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Hard Decisions

Gail reminds us that it's the food that matters, not the drama.

By Gail Simmons

Before heading to Hawaii I had serious reservations about the capability of our four finalists. Based on how we left things in LA, I was confident our remaining contestants could cook well when they wanted to, but was not convinced any one of them had what it takes to be Top Chef.

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Rest assured, I was just as shocked and disappointed in their behavior in the last episode as you were. I NEVER condoned Cliff's behavior, but as over five months have passed since the incident was filmed, we have all come to know each other a little better and many issues have been reconciled between the contestants, the producers and the judges.


During our welcome lunch with esteemed chef Alan Wong we were given a fascinating lesson on the history and diversity of Hawaii Regional Cuisine. We were enormously impressed by its level of sophistication and the quality of ingredients. Chef Alan and his talented team cooked a glorious meal highlighting the rich culture of the island, truly showcasing its bounty. We left Waipio Valley on that first day totally elated, knowing what we had experienced was very special -- a once-in-a-lifetime feast. gailsblog_212_03.jpg

Chef Alan's birthday Luau the following evening was a smashing success! His friends and colleagues, including Miss Hawaii as well as a number of the state's top farmers, fishmongers and ranchers, were just as excited as we were about the caliber of Elia, Ilan, Sam and Marcel's cooking. It was clear that in the months leading up to our finale, they had all done their homework. Their styles were more defined; their food more focused. We realized that we had a particularly difficult decision ahead of us.


Everything we ate that night was delicious. But this being a competition, and not simply a celebration, we needed to make a choice as to which chef we thought best carried out the challenge.

At first, we did this by basing our judgments on two questions: who was able to create an original, flavorful and well-presented dish based on (but not replicating) what they had learned from Chef Alan the day before, and who was able to best combine the distinctive ingredients and techniques of Hawaii with their own personal flair. With the exception of Elia's Mediterranean flavored Poke (diced, marinated raw fish), I believe our finalists were triumphant!


As Tom summarized, had we been anywhere else in the world, Elia's dish would not have reminded us of Hawaii. Raw, marinated fish is common in many cultures, from Japan to Italy and Peru. Although it tasted perfectly good, it did not have enough of a Hawaiian stamp to pass the test. To viewers, this might seem nitpicky, but when you are forced to select the best of the best, every detail counts, no matter how miniscule. Her snapper steamed in tealeaves was delicate and fresh, but the leaves were the only distinctly Hawaii ingredient on the dish. Her addition of carrots, peas and peppers recalled more of the French preparation en papillote, with hardly any trace of the slightly smoky, Hawaiian version we had eaten in Waipio Valley.


Marcel's food stole the show. I know this enrages many people, including the other contestants, but regardless of how he may have acted in the kitchen (I will address that later), his two dishes were precise, thoughtful and tasty. His Lomi Lomi Salmon elegantly deconstructed the components of what we had eaten the day before (salmon with tomatoes, fresh herbs and chili water), without seeming condescending or overdramatic. His Hamachi Poke on a taro root chip with Pineapple Poi (a thick paste usually made with taro and eaten with your fingers) was not only creative but also managed to incorporate two ancient Hawaiian staples in a passionate, modern preparation. This dish exemplified the challenge in every way. It also successfully applied his scientific passion.


Now we were down to Sam and Ilan. Filming this portion of Judges Table was nothing short of painful. I assure you wholeheartedly that we did not take the decision lightly. In fact, we pondered and talked well into the night. I, for one, was totally conflicted. Sam's Opakapaka Poke (say that ten times fast!) with Sea Beans was refreshing and balanced. By marinating his fish with yuzu, he hinted at the pickling and macerating we had come to know from him so well. His play on Huapia (soft coconut pudding), using mascarpone and salted coconut milk, was light and playful, a sure sign of the pastry knowledge he had acquired since cooking for us last. The real issue we had was that nothing had actually been cooked and so had not showed us his full range of skill. As this was the finale, it fell just short of what we needed from him.


On the other hand, Ilan showed a competent hand by successfully marrying his knowledge of Spanish foods with those of the Big Island. After discussing them at length, I understood that his two dishes were not just replications of what he cooked in New York, but in fact considerate fusions of Iberian flavors and Hawaiian technique. Cooking Morcilla (Spanish blood sausage) and Squid Lau Lau (protein wrapped in taro leaf and steamed) was a sizable risk.

I did not feel even a hint of irritation in my throat, so had no complaints about the taro root not being cooked enough. His Saffron Huapia Frita was clever and bold. It had the exact internal texture of the dessert we had eaten with Chef Alan. However, the fried croqueta approach, layered with lots of saffron, was distinctly Ilan. In the end, his food was far more ambitious than Sam's.


As for that untimely and unexpected outburst about Marcel's behavior by Elia and Ilan at the eleventh hour, let's just say it was too little, too late. Without the ability to substantiate their claims, we could not take any action.

When asked to prove that Marcel has been cheating, neither Elia nor Ilan could give an example concrete enough to warrant changing our decision. There is a huge difference between infuriating your fellow contestants and cheating in the game. By no means do any of us argue with the notion that Marcel may be an exasperating competitor.

Conflicts of personality will always occur in close quarters, be it the kitchen or the office. Unless he in some way breaks the rules (Otto) or causes physical harm (Cliff), we, as Judges, are not there to monitor their every move. What can we do? We are neither their babysitters nor their bosses. While it may be disappointing to witness, if they choose to treat each other poorly that is their choice. As in a restaurant, what matters most to us is that the food set before us is the best it can possibly be. Thankfully, on that one night in Hawaii, it was.

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