absolutely delicious. But she couldn’t get out of this box of how a banh mi should be. It’s a sandwich -- there’s two pieces of bread, one on each side with filling in the middle. And then the bread was bad; she knew it was bad. But she wasn’t able to be flexible with her vision and creatively come up with a solution, whether it was to hollow out the bread, toast the bread, soak the bread, deconstruct a sandwich in some way... We had no preconceptions of what we wanted the chefs to do, but Jenn wanted to keep it purely like a banh mi even though she knew she got bread that was not going to be to our (or her) standards. Whereas Sue had the same bread -- she had other problems with her dish -- but the bread, even though it was exactly the same bread, wasn’t an issue because she was able to adapt. She hollowed it out and then she made her lobster roll open-faced. We’re never going to say, “No -- a real, traditional lobster roll isn’t open-faced.” In fact, we gave her more credit for being able to creatively still use that bread and make it feel like a traditional lobster roll while using the resources of what she had. But Jenn suffered for this and ultimately went home for it.There was a lot of back-and forth at Critics’ Table. We felt that Sue’s lobster roll was not Asian at all in flavor. Really none of us got that ginger, sriracha, soy that she spoke about. We just got simple lobster salad on a piece of bread -- a very well-constructed and delicious one -- but we really didn’t think she embraced the Asian part of the challenge. Also, I got shell in my lobster roll which is a huge no-no so it became a discussion of which is worse: finding a shell or the bread that sort of completely overshadowed the sandwich? And we realized that it was the bread. This was a greater flaw because Jenn could’ve done something about it. Whereas Sue -- not that lobster shell is acceptable -- didn’t know about it and she could never have changed it otherwise. Then there was Odette. Her fish ball was really unappetizing, unappealing. But the vermicelli noodles were fantastic and the sauce was fantastic. It was not her best work but it certainly wasn’t a dish we thought was worse than the other two.
Jenn is a perfectionist and incredible cook. I’ve known her for a long time, I’ve had the privilege of eating at her restaurant and visiting her in Portland. She is such a dynamic cook and truly one of the best young cooks in America today. I’m so proud of her; and I hope she feels proud too. Don’t forget: she was on the top for the Quickfire. Her lamb tartare was one of the best dishes I ate all season. I hope the next time I’m in Portland she’ll make it for me.