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Dropping the Matzoh Ball

Brooke's oferring hit close to home for Gail Simmons.

By Gail Simmons

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock. We start with the ginger Quickfire Challenge…
Gail Simmons: Brooke’s looked the best, and I assumed it tasted the best too, so it won. I feel like we’re getting down to the wire now, with eight people left, it was a tough one. Wolfgang had some harsh words for the bottom chefs. Is he the toughest judge?
GS: His comments were harsh. I think he’s just snappy. The man is a walking sound bite; it’s unbelievable.  His tan is really amazing too. I adore him, he’s a teddy bear at heart. On to the Elimination Challenge, which ended up being the first part of Restaurant Wars.
GS: It was more like Restaurant Concept Wars. I thought it was a really good way to introduce Restaurant Wars. It gave them a little more time to create their concepts, and think about a signature dish to base their concept around, which really helps finalize and tweak what your concept should be. I think Danny Meyer was the perfect person to guest judge as he’s been a trailblazer for 30-plus years in the New York restaurant world. He created Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern with Tom of course, and now owns everything from to Shake Shack, which makes the best burger in New York City, to The Modern at MoMA. He does fast-casual and he does fine dining at the highest level. He is not a chef, but he has a mastery of hospitality, understanding what customers want from a dining experience, and what keeps them coming back. He taught me so much I have to say, even in just those four or five days we all spent together in Seattle. It’s hard to believe we’ve never had him on the show before. On to the dishes! We’ll start with Josh and Bistro George, a sweet concept to pay homage to his father.
GS: Compared to a lot of the other concepts that our chefs had, Josh’s seemed simple. But, a restaurant doesn’t have to have all the bells and whistles to be great. There are many different reasons people go out to restaurants: of course for special occasions, but people also need to have restaurants in their neighborhood that are casual enough that they can afford to eat there often, but nice enough that it’s not something you could just make at home; more expertly-made. Most importantly, people need restaurants that make them feel like they want to eat there several times a week, or at least a month, where you can be a regular. A perfectly-run casual restaurant is such an important thing in a local community. I think Josh really was able to, in one plate, give us just that.  We understood it -- he knew what he wanted, it came from the heart, he kept it simple, and he knew when to stop. He didn’t feel the pressure to do a German-Thai fusion, for example. He knew what people in HIS neighborhood would want, he knew what his father liked, and he had the sense to stay true to that. At the same time, the rib-eye was cooked perfectly, seasoned perfectly. It was delicious. The cauliflower puree was great, the mushrooms had tons of flavor, the sauce was velvety and rich.  It was a great plate of food and that doesn’t go out of style. And I would go back there, weekly, if it were in my neighborhood, and that was EXACTLY his concept. Let’s jump to Kristen’s winning dish. 
GS: Hers was opposite of Josh’s in a way, not in terms of concept, but in terms of execution. She did something that was VERY sophisticated. Very modern, but also clearly French. I liked that she had the gumption, the chutzpah to say, “I want this to be a fine-dining restaurant.” She cooks in a fine dining restaurant in Boston now, and she wanted it to be a really elevated dish; an example of French technique, clearly French food, French flavors, but using modern technique, like the way she cooked that egg sous-vide. Her dish was really polished, so you felt formal eating it. 

