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Gail: As a Chef You Need to Be Adaptable

Gail Simmons dishes on #TopChef 13 episode two...

By Gail Simmons
A Pop up Nightmare Episode two was a completely new format...a pop up challenge!

How to Watch

Watch the Top Chef Season 21 premiere on Wednesday, March 20 at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

Gail Simmons: The pop up episode is one of the craziest episodes we’ve done because we shot it live. The day that we shot it we tweeted out to LA to come to our pop up, just like other pop ups or food trucks do, and we had people just streaming in, completely unbiased, not even knowing what they were coming to eat. It also was a really exciting challenge because we literally crisscrossed the city to get to each location. It was very different from Restaurant Wars where we have controlled diners and they’re in a space that they’re familiar with, they can cook their own food that they decide upon as well. In this case, we assigned each team a neighborhood and a cuisine, whether or not they had reference points to it, which really showed off the diversity of Los Angeles, as well as our social media landscape and how helpful it can be for bringing customers to a restaurant pop up like this. Do you think that changed the energy of the challenge? 

GS: It absolutely did. We didn’t know what we were in for when we arrived at each place. We couldn’t control how many people would show up, where they’d be from, who they were. Some of the venues were outdoors, some were in warehouses with nothing there to cook with so the chefs had to really work as a team and be resourceful. So I think you see a complete range of success and failures. A few of the chefs had experience that aligned with their pop up cuisine (e.g., Phillip and vegan food, Chad and Mexican food), but it seems like those chefs didn’t rely on the ambassadors...

GS: Let’s be clear, there were two factors: We gave them an ambassador. By ambassador we didn’t mean Phillip and Chad. That was pure coincidence. There were a lot of things we did in the challenge to set each team up for success. The first was to give them an ambassador, a chef that cooks that cuisine authentically in the neighborhood, and who were all really exceptional people. A Mexican chef from Mexico cooking in Los Angeles, a Persian chef from Iran cooking in Los Angeles, a Korean chef, and a vegan chef who lived in Venice and has a vegan restaurant. They were all there to help, not to judge by any means. They were there to gage authenticity, but really they were there to help. Two of the teams, the Mexican team and the vegan team, maybe because they felt so confident, didn’t chose to use these ambassadors the way that they could have, to really brainstorm, ask questions and probe for the best way they could take advantage of that cuisine, which was unfortunate. Interestingly, the cuisine that everyone had the least experience in, which was Persian, was the winning team. This was partially because they used their ambassador, they needed to because they didn’t know enough about the food on their own. But also because they didn’t feel that they needed to be 100% authentic, they could take inspiration from the cuisine and make it their own. All of their food was exciting and paid respect to the cuisine in a sincere way, which was what we were looking for. We never said, “You have to be 100% authentic”, we just wanted them to draw inspiration and respect the traditions of the cuisine they were cooking. Some did it well and some did not. Marjorie from the winning team, the Persian team won this challenge. Desserts are infamous on Top Chef, was it surprising to have a dessert win the elimination challenge?

GS: It was surprising only in that they didn’t have to do a dessert. Marjorie was the only person across any of the teams to do a dessert. The great thing was that it was a very smart dessert. She didn’t reach and try to make a complicated pastry, she made what we all call “a chef’s dessert”. A dessert that doesn’t take a lot of actual baking, but that is a sweet, perfect end to the meal, simple, clean, and uses a lot of savory chef technique. She poached her fruit and she made this beautiful, light yogurt mousse, she made a very simple pistachio sponge cake, she made a saffron orange syrup. There were a lot of different flavor components, but it was a very straightforward presentation. I have to tell you, this single dish was one of the best things I’ve eaten on Top Chef in a really long time and I mean that honestly. It exemplifies for us what makes a great chef. She wasn’t super fluent in the cuisine of the Middle East, but she was inspired by it and she really honed in on the balance that makes that cuisine special. The sour yogurt with the sweet sponge cake, the fragrance of the saffron and the orange blossom syrup, the pistachios which lend texture and a deep nuttiness -- it just came together in the most beautiful way. It was a dish with a lot of finesse. Regardless that it was a dessert, it was a great dish. It showed us that she was paying attention and humbled by the food. And that’s what we wanted to see. Overall, there were really few flaws to their whole menu and it was exciting to eat their food because we knew that none of them have had much experience with Persian food. Los Angeles is so rich in culture from that part of the world and its food is so delicious that it would really be horrifying to us if our ambassador and her community didn’t like what they made. We wanted to honor them, and this team did a great job. They were all great dishes, from Amar’s eggplant, down to Marjorie’s dessert...Isaac’s lamb. Angelina’s chicken, though a little under seasoned, had so much flavor. 

