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Gimme, Gimme More (Berry)

What's a judge gotta do to taste some berry?

By Gail Simmons Did you think the Quickfire Challenge was a little cruel?
Gail Simmons: It was cruel, but really creative!  I love that Kristen made that little cake. I thought a lot of the dishes were really smart—Danyele’s bean soup, Sheldon’s lemongrass smoked scallops… People used their ingenuity and that’s what TC is all about. You’ve said that this was one of your favorite Elimination Challenges.
GS: It was. I always love the challenges where we can be outdoors in the sunshine and the chefs are cooking on their own. I thought of this as a super-seasonal, beautiful challenge; this berry farm was magnificent, as you saw. And the berries were at their peak, I’ve never eaten so many berries in my life—my fingers were stained for days! It was a great day out on the farm. It was a really fun, creative challenge, the chefs did really well overall. Even the food that was in the bottom was nowhere near as bad, for example, as the Pike Place challenge. There will always be losing dishes, but that doesn’t have to mean they are bad. This was just a head-to-head challenge, so it was the nature of the competition. While the chefs were cooking, there was a little sauciness in the kitchen.
GS: Everyone’s getting to know each other a little more, so they’re getting more comfortable with each other, but they also are starting to get annoyed by each other. They’re living together, they’re working together, they’re competing against each other; things tend to get a little itchy at this point in the season, and it shows. You saw Josie and Stefan go at each other, Bart getting sassy. Everyone is getting a little tense and intense. They are starting to hit their limit in terms of personal space. What did you think about John telling Tom that Stefan bought frozen tuna?
GS: I thought it was ridiculous—it had nothing to do with anything. If it was really bad quality, we would have berated him—but the truth is, and most people don’t know this, that most tuna in America comes flash-frozen. It is fished, it is flash-frozen, and sent to auction, shipped, and distributed. We have all eaten frozen tuna, even at some very nice, expensive restaurants. When it’s handled properly and when it’s good quality, when it’s served after it’s been thawed properly, there really shouldn’t be an issue with it. Sometimes it is bad quality; they can thaw it improperly and the texture’s disgusting. But, I think it was underhanded of John to point it out, because it had nothing to do with Stefan’s cooking technique—he chose what was available. And when we ate it, it was actually delicious. The texture was perfectly good, the fish tasted fresh, it was in good enough condition, and we had no problem with it. It was about how Stefan handled the product, and I thought he handled it very, very well. Let’s start with Kristen’s dish. Kristen didn’t compete against another chef.
GS: She didn’t, but that still didn’t stop her from making a really excellent dish and position herself to win $10,000! She did the double-double win, like Brooke did last week, and it just goes to show that if you play your cards right in the QF, that’s what really gets you ahead. You win the QF and you have immunity—it really can help you in the long term.  She made a beautiful dish without inhibition and worry about being eliminated or competing against anyone else; she was just competing against herself. The goat-milk custard with matcha was excellent; matcha is a tea—it has a bit of tannin in it, like a green tea does, so it had a bitterness which was beautiful with the rhubarb that can be a little sour, and the yogurt that’s a little sour, but it tasted so good with the sweet AND sour tayberries. She let them steep in this really high-quality, flavorful, fruity olive oil, which brought out all the good qualities of the fruit. It was an ingenious combination.  When you ate it with that cookie she sprinkled on top, it had texture, it had richness, you could taste each individual flavor so clearly, and the tayberries brought everything together. It was a perfect use of her fruit. Bart and Brooke…
GS: That was a really tough challenge because Bart’s blackberry soup was excellent. The salmon was just a misstep.  If only he had done crab… the thought of crab with that dish really changes it completely.  The texture of crab, the flavor of crab, I think would go great with the blackberries. Salmon just did not work. It’s too bad because the soup itself was beautiful.  And he was competing against Brooke! She did this great chocolate pudding—it was smoky and rich and the blackberries balanced all of that smoky flavor and fatty mouth-feel.There was a play on s’mores which everyone loved—the kids loved it, we loved it, and it was straightforward. What’s great about Brooke’s food is that it appears simple in its concept.  But she puts so much technique and thought behind it that when you eat it, it has so many layers, and it tastes so much more complex than it appears. I think that’s the sign of a really talented chef. Stefan beat John.
GS: He sure did! His dish didn’t blow us away completely—it was nice, but I wish we could taste the berries more, and I wish it was slightly more seasoned, but compared to John’s it was a clear winner, unfortunately.  John had a fantastic concept, as Tom explained. White gazpacho, which is traditionally made with grapes, but made with gooseberries, which are very similar in texture to a grape but more sour, is a fantastic idea.  Then he brought in the chorizo. And he didn’t just slice the chorizo or make a chorizo chip or something; he opened the sausage, cooked it, and sort of scooped it in.  I thought the most telling description of the dish was when one of our guests described it as “hamburger soup.” That sums it up perfectly.  The issue that was cut out of our discussion that to me was the biggest flaw, was the greasiness of that dish: he scooped the chorizo into a cup, then poured the gazpacho over it, and there was literally like an oil slick, a smoky chorizo oil slick on top of it -- it was not appetizing.  Which is too bad, because individually those were all great ideas. He just chose to plate it so poorly. And then there was the strawberry situation… Micah’s dish sounded so great.
GS: Micah’s is another example of an amazing idea: strawberry short cake fried chicken, with strawberries! That sounds amazing! Bring it on. He just didn’t pull it off. There were freeze-dried strawberries in the shortcake! You have mountains of fresh strawberries in the peak of their season. BAKE the fresh strawberries; give me some strawberries! The chicken was good; but although he put some strawberries into the chicken batter, I didn’t taste any strawberry there either.  The dish could have been good if this wasn’t a strawberry challenge.  But it was—it was first and foremost a strawberry challenge. If he had put fresh strawberries in the biscuit it wouldn’t have been dry.
GS: Correct, correct! But anyway, Sheldon made a wonderful, beautiful, fresh, ahi poke roll. It was actually interesting to compare this poke roll to Josie’s roll, which we’ll talk about later. Concept was very similar; he did it right, she did it wrong. He had this fresh, bright, strawberry sauce.  He had the sweet chilis and the fresh beautiful roll that had great crunch on a hot day—it was delicious. Next up we have Josie and Lizzie.
GS: Here was some crazy business. The Rock ‘n’ Raspberry Roll -- It was not good. I’m so sorry, but there were so many issues we all had. First, she tried to overcompensate because she clearly wasn’t ready, she was sloppy, her work place was a mess, she had 50 components but wasn’t ready to serve them, and because of that, there was literally a 40-person deep line all day for her food, not because it was great, not because people were coming back for seconds, but because you couldn’t get firsts. So that right there was a major strike against her. And then, this Josie Show, laughing trying to teach people—I don’t care. I want my food, I don’t care if you can juggle and tap-dance, unfortunately. That kind of drove of us all crazy. I guess when she’s nervous, she talks a lot, and I get that, but it was really distracting. Which was why I thought she was smoking something (which by the way would have been completely legal in the state of Washington, as of now. No judgment! I’m just judging the food!

