Bravotv.com: Let's talk about Thanksgiving. . .
Gail Simmons: We've done a lot of Thanksgiving episodes over the years. I can remember back in Season 2 when Anthony Bourdain judged and the meal our chefs cooked was the most embarrassing, horrible meal in Top Chef history. We've come a long way. In fact we’ve come all the way to Plimoth Plantation - the site of the very first Thanksgiving, which is pretty cool.
Bravotv.com: Before that, we saw the chefs tackling a Quickfire Challenge at the cranberry bog.
GS: Cranberries are very beautiful. I always knew cranberries were harvested in a cranberry "bog," but I was never really sure what a cranberry bog was. Now we all know. It's impressive! The chefs and Tiffani said it was a really fun challenge -- very seasonal and very unique to that little corner of the world. Plus we gave them a little workout.
Then we went to the plantation, and had them make us Thanksgiving dinner using only original tools and ingredients from the very first Thanksgiving. It was amazing to be at a plantation situated in the middle of this pilgrim village that was recreated almost exactly as it would have been in the 17th century. It was authentic to the point where we weren’t even given forks . Forks hadn’t been invented yet! We just had a very primitive knife and a big honking wooden spoon (which I will say is very efficient for shoveling delicious food into your face).
Bravotv.com: Will you be using all of these techniques at your own Thanksgiving?
GS: I might. I mean the pantry that they had to use, though not necessarily what we all would think of a traditional was quite abundant. The food was quite amazing -- all the colored corn and squash, the lobster, the duck. There was a lot to choose from. I think the chefs did a great job of giving us nine very distinct dishes -- all of which were relatively good. There wasn't a major clunker among them. But that sometimes makes it a lot harder to judge because you still have to send someone home. They served this meal to a table with Chef Ken Oringer, a good friend and one of the most acclaimed restaurateurs in Boston, as well as descendants from the Mayflower and descendants from the Wampanoag, the native people living in the area when the Mayflower arrived. It was really wonderful as it gave us a lot of insight into what they ate, how they ate, how they prepared things. Our diners were so knowledgeable and excited for us to be there.
Mei made a roasted cabbage with trout vinaigrette, which was a very unusual dish. It was so unexpected and savory. She roasted the cabbage on the charcoal fire which gave it such delicious flavor, then made the vinaigrette with trout which was poured over the cabbage. It was a perfect starter for our meal, so light. It had all this crunch, and felt like a salad but, because of the trout vinaigrette and the duck fat, was a little more rich and substantial.
Doug also made a phenomenal dish of spit-roasted rabbit. The roasted radishes, ramps, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and lots of garlic, came together with the rabbit to make a really excellent dish. I loved that all of these dishes served were really rustic because of the way our chefs were forced to cook. They couldn't pull out tweezers and individually cook a million different components. They didn't have access to fancy equipment. Everything took on the flavor of the fire. Doug's dish was so well-conceived. The hazelnuts and the ramps went so well together. Everything had this earthiness to it. It was a dish I could see working well in any restaurant.
Another dish we didn't bring out on the top at Judges Table, but could have easily been a fourth best dish was Katie's stuffing with blueberries, cornbread, and sautéed lobster. Here was another unusual use of ingredients -- the fact that she added blueberry in her stuffing made it so unique. I was skeptical when it came to the table, thinking it would be too sweet. In other cases that would be true, but because the blueberries were so fresh, tart and bursting with juice it didn't come across that way at all. It's fascinating that blueberries were an original ingredient served at the first Thanksgiving. I thought it was really innovative of Katie to use them in this way. The stuffing was moist, it was savory, it was not sweet at all, it made sense with the blue cornmeal. The sautéed lobster on top seemed a little bit superfluous, because there was so much flavor in the stuffing itself, but it certainly didn't detract from the dish. Putting lobster on anything makes it more delicious right? I said it on the show, but I kept going back for more of this dish. I couldn't figure it out, but I couldn't stop. I was definitely impressed with Katie that day.