The only thing we were sad about was that we had to eat it in a paper cup, which obviously couldn’t be helped. That dish deserved to be in a beautiful porcelain dish atop a fine linen tablecloth ,and I should have been in a cocktail dress! And that is the other reason people go to restaurants: to celebrate, to feel special, to have a night on the town and get dressed up. That little dish, even though it was in a paper cup, made me feel celebratory. The egg was so creamy and carefully-cooked and the mustard tamarind sauce was so savory, paired with her radishes poached in butter… there was a lot of creamy richness and the mustard just broke through it all.  It was an interesting, delicate little dish. Sheldon’s dish won as well!
GS: Sheldon blew us all away that day. He showed us a bit of this style of cooking in the Anna Faris-Chris Pratt challenge, but it really came to light in this tamarind soup. It was based on a very classic Filipino soup, but it was so refined, so clean, so delicious. It had so much acid in it, such tartness, but was rounded out by the shrimp and the fattiness of the pork belly, the crunch of the vegetables. Vegetable cookery is not an easy thing to nail. He cooked each element separately, I have to assume, because they were all so different in terms of done-ness. SO many different textures that you need to get right to make that soup work. The execution of the dish was immaculate—we all adored it. It was different, it woke us up, it got us thinking. It had so much flavor, and we had never had anything like it before, which is impressive as we can be a grumpy bunch of food snobs sometimes! I was so excited about it too because as a member of the food media I am always looking for the next trend, the next cuisine, and Filipino food is one of the most under-represented cuisines out there. I think there are so many people of Filipino descent in this country, but there’s such a minimal understanding of their food. I know a handful of dishes from friends and that’s about it. Stefan was kind of in the middle.
GS: The reason he was in the middle -- and people might wonder why -- is because his food tasted good, but the concept completely missed the mark. Not because I don’t think that concept could work, but because he just didn’t show it to us enough. His whole story about it having a German influence didn’t really make sense—just because you put a potato in a soup that wouldn’t normally have a potato in it doesn’t make it German. The Bavarian cream I get, but it just tasted like mango and mango ice cream. He didn’t follow through— but his food tasted totally Lizzie was on the bottom…
GS: Lizzie’s idea was really lovely, but her dumpling was too heavy and dense. And the sauce sat too long, so instead of being gooey and runny, which would really have made the dish different, it sort of just sat like a piece of American cheese on top, and formed a skin, which was a little unappetizing. The idea was nice, but the technical execution wasn’t there. Josie’s pork was dry, but she also couldn’t get her food out.
GS: This was a repeat of our experience at the berry farm, and we were all totally stupefied. She just has to get it together—she’s a bit of a mess these days. I KNOW she can cook. But she’s too much in her head and too much about the Josie Show—about talking and not about doing. Cooking needs to be about doing first and foremost. Onto Brooke’s soup, which produced maybe your best line ever…
GS: Ha! Well, I had a couple of issues with Brooke’s duck confit matzoh ball soup: First of all, doesn’t that sound great? It’s like a no-brainer; I loved the concept of her dish. Loved that she made that rye bread. But, the matzo ball was POOP. So heavy and gummy. It wasn’t cooked enough. I’m very particular about my matzo balls! I like there to be some levity. Add a little seltzer. 

I also had an issue with her concept, and I know it’s hitting a little close to home here, but I have kind of an issue with it from a moral standpoint. Duck isn’t unkosher—duck can be a kosher meat. So, I don’t know why she kept calling it “unkosher.” Maybe she was going to have more items on the menu -- bacon-wrapped whatever, and I know its supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. I’m not kosher by any means, but I respect the reasons for keeping kosher by Jewish law. There’s a trendy hipster thing of wrapping Jewish foods in bacon and , but, first of all, she didn’t execute that in her dish, so the dish didn’t illustrate her concept. And ff she was just doing elevated Jewish food, like then it shouldn’t be called “unkosher.” That signifies something specific and she didn’t show that to us. It could have been very kosher and it could have been very beautiful, but I felt that her food fought with her restaurant concept, so I wasn’t sold. And then we have Micah’s raw concept for which he went home.
GS: There were many issues with Micah’s dish and his concept. The dish as a concept, to me, was flawed. First, I understand that you can’t cut 600 pieces of fish to order for the event, so you have to make a decision: either you choose a different dish or you cut it all the night before. He chose to do it the night before and that’s fine, but he then put everything together too early, so the dish was then all squished together and you couldn’t really separate them, you couldn’t get their pure, clean, individual flavors which is what you are ALWAYS looking for with raw fish in the first place. Second, he put a million other things on the plate with it. There were two or three different sauces. The sauces may have tasted good and were made well enough, but they all just blended together on soggy greens. So it wasn’t a clean plate of food. You didn’t really understand what it was you were eating. And as far as I know, the point of raw food is to do just that. 

Then there’s his concept of a raw food restaurant. As Danny said, we all have a great point of reference for raw fish, which is great sushi. If you’re doing a raw restaurant, you’ve got to do something more than this, because this is NOT new or different in any way. It wasn’t very good raw fish—so I’d rather go for sushi. Raw meat, carpaccio, I get it. But raw can be a million different things.  Show us a great raw vegetable preparation. There was just nothing interesting about what he served to illustrate why his idea was worth eating. It felt like I was at a sushi-to-go place at the airport. 

Finally, I was worried about the sincerity of his concept. When we asked him why he wanted to do this as his concept he said, “Well, I live in Beverly Hills and the women of Beverly Hills are picky and need  diet food” (or something like that). Really? That’s why you’re doing this? Well, that’s why he was asked to leave. His idea seemed so completely superficial, there wasn’t any depth to his restaurant, and so there was no depth to his food. And just as Danny said, if you don’t cook from the heart, we’re going to know. This was a perfect example. It was vacuous from its inception to its execution. I am sure Micah will do well in the long run. He’s young and talented. He needs to figure out who he is as a chef, and when he does I will happily eat his food again. 

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