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Lemongrass-gate and other Oddities

Gail Simmons questions the chefs' Vietnamese dish choices.

By Gail Simmons What was it like having Eddie Huang around?
Gail Simmons: Eddie’s so fun! He’s very outspoken and always up for anything, which made him a great guest. It’s his first time on our show, but he’s no stranger to the camera. And he’s got hilariously awesome fashion sense.

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Catch up on Top Chef on Peacock or the Bravo App. And this week was all about Vietnamese food. Did you eat a lot of Vietnamese when you were in New Orleans?
GS: We all did actually. The Vietnamese food is great in New Orleans, and our set was actually right in Gretna, which is the neighborhood where a lot of the best Vietnamese restaurants are located. There was one in particular called Pho Tao Bay that was right near our set, and we would order dinner from there all the time during Judges’ Table. It was always our craving at the end of the night. So yes, we became very familiar with the Vietnamese food of New Orleans. Let’s start with the Red Team.
GS: So the great thing about this team was that they certainly stayed true to a lot of the flavors of Vietnamese food, but they added little twists. We never said they had to make 100% authentic Vietnamese food with no variance and none of their own spin. We just wanted it to taste good and feel that they had represented this very interesting New Orleans Vietnamese community. I think the Red Team in general did that well.

Truth be told, I couldn’t eat the raw beef salad because I was pregnant – it was pretty much the one thing I couldn’t eat that day. But the complaint at the table was that although it tasted great -- it was well-seasoned and the pickled vegetables were delicious -- it had a bit of a mushy, over-processed texture. The judges wished Nina and Carrie had left it more like a coarse chopped tartare. It was chopped too finely.

Justin’s pho was fantastic. We all agreed that it really packed a lot of flavor which is hard to do in a very short amount of time. It felt like the kind of pho you would get at one of these restaurants -- piping hot, with a great balance of spices in a rich broth, and thin beef pieces.

Carrie’s custard looked like an afterthought. It wasn’t anything special from its presentation, but it had a lot of flavor. I thought it was odd that they tried to do a dessert at all, certainly that wasn’t the focus of their adventures earlier that day. Although they did go to a Vietnamese bakery. I’m glad that she was inspired by it and catered something to our collective sweet tooth.Shirley’s barbecue shrimp was delicious. It tasted at once very Vietnamese and also very Creole, very New Orleans.  It had a little bit of heat, it had butter which gave it a smooth richness -- she told us later, interestingly enough, that this was something a lot of the Vietnamese shrimp boat workers and cooks use in their preparation when they cook shrimp.  And then this really beautiful barbecue fresh shrimp that was cooked perfectly, sitting in her sauce with fresh bread – that perfect baguette they use for banh mi that you could rip off and soak up in the sauce. She did a great job; it felt like a very complete and complex dish. The Orange Team found itself in the middle.
GS: Overall, they did a good job. I especially liked Brian’s pork belly and shrimp roll – it was the best of the bunch. Nicholas’ dish was nicely presented, but it didn’t have a ton of flavor. You wanted  it to be crisper, brighter, bolder, more sour, more acidic, but it was well cooked. Louis’ beef broth was a little lacking, especially compared to Justin’s. Carlos, as nervous as he was, made a nice soup. It had a flavor and was not so far off from the flavors that we were looking for. Finally, there was the Green Team.
GS: We had the most issues with their food.  I think it came from a clashing of egos, partially. They certainly all seemed like they were trying to one-up each other and that might have gotten in their way. There was obviously the issue of the lemongrass that went missing – "Lemongrass-gate".

Travis’ pork sausage dish wasn't bad at all. The sausages in the wraps themselves were relatively tasty, but that shrimp paste sauce was really strong and overpowering; it wasn’t balanced. The thing about Vietnamese food that is so astounding and so delicious is that amazing balance between sour, spicy, sweet, acidic, herbaceous -- all of those qualities should be in harmony and they just did not feel that way. 

The two dim sum pieces that Sara and Stephanie made were an odd choice. They didn’t feel especially Vietnamese; they certainly were Asian, but I felt like I could have found them in other cuisines, as well. And because of the way they were cooked, they just didn’t have the brightness that you wanted, they fell apart a little bit. But, there wasn’t anything that was wrong with them.

And then there was Stephanie's coconut macaroon. I actually liked it, and I loved her Vietnamese coffee sauce. I thought it was a great little addition, but again, it was strange that she chose to do a dessert when they could use the inspiration from that day to do anything.  It felt a little bit flat -- but we definitely liked the most everything we ate from that team.

But it was Bene and Janine’s dish -- their shrimp with the tomato sauce that really suffered. There were three components to the dish: the shrimp, the tomato sauce, and the rice. The tomato sauce felt overcooked – you know, sometimes when you cook tomatoes, they take on a sweet acidity that feels over-stewed and overpowering. It didn’t have balance of seasoning to make it taste fresh and bright, as it should have. I understand that they went with Travis’ idea. I understand Travis had seen something like it before, but it was so far off from everything our chefs had eaten and experienced that day that it was a strange inspiration to cull from.The truth is, as was said, Travis led them to water, but they chose to drink. So they need to take responsibility for their dish, even though it wasn’t their original idea. I think Travis made such a big deal of having so much Vietnamese experience that they went blindly into that challenge and relied on him too much. At the end of the day, you’re still a chef, you still know what tastes good, you still can put your own stamp on it and feel things out. It seemed as if that team forgot how to cook all together because they were so afraid that we were making them cook Vietnamese food. It felt as if they overthought the Vietnamese part of the challenge and because they were insecure about their experience with this cuisine, they let someone else take over.

The rice was poorly cooked too, and that was Sara’s issue.. or everybody’s issue. That’s just Cooking 101; there’s no excuse for it. But the biggest problem was the focal point of that dish, and that was the shrimp.

What I found interesting watching them behind the scenes was that Janine claimed she doesn’t have a ton of experience with Vietnamese food, but we all know she has a ton of experience with Thai food. In fact, I ate at Janine’s former restaurant while she was a cook there, and it was one of the best Thai meals I’ve had in America. We’re talking about such similar ingredients. We’re not saying that all Thai food and Vietnamese food are the same by any means, but it’s almost the same pantry -- lightened up, freshened up, and certainly switched around a little bit. I’m so confused as to why Janine felt so lost, so stupefied by a Vietnamese challenge, when I know for a fact that she worked in a Thai restaurant under a really great Thai chef that was serving authentic, delicious, bright, spicy, interesting Thai food. I just don’t know why she didn’t lean back on that and pull something from her history and her experience.

Instead she deep-fried her shrimp twice. You’re frying them too early, if you have to fry them twice. And then she doused them in this very heavy sauce. When you dump sauce on a delicate protein like that, it gets soggy. It becomes weighed down by the sauce, the batter you fried it in falls off and becomes mushy and unappealing to eat. Every single one of us at that table, noticed it. I wasn’t at the Judges’ Table that night, but, it was definitely the component I was most disappointed in that day. Sorry to see Janine go, but I believe the other judges made the right decision.

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