Bravotv.com: It's the Top Chef finale! For the elimination challenge the chefs had to create the best four course meal of their lives. No small task!
Gail Simmons: It's definitely a challenge, but they knew it was coming. They had lots of time to ruminate on this challenge and to figure out what they would make for the meal of their life before arriving in Mexico. They did not necessarily have to incorporate Mexican ingredients, but of course they wanted to use the freshest ingredients, and that’s always what is local. And I think both of them were so inspired by their time in San Miguel that they incorporated a lot, which we were all happy to see.
I probably say this every single season, and even though every season has been unique and the food is always amazing, this finale was truly magical. The food from both of Mei and Gregory was so inspiring, so new, and so interesting -- there were so many flavor combinations and unusual presentations that I’ve never tasted or seen before. People ask me if I ever get bored or jaded in this job, and the answer is always NO! We get to travel to these extraordinary places that bring out the best in our chefs, and this finale was a perfect example. I don’t think they could have created the same meal had we been in another city, and they both really did an amazing job. It was a very difficult challenge and a very difficult decision for all of us. There were so many high points in both meals.
There’s a reason Judges' Table is made up of several people and not just one, because everyone has very different opinions, obviously. When I eat something and I am convinced that there is no other way to think about it, one of the other judges tells me that they thought about it completely differently, which is the great part about Top Chef and another great thing about my job -- we all can eat the same food and have completely different takeaways from it. Keeps life interesting.
Bravotv.com: Let's start with your thoughts on Mei's meal.
GS: I will say Mei’s menu overall to me was almost flawless. I was completely blown away by three out of four of her dishes, and I still thought that fourth was fantastic, it just wasn’t as completely tight and strong as the others. Tom and Padma thought her octopus was overcooked, but it wasn’t at all a problem for me. They might have gotten pieces that were tougher perhaps, but my octopus was chewy in a way I thought actually added to the dish. It had so many flavors and textures -- the fish sauce vinaigrette, the fresh herbs, the avocado and coconut -- they brought so much to the dish as well. It was so spectacular to look at too. Rarely does a dish live up to that expectation when it’s so beautiful (often you eat it and it doesn’t taste as good as it looks), but this did. I thought her first course made for an incredibly strong start.
The congee she made for her second course was reminiscent of the first congee she made in Boston, which she won for as well. It felt effortless and homey, and this was even better than her first one. She really refined it and added a few fun Mexican flavors -- carnitas, egg yolk, peanuts -- which all added to the dish in such a way that every spoonful was exciting and you discovered something new. The textures played off each other beautifully. I could’ve eaten a pot full of it. It spoke so clearly of where she is from and who she is as a chef; that dish said so much about Mei.
We unanimously agreed that Mei’s duck course was her weakest dish of the night, but by no means did that mean it a failure; in any other challenge, she would not have gone home for it. There was an issue with the consistency of her kimchee sauce and the duck fat on the breasts that had not been rendered as crispy as we wanted it to be. It didn’t come together 100%, but the flavor combination was so unique and so interesting -- the kimchee butter, jicama, huitlacoche, and duck -- these are components you would never find together at any other moment in time except for right there with her.
And then there was her dessert. I agree with Tom tenfold that it was one of the best desserts we’ve ever eaten on Top Chef (not necessarily on Top Chef Just Desserts, but close). It was also arguably one of the most memorable desserts I’ve ever eaten, just like Tom said. It blew me away! Re-watching the episode, I was sitting with my husband, and as it came to the table I was literally drooling trying to explain to him how good it was. It was creative, it was modern, it was breathtakingly bold, and each flavor came through and had a distinct purpose. Toasted yogurt…I have never tasted such a smart thing, just thinking about it now, I crave it. The milk crumble, the yogurt and lime pearls, they gave the dish so much depth. The lime and strawberry curd was sweet and tart together; it was smooth and added a temperature and flavor element to the dish, really lightening everything up. Her dessert was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. I’m so proud of Mei for taking that risk and giving us a dessert we will all remember for a long time. It will go on my top five Top Chef dishes ever.
Bravotv.com: And then you went on to Gregory's meal.
GS: We left Mei’s dinner completely reveling in its brilliance. Whatever Gregory did, we knew it was going to be tough to beat Mei. But Gregory came on strong. His meal used so many authentic Mexican ingredients in a very modern way. His point of view is a very worldly in general; he is a Haitian, ex-New Yorker living in Portland cooking Asian food, competing in the Top Chef finale in Mexico. I think that speaks to this moment in the culinary world and also to the state of how we all eat in America right now, it’s really amazing.
The first course of grilled octopus was a fantastic starter and arguably as good as Mei’s octopus in its flavor, but not in its presentation, for me. It just didn’t have that brilliance, that finesse, but the flavor was absolutely there with the prickly pear, the passion fruit, cashew milk, and grilled octopus. Many of our guests and judges liked it more than Mei's I think.
His shrimp broth with green chorizo had the kind of flavor that woke you right up, forced you to take notice and smile. It was at once familiar and totally new. Sean Brock said it tasted like he was in Louisiana eating gumbo, because it did have that similar flavor – the chilies, the shrimp broth, the crunchiness from the shrimp head, sausage and crunch -- there was so much goodness in that bowl. Where it fell short though was when he decided to leave the chopped shrimp shells in the broth. To this day I’m still unclear as to why he did it. Shrimp shells are hard and scratchy. Maybe if they had been fried and kept crispy we could’ve crunched on them like we could on the shrimp heads, but because they were sitting in the broth and softer, but not soft enough to bite through, we were swallowing whole pieces of shell, which didn’t make sense at all. It was a misstep, a big one as far as I’m concerned.
His striped bass dish hit a lot of beautiful notes -- there was a great tomatillo sauce (which I wanted way more of) and the fish was cooked well, but it was sadly overpowered by the sweetness of the dish. The dish, although beautiful, was off balance just slightly, but enough for me to say that the two middle dishes that Gregory gave us were definitely not as strong as Mei’s two middle dishes, especially up against that congee.
Then there was his mole. It was sharp and looked simple, but when you ate it, you knew this mole was anything but. There must have been anywhere between twenty and forty ingredients in it. It was exactly what a mole should be: dark and delicious. You could taste the individual flavors in it as well as how they all came together to dress the short rib, which fell apart in your mouth. It was not sweet at all, but luxurious and decadent. And the crispy sweet potato with agave, which was so simply cooked, was the perfect counterpoint. It was a lovely dish, one of Gregory’s greatest accomplishments this season; he knew it and he nailed it, and I’m so excited that we were able to taste it. It was a triumph.
Bravotv.com: How difficult was it to choose the winner?
GS: Both contestants gave us perfect final courses. As we walked away, those flavors lingering on our tongues and we could not have asked for more. It was electric in the room that night when we were talking to them about them. But I always felt very confident in Mei’s dishes -- there was a brush stroke of brilliance to her meal that night, a consistency and technical aptitude that I don’t believe we saw from Gregory, I don’t think we’ve seen from many chefs on Top Chef ever actually. We’ve had a lot of extraordinary cheftestants, but there is a deep talent in Mei that’s worth celebrating, and for that reason she is our Season 12 winner.
Congratulations Mei, I feel lucky to have been invited to the table. XX G