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Coming Full Circle

Gail Simmons imparts some wisdom about the basics of cooking

By Gail Simmons

Just back from a whirlwind weekend in Los Angeles for the 59th Annual Emmy Awards. Top Chef was nominated for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, an incredible feat in itself, and we were all so honored to be there and celebrate. Tom, Padma, Ilan, and I were overwhelmed by the incredible outpouring of enthusiasm and support for the show, not only from the fans we met along the way, but also from some of the very actors, directors, and producers whom we revere for their own television accomplishments.

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

Never in a million years could I have imagined the likes of Patricia Heaton, Rex Lee, Judith Light, and the producers of Ugly Betty or The Sopranos telling me how much they love watching each week! It was the thrill of a lifetime and an experience I will not soon forget. Even though we did not win in our category (Amazing Race has taken the title five years in a row!), we partied the night away with our producers and friends, knowing Top Chef will only get better and we will be back to kick butt next year!

Now, on to this week's episode. I do not normally discuss Quickfire Challenges, but can't help but touch on a few details this time around. I know I railed against Hung a few weeks back when he did not pick up the crawfish he dropped on the floor in the Seafood Quickfire, and I must tell you I seethed again when he spilled a bottle of oil on the floor last week during their challenge to make breakfast for Padma at their apartment. Well, this time I will happily defend his choice to not answer his fellow contestants' questions on how to replicate the Paupiette of Sea Bass at Le Cirque.

I too must remind myself on occasion that most challenges are not meant to be team efforts, are not meant to prove your ability to play nice. They are meant to be competitive, to test each chef's skill and speed. It drove us crazy at times how lovey-dovey the cast could be and how easily they forgot that, at the end of the day, there is only room for one winner. But not Hung. In this instance especially, I applaud his choice to keep his secrets to himself, even if it meant frustrating the others. He worked hard to execute that dish well and it paid off with a win.

Another notable issue in this Quickfire was that of gender. Casey touched upon it when she entered the Le Cirque kitchen and I have to add my point of view. Many years ago, upon graduating from culinary school, I was sent out into the world of New York restaurants and decided my first stop would be Le Cirque, in its previous location at the New York Palace Hotel. I was just an apprentice and was initially assigned to the hot appetizer, pasta, and risotto station. Although I learned an enormous amount, I was the only female in a kitchen consisting of well over 40 people, from dishwashers to sauciers. It was a very difficult place to work. Along with the obvious physical stresses that any kitchen imposes, there was an undercurrent that made me feel as if I had to prove myself just a little more than everyone else because I was a girl. Could I have imagined it?

I used to think so. But now I know Casey noticed it too. It appears as though not much has changed since I was there, judging from her experience. And do not think I believe this is by any means an anomaly. It pains me to think that even in 2007, most top kitchens in the country are still heavily male dominated. I did not keep in touch with any of the people I worked with at Le Cirque, but I do remember the young cook who led my station. He had recently graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He was very talented, and confident enough to let you know he was willing to do whatever it took to succeed (sound like anyone we know?). His name was Jason Kallert, and watching the Quickfire Challenge I discovered, after all these years, that he is still in fact at Le Cirque, although now in the role of Executive Sous-chef. How far we all have come!

And how fitting that this week's episode took us from that temple of classic haute cuisine back again to culinary school to taste a humbler side of the classics, in an Elimination Challenge requiring the chefs to showcase three kitchen staples: potatoes, chicken, and onions. Surprisingly, our esteemed guests, the deans of the French Culinary Institute, were just as modest and approachable as the ingredients our chefs had to prepare. But what they lacked in self-importance, they made up for in attention to detail and knowledge of their craft. Even Tom felt awe-inspired by their collective presence.

It is always at this point in the competition, when we know the remaining chefs well and understand that they are all strong contenders, when we can really begin to appreciate their individual cooking styles, and this challenge was no exception. Hung's finely focused Sous Vide Butter-Poached Chicken,Crisp Chicken Skin, and Pommes Dauphin echoed the astuteness and precision he has brought to our table from the start. Although his potatoes could have been lighter in texture, his dish was beautifully prepared and presented. No one could argue with that.

Dale's Honey Truffle Duet of Chicken with Potato Puree may have failed in concept, but it still showed the creative and fun-loving nature that has made his food so appealing all along. Brian's Peasant Spring Harvest Pie tasted of the strong, risk-taking flavors we had come to expect from him. His charisma and passion came through with each bite. Casey's Coq au Vin, while not a traditional version from the books of the French masters, was her own tasty spin on a piece of her past. It had a rich, complex flavor that told me it had been made with attention and care.

Even Sara's Fricassee of Chicken with Couscous was in its own way a classic. It had all the signature elements of her very own style -- couscous being integral to almost everything she made. I am sorry she felt I was mistaken when I said the chicken was undercooked. I promise I would never have mentioned it unless I was sure. Chefs Jacques Torres and Andre Soltner were witnesses, and even if you cannot trust me, you can surely trust them.

That was one, but not the only reason, we felt her dish was the weakest and sent her home. I believe she is on the brink of a very successful career and can't wait to taste her cheese, wherever she makes it. What disappointed me more than anything about her departure was that it left us, once again, with only one woman in the kitchen. Next stop, Aspen, Colorado for our finale. See you there!

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