Bravotv.com: There's a lot that's different this season, Sudden Death Quickfires, Richard Blais, Boston. How does that feel coming in?
Gail Simmons: There certainly is a lot that's different this season. The instant elimination in random Quickfires adds a wrinkle in the game that's never been done before. It definitely puts the contestants on edge every time they walk in that kitchen. It's exciting, it's a curveball, it keeps them on their toes. After so many seasons, contestants have come to think they know what to expect from the show, and that's the last thing we want them to expect. But its definitely a crazy, intense way to start a season.
I won't go into the Quickfire, as I wasn't there, but I will say I'm psyched to have Richard Blais at Judges Table with us this season. For the first time at Judges Table we have someone who has been a contestant, not a Master, but a full on cheftestant in two seasons of the show. If there's anyone who can speak to the cheftestants' state of mind and give us insight into their process. . .it's Richard for sure. He's hilarious and so smart; I love just listening to him talk about food. He also provides the chefs with someone at the table who they know really understands what they're going through, which allows them to open up a little more, gets them talking so we can understand their cooking and their intention.
Due to our Sudden Death Quickfire, I sadly never got to meet George that first day. Watching the episode was nerve-wracking for me. I can only imagine how it felt for all of them. But doing a relay into having to cook a dish, to me, was a great way to show the audience right off the bat who these chefs are and the skills they have.
Bravotv.com: And then they go into cooking at the first ever Top Chef Food Festival.
GS: The Food Festival was amazing as the kick off of our season in Boston. It was a beautiful day and we had this incredible location right on the water, watching the rowers and the sailboats, in the middle of spring. Joining us were some of the best chefs in Boston -- Ming Tsai, Barbara Lynch, Tiffani Faison, Kristen Kish, Jasper White -- just to name a few. It was a great way to welcome everyone to Boston. It was also really intimidating and I think inspiring for our chefs to be cooking alongside these greats. Some of our new chefs made great food. It was a hard challenge -- right out of the gate, alone, cooking 250 portions, reinterpreting something from the first dish they ever learned to cook.
Truthfully, you could have told us any story you wanted. My thought would have been: make a great dish, have it be loosely inspired by something from your past. But don't need to be too literal with it. I think that's where some of the chefs went wrong. They picked a dish and couldn't figure out how to adapt it, to make it refined and professional, or to pare it down and make it appropriate for the venue that they were cooking in -- that’s a major component of this challenge as well. It's not just making a dish, but making a dish you can serve at a walk-around tasting event of this kind with 250 people eating it standing up, with a glass of wine in their hand. That's a challenge on a good day, let alone when you have the added stress someone's being eliminated.
The challenge gave us great insight into who our new crop of chefs were. It definitely told us a lot about their past, their personal lives, how they grew up, what they ate. It also gave us a sense of their skill level.
Bravotv.com: So highs and the lows…there was a lot of chicken.
GS: There was a lot of fried chicken, yes.
There were several dishes we really liked, but our three favorites were definitely Doug's fried chicken, with the pickled jalapenos and watermelon, because he made three items and made them well; his dish was simple, well-executed and very well seasoned. Every piece of chicken was piping hot out of the fryer. The jalapeno gave it a little bit of heat, that beautiful watermelon salad cooled everything right down and offset the fattiness of the fried chicken. It just was a refreshing, bright, clean dish. Gregory made a dish that actually caught all of us off-guard. It was not exactly a dish I would have pegged to be a winner that day when I first tasted it. It was very acidic, very spicy stew, based on a stew his family made growing up, and based on the chili peppers he ate as a child in Haiti. But it was thoroughly delicious. As soon as you had one bite you had to go back for more. It was a dish that surprised us because it had an unusual amount of heat -- but in some amazing way it made our mouths water, made us want to keep eating it, as opposed to being put off by it. Even Tom, who doesn't necessarily tolerate an enormous amount of heat, was totally smitten. What was so smart about Gregory's dish was that although it had a lot of brightness and acidity, intense heat, it also had these beautiful sweet bananas with it, which added the creaminess to the dish, and really helped to bring it together. You can see this pattern, it was the same with Doug, if there's heat there needs to be something to cool it down to refresh or offset it. That's what makes great food great, striking that perfect balance. Mei, our winner, made an incredible dish. She made congee, a very traditional Chinese rice porridge, but she gave it such an elegant twist, and presented it in such a beautiful, thoughtful way. Her station was clean, she was completely organized. When she was presenting it there was an astonishing consistency to eat plate that I appreciated. It was rich, creamy and comforting, sort of like eating savory oatmeal, with caramelized pork and pickled cucumber, fish sauce caramel which was sticky and sweet, and black garlic puree. There was a little bit of crunchiness, sweetness, creaminess. It was so enjoyable to eat, I just I loved it. Mei knew what she was doing, she was calm and serious about her food and it showed. It was a fantastic start and I was happy to eat it. So Mei was our first elimination challenge winner.
Then there were people like Katie who got too caught up in their story and forgot about the quality of their food. Her broccoli salad didn't have a lot of flavor and almost no refinement. It was just was not at the level that we were looking for in the first challenge. I think she tried to make it interesting by adding all of these modernist techniques to it, the bacon snow, etc. But her food didn't succeed on the flavor front, or in showing us that she's able can make elegant and refined, interesting food. Her attempts at modernist fare felt forced on a dreary broccoli salad.
Katsuji's dish was completely confusing to us; there were literally 20 different components, which is OK if you can actually taste them. But all those flavors were totally buried. On top of it, the way he was serving was a complete mess. His station was filthy, he was serving a drizzle of this petroleum squid ink cheese sauce, which in itself sounds disgusting, over a tiny taco using a giant ladle. The chefs have to remember that we are always looking at all of these things. It told us that he really doesn't have command of his station and isn't really focusing on presentation. All he needed to do was use a teaspoon to give us a little drizzle on top. Besides, no one could really follow all of the different components in his dish at all. When you ate it, you certainly weren’t wowed by flavor. If he cut seven ingredients from that plate it probably would have been much better.
But it was Michael's dish that had the most problems. Specifically, when we ate his soup it tasted off. The corn base was fine, perfectly well-made. But the corn was very sweet, and the pickled cherries and sriracha caviar did not balance it out in a pleasant way. It actually took on a sour note. You couldn't taste the sriracha at all strangely. And then there was salmon roe added to it, which threw the dish off balance. It tasted intensely fishy. That combination of sweet corn, sour cherries, and fishy roe actually made it displeasing to eat, which was unfortunate. I think that he was trying to give us something interesting and different, but in this case it backfired. I don't believe he loved how it tasted when he tasted it himself either, but clearly he didn’t have time to correct it or even think to correct it. If he had removed the roe, it would have improved the dish and it might have saved him from elimination. It's very hard in the moment to know to edit yourself when you want to impress us. I understand his instinct, but we couldn’t help but question his taste level. All four of us, as well as a lot of other guests at the event, were really put off by what he prepared. So poor Michael went home. It’s amazing to think that in one episode, two chefs are already gone. We mean business in Boston, Boston's a serious town. We’re taking no prisoners.
Bravotv.com: Anything you want to tease about what’s coming up?
GS: It's gonna be an amazing season. There's a million twists and turns along the way. Boston is such a dynamic city. You'll see a recurrence of all of these great local chefs throughout the season and other really fun guests are going to join us, including George Wendt, Emmy Rossum and the Green Monster at Fenway Park!