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All About Execution

Gail explains how the chefs' failures were not in concept.

By Gail Simmons What did you think about the gumbo challenge with the legend Leah Chase?
Gail Simmons: She's amazing! I mean, the woman is 90 years old, and as you can see, she is still going strong. She is such an icon of New Orleans cuisine. She comes back later in the season too, and you'll see her incredible restaurant. She’s such a strong force in the industry, and she's just such an amazing example for other chefs, her resilience after Katrina, for women chefs around the world – she's just completely inspiring.

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Watch Top Chef on Bravo and next day on Peacock. What did you think when Michael and Justin didn't win the gumbo challenge, but Carrie came out on top?
GS: I guess it was unfortunate for them, but it wasn't an easy challenge. The challenge wasn't to make a really traditional gumbo though; the challenge was to infuse it with your heritage and do something meaningful for you. Carrie's looked great! She cooked with delicious, unusual flavors that tied together where she was from, where her husband was from, and her mother-in-law from Trinidad. I thought that was really cool, and I bet it was delicious! I loved that it reminded Lea Chase of her Gumbo Z’Herbes, a very secret famous spice mix that they make gumbo with in New Orleans. On to the Elimination Challenge with the food trucks for the Habitat for Humanity volunteers.
GS: The city has come a long, long way, which was inspiring to see when we were there, but by no means is it back to how it was pre-Katrina. Katrina was eight years ago, and there's so much work still to do. It forever changed the landscape of New Orleans. There still is, as we said, something like 50,000 homes that were completely abandoned, never to be returned to from the residents who left them. Most of those are in really destitute, poor neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward, which is where the devastation was the most pronounced. People don't have the means to rebuild, even if they want to. So groups like Habitat For Humanity are invaluable there, and have done such incredible things for the people of New Orleans. The groups we met with – some were local, there was a group from Canada, actually, that we worked for that day – all had different reasons for being there, but ultimately everyone just wanted to help and it was inspiring to speak to the workers and also the residents. With Habitat for Humanity, the homeowners work alongside the volunteers on their own homes. So, when we were at the construction site, the owners were there as well, working on their houses. I think that also creates such a great sense of value for them and for the people who are working because they're actually working alongside the people who will ultimately live there. It's extra incentive to work hard. What did you think of the overall truck concepts?
GS: Overall, I think they were great. No one was misguided in the general concept; they all were well thought-through. It was really execution issues all the way. For the trucks that didn’t do well, it wasn't the concept that wasn't good. There was nothing served the whole day that we thought, “Why would anyone make this on a food truck?” If anything, the food we were surprised that they made on a food truck were the things that won. And so you can hardly fault them. That was one of the few challenges we did entirely outside, and they were out in that heat in a food truck with no air conditioning and barely a full-sized refrigerator for hours. Who thinks you can roll empanada dough on a food truck under those circumstances? Who thinks you can fry tempura for tacos and keep it crispy? But those were the best dishes of the challenge, so you could hardly complain about it. Jason didn’t seem thrilled with Bret’s revelations at Judges’ Table.
GS: Jason showed his own cards. I think he knew halfway through the challenge that his salmon rolls were getting soggy and really weren't holding up; in the humidity number one, but also having been rolled out two hours in advance. I can't stress enough how unpleasant they were to eat. Mostly, it was a textural thing. You want your nori to be crispy. When nori gets soggy, it's like eating wet paper. And the ingredients weren't that tasty either – the salmon wasn't seasoned, it wasn't flavorful, and when you ate the roll, it all became sort of stringy and sticky. This was a stark contrast from the really delicious, light fresh things that we ate that day. So he called himself out. It's not as if we wouldn't have seen it if Brett, or anyone else, hadn't mentioned it. We pick up on all of it; that's our job. It seemed like Bene took on more of a sous chef role on his team, the Red Team.
GS: But did a lot of other prep. He didn't own one specific dish, and if he had been on the bottom that would have been a big issue and he could have gone home for it for sure. But he was on the Red Team, and the Red Team didn’t end up on the bottom. Most of the dishes from that team were good – Nina's jerk chicken sandwich was actually excellent, so because Bene happened to hitch himself to that sandwich, there were no flaws to what he did.

Back to the Blue Team,  Jason wasn't the only flaw. There was Bret's weird temperature ceviche. Patty's slider was pretty mediocre. I didn't take as much of an issue with it as Tom did, but I definitely understand his point, and I felt it was just not very flavorful and not very interesting. It was a tuna slider with tomato and lettuce. Sara also made a tuna burger, which was basically a tuna slider, and we had that one right before we had Patty's, so we had a direct comparison. Sara's, even though they were very similar, had a lot more personality. I thought Sara's slider was amazing, so to have two in a row and one be so lackluster, you couldn't help but pay attention. Like Tom said, if you're going to do something really simple and really classic, it needs to be perfect because we're going to dissect it that much more. And then there was Carrie and the Yellow Team.
GS: Everything that came off of their Mexican taco truck was excellent. There wasn't one item that I took issue with, but I will say that the two standouts were definitely the empanada, which was made with some of the best flakey empanada dough I've ever had. And that pork and curry filling was so flavorful and spicy. You could just pick it up with your hand -- really easy and smart.

Carlos' tilapia tacos also were excellent. Crispy, juicy, moist... and they were huge! In fact, I couldn't finish them. I ended up sharing mine with one of the volunteers. The Yellow Team did a really great job, and Carlos was a great team leader. He took on that role of expediting. He managed to give us a dish that was fried to order, that they were making with his direction and make everyone feel really welcome and really appreciated for all their hardwork. Final thoughts?
GS: Overall, I thought the food was excellent. I was really excited that this was the first challenge I was on because it was a really positive day. I left that challenge thinking not only did we do something good for people who work really hard to help the city grow, but that we ate amazing food from a super talented group of chefs who I think will be really interesting to watch all season long.

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