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Gail on Favreau, Choi, and Finding Yourself

Gail explains the challenges with Roy Choi and Jon Favreau were pure serendipity and discusses finding your voice.

By Gail Simmons Let's talk about the Quickfire challenge. It was really interesting to see Roy Choi going so hard on the chefs.

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Gail Simmons: This whole episode came together in an incredible way. So many things about this episode were serendipity. We had Jon Favreau making a movie about being a chef -- and that he went to Roy Choi to be his mentor for that, and that Roy Choi is a friend of ours (he was with us in Alaska for the finale last year and has such a huge connection to Emeril). Not only that, but in the movie that Jon's making, a big part is going to take place in New Orleans, which was just another reason that Jon being on the episode made so much sense. It was so great to have him there because returning to New Orleans is such a pivotal part of the film. It all was just a perfect collaboration. I thought it was really special.

Having Roy Choi in the Quickfire was really special because the challenge was so personal to him. The whole idea overall of the movie Chef and of our episode was finding your voice and showing us who you are. Using the taco to find his voice through his food truck and then allowing our chefs to be able to do the same thing with the po’boy, I thought was really fun and really smart. I think that Roy took their work really personally, which is why he was really hard on the chefs. None of them made amazing po’boys and that sort of seemed like an easy thing to do, considering where we were and that we gave them all the ingredients to do so.

I think it was a wakeup call for our chefs, as well, because there are only five left. They were all feeling pretty good about themselves right now. But the stakes are high. You want to remember that every challenge counts and this was a good reminder. Did you enjoy the classic NOLA po’boys while you were in Louisiana?

GS: I love po’boys, I ate a lot of them when we were in New Orleans. I was generally a fried shrimp, fried oyster po’boy person. New Orleans has so many great places -- Parkway, Domilise's, there are also some modern po’boy places popping up. What was it like having oysters with the chefs?

GS: Going to the food trucks with the chefs was really fun. We’ve tried a number of times this season to connect with the chefs in a way we’ve never done before as judges. I took them for snoballs earlier in the season, Emeril’s brought them food and wine. He took them shrimping. Tom’s hung out with them, Padma, too. We’ve all tried to get to know them a little more than in past seasons. This was a way to do that which connected them to the idea of the food truck and finding your voice. The food truck theme is an impetus for change and for starting fresh, which is what Jon’s movie is all about and also what Roy Choi’s journey is all about. But it’s also what we’re going to ask them to do in this Elimination Challenge.


It was nice to chill with them, eat some delicious grilled oysters from this awesome food truck from Drago’s, which was actually a converted fire engine, which is amazing. It was parked in front of a BreauxMarts, which is a grocery store chain, and we all just hung out and talked with them and got to know their stories and how they each found their voice. It was really fascinating because we’ve never had a chance to talk with them like that before. It was fun to get to know them a little, to laugh a bit and eat together as opposed to eating their food and putting them on the spot. Let’s dive right in to the dishes that day. What did you think of Carlos’ Braised Pork Belly With Sweet Potato Puree and Chipotle Tamarind Glaze?

GS: Most of the dishes we ate that day were excellent. Carlos’ was a dish that he had in his back pocket from his restaurant that he’d clearly been waiting for an opportunity to pull out and this was the perfect time. It was delicious. It was balanced. It was cooked well, it was thoughtful, it was very concise. We’ve seen some good food from Carlos but it had been a while since he’d shown us something that tasted like we expected from him without having to fit his style into a challenge. It was just him being himself and that was really great to see. And we did really get a window into who he is as a chef, how he cooks, what flavors he likes. It was bold and beautiful. What about Nina's Fettuccine with Charred Calamari, Pine Nut Germolata, and Crab Meat?

GS: Nina lost some confidence in this challenge. She was really nervous, which we would have never known that day when we were eating her pasta. When I watched the episode, you saw her in the kitchen and how frazzled she seemed. I think just everyone was a little bit thrown off by the Quickfire. She was doubting herself, but she had no reason to. Her pasta was excellent. She made it beautifully. She has a really skilled hand at making fresh pasta. It was amazing to see. Her combination was great. I loved that she just used four or five ingredients. It was really simple. She did a really lovely job. It wasn’t the best dish we’ve ever seen from her, but it was very strong and clearly technically precise. What did you think of Shirley's Seared Snapper with Crustacean Broth, Silken Tofu, and Napa Cabbage?

GS: Shirley’s was exceptional. Again, I love that these top three chefs in this challenge paid attention to making their dishes minimal in terms of ingredients. Shirley’s was the best example of this. The snapper was beautifully cooked. That broth was, and you could tell by how we all reacted, exceptional. It had so much depth and so much flavor, but it wasn’t fussy, it wasn’t fancy. It was just really soulful. We loved how her story was really about finding her voice right there in New Orleans. That was really poignant, but more importantly, that food was delicious. Cabbage and tofu seems sort of unusual, but you could tell that it came from her, the way she likes to cook, the way her mother cooked, the way her grandmother cooked. We love that she’s calling on those experiences but then elevating them with her clear knowledge and knowhow in the kitchen. Now onto the bottom dishes, Nicholas' Yellowfin Tuna, Several Preparations of Carrot and Fennel Pollen Dust and Brian's Chicken Anticucho with Twice Cooked Potatoes and Feta Walnut Pesto. . .

GS: This was a really tough decision and it took a long time at judges table to reach because Brian and Nick had dishes that had a few great and interesting elements, some great flavors and strong flavors, but they both had major flaws. Nick’s being this amazing way that he carefully crafted all of his carrot preparations -- except the raw carrots were a little bit bland. With his use of carrot top and the carrot juice, you really got the sweet taste of the carrot, that flavor of the carrot. And then there were these pieces of tuna with it that to all of us seemed disconnected. You could tell it was missing an element. It just seemed strange that he just sort of threw the tuna on, almost like an afterthought -- although he didn’t see it as an afterthought. They were seared perfectly fine, but they weren’t seasoned incredibly well. More than anything they just didn’t seem to make sense on the plate. It almost felt like he felt the need to put a protein on and it could have been any protein. But, as Tom suggested, if he had just made the dish a beautiful carrot dish, it probably would have been more successful. One big delicious roasted carrot to serve in place of the protein would have been a great idea. But you can’t think of how he should have done it. It only matters how he did do it.

Brian’s dish when we first tasted it, had this really zesty interesting flavor to it. But when you started digging around, it was sort of messy. You couldn’t differentiate what the flavor was. It had this heavy, heavy sauce with feta and chilis, they seemed to mask whatever was underneath -- which was a boneless, skinless chicken breast. It was a dish that if he had made it for me at home as a quick dinner one night, I would have been perfectly satisfied. It did have a lot of really bold flavor, and I appreciated that -- the spices he used, the richness of the dish. But it seemed a little bit sloppy in its presentation. The chicken breast just felt really lame. The breast itself had no flavor; he took the skin off which is where the flavor would have been. There was none of that in the dish because he literally gave us this stripped sort of bland piece of chicken underneath this really heavy sauce. There was an imbalance to the dish that we couldn’t overlook. After talking it out for a really long time we decided that his was the weakest dish of the night and unfortunately we had to send him home.

I think he’s a really strong player. I loved the latest dish he made. I loved his personality, his passion for cooking. I know the chef he works for, Ricardo, and I’ve known him for many years and he serves some of the most interesting food I’ve ever eaten. I love that Brian has embraced that, we’ll just have to watch him because whatever he does next will be fun and exciting and I can’t wait to follow his career to the next step. Unfortunately, the next won’t be winning Top Chef.

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