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Gail Simmons: Top Chef Is Just a Different Animal

Gail Simmons shares her thoughts on part two of Restaurant Wars.

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This Dish Doesn't Make Any Sense
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Sign Up for Free to View This is the first time that they've ever had to serve both lunch and dinner. Obviously it's more challenging, but do you think it opened the door to potentially more errors?

Gail Simmons: Of course it did. We decided to do lunch and dinner for a few reasons. First, in a real restaurant, people eat lunch and dinner, and we wanted to up the challenge a little bit and make it as realistic as possible. We knew this was going to be incredibly difficult, but we actually gave them more time than we usually do. It’s true that most restaurants on opening day wouldn’t do both lunch and dinner service, they usually start with one or the other first. But these chefs are very talented and we wanted to test them to see what they could do. They cooked a lot of really great food, all things considered, so they accomplished a lot. We excepted this to be difficult and knew it would be perfect. That’s the point, to challenge them! I don’t think the outcome was that much worse than in previous seasons. I think it proved to be a successful exercise. Coming out of Part 1, we see that the orange team is behind because they kind of prioritize the judges over the rest of the service. Do you think that is what caused them to be behind?

GS: Absolutely. I think Jeremy made a grave error in deciding to focus his attention during lunch service on just the judges and that set them back for the entire rest of the challenge. I understand his intentions but we take all of this into consideration. We’re sitting in the dining room and we’re eating our lunch and we cant help but notice that no one else is eating, it was very apparent what was going on back there. Then it cut into their dinner prep time, so they started their dinner service on a shaky note because their stations weren’t set up properly from the beginning. All of dinner was shaky as a result. They couldn’t get ahead. This actually happens in restaurants all the time. If you are not organized and ready from the get go, your entire service suffers. A day is only 24 hours long, but the good news is usually the next day you get to start fresh and do it all over again. But not for our chefs at Restaurant Wars, and this was certainly part of the discussion on who should go home when we were talking about the orange team. Lucky for him, we keep everything in mind, including the dishes they make, and weigh them as heavily as their jobs as chef and general manager. Jeremy gave us really strong food through lunch. Then there was his risotto, which was not so strong. At least once a season someone tries to overcome the risotto curse on this show. But maybe, people, there’s a reason why risotto doesn’t work on Top Chef! I’ve had great risotto at restaurants, but that is a different scenario, different restraints, and different limitations. Top Chef is just a different animal. So, I appreciate his effort, but Jeremy was on rocky ground by the end of the day.

Let me just go back and talk about how we came to our final decision. We all agreed that on a food level, both teams did a good job. But neither team gave us anything that interesting. On Top Chef, we want to be a little more impressed and we were hoping they’d be more ambitious. Palate restaurant had a few service issues too. Specifically, Marjorie not being at the host stand when we arrived for example, but they completely made up for it with their service overall, under Marjorie’s direction, and the rest of our experience there was excellent throughout lunch. Kwame did a great job too, but we could tell, looking around during lunch service, that there was something going wrong that was beyond his control. So, the teams were neck and neck on terms of food and service going into dinner service. Then, we all changed outfits, changed hairstyles, had a break, had coffee, and went into eat two more multi-course meals.

Dinner was a very different experience. We thought, on first glance in terms of a menu, that Palate’s menu seemed cohesive. It felt fresh and modern and unified. The snapper crudo was lovely (if not that creative) and the oxtail consommé was very ambitious, technically challenging, and really delicious to eat. Marjorie’s bread was excellent too. Her panna cotta with California berries soup was not perfect though. The texture, flavor, sensation, of that berry soup didn’t really work for any of us. WE also loved what Isaac made. We walked away from their restaurant feeling like we had had a really thoughtful, thorough, and satisfying experience.  

As soon as we entered District LA, we knew there were odd things afoot. We were greeted by that totally strange cocktail. I’m glad they did a cocktail. The cocktail wasn’t bad, it was just the manner with which they served it that was so odd. It was pulled out from under the station, it was kind of warm, and it just didn’t feel very soigne. “Soigne” is a word that we use in the restaurant industry to mean “refined, going that extra mile”.  This was the opposite somehow. If they had brought it from the kitchen for us, or had a table to the side serving it, maybe it would’ve felt better.

And then we sat down for dinner. The amuse bouche was small and thrown together, and you couldn’t taste the flavor, it felt like Kwame was trying to show off a fancy technique, but it did not work out. And it was a crudo, which we have seen so many times, it’s making me dizzy, including, having just eaten one at the other restaurant for comparison. The avocado gazpacho from Amar was clumpy and tasted kind of like a crab nacho dip (per Tom’s analysis). We liked the taste enough, but couldn’t figure out his intention. Then there was Phillip’s strawberry salad, was it a salad or a gazpacho? It had both, but I’m not sure why. I know that he thinks it’s subjective, but four people disliking something, all for the same reason, is, to me, no longer about subjectivity and personal taste, it is about the dish not working. What Phillip doesn’t understand is there are two different things going on in here: technically, he executed it perfectly; it came out as he intended, the technique was fine. But, here’s the thing: it didn’t taste good. In fact it was awful. It didn’t matter that it was made properly, to his requirements. What really worries me about Phillip is that he definitely has the skill, but he seems to have no insight into his guest’s experience and only cares about his own style and preferences. He also seems to have no insight into good or bad food, success or failure, except by his own parameters, which seem to be very narrow. And he’s always blaming other people’s palates for his mistakes or poor judgement, which is not what being a chef is about.

Amar’s pork belly worked, but in the most bizarre way. That bbq sauce consommé was overpowering in a way that didn’t make sense with the rest of the menu. And I don’t even remember the chicken thigh course, to be honest. There was also Jeremy’s dry-aged rib eye, which was perfectly fine, cooked well, executed beautifully in technique, but it didn’t feel inspiring as a way to end the meal. After all the food was said and done, we had to take it into consideration each chef’s job in the kitchen or front of house relative to what they cooked, and although we knew that Jeremy made that grave error during lunch, what we saw of Philip working the room as the GM and what we experienced during dinner service with the wait staff, combined with his strawberry salad, which easily was the worst thing I ate all day, worse than the artichoke risotto by far, we decided to send Philip home. Do you want to speak about Isaac being the winner?

GS: Yeah I do! Isaac is the winner! He was last picked, but only because the other team knew Phillip wanted to be front of house manager. I think the rest of his team was hard on Isaac in the beginning of the challenge. They were not confident in his cooking savvy and worried he was too rustic, his cooking style too heavy for the kind of restaurant that they wanted to create, but once he started executing lunch service and they saw the great job he was doing, I’m glad that they all recognized, respected him and gave him the chance to not only show off his smarts and talent during lunch, but then cook us that great rustic food at dinner. Go Isaac. He deserves it. He worked hard, he didn’t care what people thought of him, he persevered.

Oh! Another interesting fact about the space we shot in for Restaurant Wars is that it was the same space we shot in for all of season 2 in 2006. It was the Top Chef kitchen for our LA season! I didn’t realize until I walked in to begin shooting the episode. It looked totally different. It had been gutted and totally renovated since then, thankfully. It’s kind of amazing that ten years later, we found ourselves back in the exact same space for a challenge.

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