But the actual food itself was bad—it was messy, and sloppy, and falling apart. She made this rollthat wasn’t seasoned, and she made these two mayonnaise-y sauces with the raspberry. BUT, we got no raspberry, no brightness, just a kind of creamy richness that sort of missed the point as a counter balance to the roll. Lizzie, on the other hand, did a great jobDo not underestimate your opponent, that’s the name of the game here. Lizzie made a creative dish that was totally out of left field. A cabbage roll with pork and bacon and raspberries? Who would have ever thought of that?  And it worked perfectly -- it was the right size, seasoned well. I thought it was great, inspired, different, and I really enjoyed it.Finally, the blueberries and Danyele. Josh redeems himself—he had a streak of really bad food with the last few challenges and this challenge made up for it.  His mousse was lovely. Finally, we saw some delicate, technically adept food from Josh. The two challenges before, he made clunky, terrible pork. He walked away from pork this challenge, made a beautiful savory mousse and blueberry compote, that showed that he can cook, finally! Because we know it’s in him. Not just against Danyele’s, but in general. And goat cheese with blueberries is such a great combination—the tart and sweet flavors. I would have liked a little more texture, it was a little soft—but it had nowhere near the issues that we had with Danyele’s food, which I think were clear: her bread was cut too thick, toasted too early, way too crispy so that it  hurt when you bit into it, and then that chicken terrine, which was sliced so thin, really did feel like rubber chicken.  It just had no flavor. Chicken terrine is very tricky—you have to season it highly and add other flavorings to it. And when you poach it and then cool it, if you didn’t season it, you’re lost. Terrine Class 101. Her blueberry mostarda was a good idea, but it wasn’t strong enough in its blueberry flavor.. Good instinct, but the other two components were just executed so poorly that we couldn’t overlook them.

I’m sad about Danyele. I know she worked really hard; I know she’s a good cook and had great experience, but sometimes TC isn’t for everyone—with the pressure, and the way you need to specifically cook. That said, I know she’ll do great with whatever lies ahead.

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

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