Our favorite dish was Katsuji's. Surprisingly here was a dish where Katsuji really shined because he kept it simple, as we know he can do but he seldom does. If you remember back to that first episode, he made a dish that had 17,000 components. I think his Thanksgiving dish was an example of what Tom tried to explain in the episode -- sometimes when the chefs are given really strict limitations it makes them cook better. Katsuji was very limited in his use of ingredients and equipment. He had to stay focused and because he had to share this very primitive kitchen space, he couldn't go wild doing 50 things. In this case it served him well. It was a fantastic dish. The butternut squash and lobster were such a perfect combination, the chestnuts and the chili butter made it feel like fall, made it feel rustic just like Thanksgiving should. It was a so well done and we all enjoyed it. Katsuji was our winner.
Bravotv.com: So now the other side. . .
GS: I must say that none of these dishes were really horrible, but you have to rank them, that's the whole point of the game. And there were certainly some that were less delicious than others.
None of us had a problem with the fact that Melissa just did vegetables, per se. I'm all for a vegetarian dish at a Thanksgiving meal, in fact in at my Thanksgiving meal there will always be vegetarian dishes. But our issue with the dish was that, if you're going to do vegetables which will ultimately be compared to everyone else's dish, you need to really focus on amping up the flavor. Compared to the intense flavor that came from roasting meat and fish on an open fire, compared to all of the rich food we were eating, her dish faded into the background. She did show impeccable knife work, and I know she put a lot of time and effort into it. But when you're eating nine dishes it's all about which one stands out the most, which one calls you back for more. Melissa's just hid in the background. It wasn't as bold as it needed to be to stand up to the others.
In terms of Keriann's dish, I understand her thought process. When her dough wasn't working because of the heat and humidity, she switched from doing a blueberry pie to using that blueberry filling over venison. I know she said she didn't add sugar to it, but when you cook down fruit, there's natural pectin that starts to thicken the fruit, so it takes on that slightly gelatinous texture and a very sweet flavor. We didn't even know about the switch when it happened. Tom and Ken knew from their walk through, but they never told us she had meant to do pie. Regardless, the second her dish came to the table, we knew that sauce wasn't just for venison. We tasted it and it tasted unmistakably like pie filling. That’s when we were made aware that she originally intended for it to be for a pie. The venison was cooked well, the hazelnuts that went with it were a great idea; all these flavors go together, but I guarantee you, if she were to make that sauce again for that same venison dish, she would make that sauce differently. She would not have cooked down the blueberries half as much. She would’ve added more savory ingredients and seasoned it differently. It was well-intentioned, but not executed in the way it needed to be.
And finally Stacy. Stacy's dish was a tricky one. The idea of her clams with ramps and butternut squash was lovely. It was a great starter for a Thanksgiving meal like this, but there was something in those clams that didn't go down well for any of us. We all couldn't really pinpoint what the flavor was. For me and for Ken, there was a strange earthy flavor we couldn't understand, and it was a little unsettling. It didn't take on the texture of eating dirt. We talked about that, it wasn't that we felt there was sand or grit in it. It was just an odd flavor that tasted like the flavor of earth and dirt, and not in the way that mushrooms are nutty and "earthy." It was a off-putting, almost as if there was an herb that hadn't been cleaned, or some component that wasn't balancing with the rest of her ingredients. In general of all of the dishes, not only was that flavor not right, Stacy's dish was a little more unfinished than the rest. So after a lot of thought, we had to make this decision. And it wasn't easy. Stacy's a great chef, and we thought that all of the dishes were generally very well done for this challenge. It was a memorable Thanksgiving meal in every way. But that's the way the game is played, one person has to go, and we all agreed that Stacy's dish was the weakest dish that day.
I know it's been a hard road for her with her boyfriend away. She was tired I think. It happens. You get rundown for sure, it's a long haul. We’re grateful for having her there. We're very proud of her, she did a great job, and she held her head up high through it all. She represented Boston in the best possible way.
Bravotv.com: And in two weeks, it’s Restaurant Wars.
GS: December we are back with Restaurant Wars -- craziness, madness, insanity ensues. It's a harrowing, heart-pounding episode. I can't wait to talk about it!