The Korean team did a good job too. They were in the middle so we didn’t really talk about them at judge’s table. We had a couple of small issues that with the food, but, in the end, as frantic as they all seemed, we were really happy with the Korean pop up. 

For the two bottom teams, the Mexican and vegan team, our issues were very different. With the Mexican pop up team, if you closed your eyes, at least two of the dishes had almost no bold flavor connection to Mexico. The grilled steak by Jeremy although beautifully executed and technically a correct dish, may have used Mexican ingredients but did taste Mexican or look Mexican at all. It wasn’t flavorful. It didn’t give us any Mexican intention. He almost went too fancy, and that doesn’t mean Mexican food can’t be fancy as Mexican food can be very sophisticated, but he lost the Mexican elements in the dish and it felt diluted. The same issue occurred for Chad’s carrot dish, it was a strange creation and it just didn’t taste Mexican. Mexican food to me, especially in Los Angeles, is some of the best food in the world.

A Vegan Challenge

Of course there was our bottom team, the vegan team. When we were on our way to the vegan pop up we were all very excited because, of all these types of food, vegan food can be found in any cuisine. You can make any cuisine in the world vegan. They had such a blank canvas, and they gave us such a narrow and small-minded interpretation of vegan food. I wanted abundance. I wanted heartiness. I wanted grains and fresh vegetables and fruit at their peak. I think there problem was that they couldn’t get the word “vegan” out of their heads, so they couldn’t just cook great food. I cook vegan all the time. Not because I’m vegan or because I’m trying to cook vegan, but because that’s how I like to eat. I love beautifully roasted vegetables thrown together with an incredible, fragrant, grassy olive oil and herbs and spices. That’s vegan. I love using things like coconut milk or farrow and all those delicious, hearty whole grains that you can use to carry other flavors in a million different ways. I love using nuts and I love using lentils and legumes. We didn’t see almost any of that. Do you think they just overthought it?

GS: Yes. I think they got so wrapped up in the vegan of it all, especially Grayson. I still don’t understand why she couldn’t just make us a great vegetable dish. Their challenge was to make great vegetables! That would’ve been fine. I know that Grayson cooks with meat, but I can tell you right now there’s no way that every single job she does, every single dish she creates, has meat in it. As a chef you need to be adaptable. That is your job. Your job is not to cook for yourself. Your job is to cook for other people. If I want to just cook for myself, I’ll stay at home. And she knows this. This isn’t her first rodeo. So, it’s getting really tiresome hearing her complain.

We were disappointed in Frances’ dish too, with the bounty of California, she chose to use canned chickpeas. Just because they’re organic doesn’t make them taste better. Phillip’s dish was nice. It was a little bit precious as I said, a little bit stuffy. I wanted abundance, I wanted a smack of flavor, I wanted crunch, I wanted a vegetable explosion, I didn’t really get that, but it was a good dish. Renee’s dish, unfortunately, fell flat. The tofu roasted cashew paste that she stuffed between her beets with was pasty and dry. Her dish didn't eat well. Her sauce was great but there was just a tiny little splatter on each plate, so we didn’t get to really enjoy it and it changed the way the dish tasted. It really needed that sauce. If you look at the other pop ups, their food was welcoming and plentiful. The vegan team in general, and Renee specifically, gave us just a tiny little bite that didn’t invite us in, didn’t show us that they wanted us to enjoy the food and take pleasure in it. And that was part of the team’s downfall.

I definitely feel that we made the right decision in sending Renee home. She’s lovely and I think she’s a lot more capable than people give her credit for, but in this challenge she didn’t show us the best she could do.

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