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The Food, And Nothing But The Food.

You think judging is easy? Gail Simmons dispells that myth.

By Gail Simmons

I was so excited to read about your comfort food favorites on the blogs last week. Thanks so much to those who contributed their thoughts and stories on nostalgic foods. I've always found it fascinating how food, especially paired with childhood memories, can be a window into our cultural heritage. It amazes me how different our taste buds are, depending on where we were raised. But no matter what we choose to eat for comfort, one thing remains true: these old-time favorites nourish not only our stomachs, but also our souls, providing a sense of place and of memories of home.

How to Watch

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

This week's challenge was far from comforting. Our contestants were split into four teams of three, and asked to cook a four-course dinner, with each course created in the form of a trio. The overall purpose of a trio is to have a chef demonstrate three different techniques using one common ingredient, allowing the diner to taste how varied the results can be. I appreciate the idea behind this, but more often than not, I prefer to eat one complete dish, rather than three small ones. Trios often leave me confused and hungry, especially if the dish doesn't have a connective rationale for its presentation on the plate.

Since I was not in the episode, I cannot really speak to how the food tasted, but it did seem that the winning and losing choices were justified. Lia's shrimp looked beautiful. It was well conceived and well communicated alongside the dishes of her teammates. Camille, Sara and Dale definitely had a hard time under the circumstances. Their predicament was the trickiest of all, and one we have seen before on the show, as very few contestants have professional pastry training. They could either choose not to do a dessert and risk being penalized because the meal would seem incomplete, or attempt a course none of them had real experience in executing.

Unfortunately, in the restaurant industry and therefore in this game, no points are awarded for effort. We must judge on the product set before us -- and, in this case, it was clear that their pineapple trio did not make the cut. Camille is a lovely and talented chef, but the judges agreed that her upside-down cake was a failure. I wish I had been there to say a proper good-bye. I know everyone will miss her. This particular challenge, including Camille's dismissal, is a perfect example of how we must focus only on the food, regardless of who is cooking. The questions of what we base our decisions on, and whether or not a contestant's personality comes into play when we're deciding who wins and who goes home, were asked by viewers on my blog last week. As I have explained before, none of us have any significant contact with the contestants off-camera, and we do not see their interaction in or out of the kitchen until long after it all takes place. In the course of shooting the show, we learn a little about each of them through a question and answer session at the Judges' Table and through their food. But our job is to judge the food set before us, based on how well the chefs have followed the rules of the Challenge, and how the food tastes and looks.

Of course, there have been times when we wished someone had done better so we could keep them on longer (I imagine Camille's departure was one of those times). On the other hand, there have been moments when we have wanted to eliminate someone based on their attitude when they've come before us. However, this does not happen, as we all realize that bringing our personal feelings to the Judges' Table would compromise the integrity of the show. At times, it can be a difficult thing to do, but that is the job -- and what an exciting job it is!

What I love about having a blog is the chance to voice personal opinions about the show. In order to remain as unbiased and objective as possible, we can't discuss them at the time. When I mentioned how disappointed I was in Hung for dropping the crayfish last episode, I said so purely as a viewer, since I was not a judge on that episode and had not seen his disappointing actions until the show aired. My blog gives me the opportunity to talk about all this stuff now, as the show has been filmed, taped, and the outcome of each episode determined.

Speaking of objectivity, I've also been asked if, in the course of my job, there's ever any food I don't like or if, as a rule, I eat everything. Everyone has their own food associations, and I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys everything put before them. I could talk about this subject forever, as I find really picky eaters and people with long lists of food issues particularly fascinating.

What I will say is that there are, of course, a few things I prefer not to eat, namely veal and black beans. Both are irrational aversions and by no means do they constitute absolute restrictions. I may never order them at a restaurant, but if someone cooks them for me I will always try them, out of respect. I do, as a rule, try to be objective with every dish set before me and will try anything once. Even if it is not a dish I think I will like, I believe I owe it to the chef who worked hard to cook it to try their food with an open mind. Regardless of whether I really like it, I still appreciate the thought and skill that went into preparing it and try to understand what that person was thinking, what they did wrong and/or what they could have done better. Sometimes during the course of deliberations I come to realize that something was in fact a great dish, even if not suited to my specific taste.

Another question I wanted to address is that of timing: how long each episode takes to shoot, and what happens that does not make the final cut. The short answer is: LOTS and LOTS. The longer answer: Each episode usually takes about two full days -- one day for the Quickfire and one for the Elimination Challenge. Taping the Quickfire Challenge usually takes a few hours. The Elimination Challenge runs longer and comprises cooking (sometimes over a period of several hours) serving (often the length of a multi-course dinner party), deliberating, questioning, and finally judging and dismissal. Plus, there's the setting and resetting the eight or so cameras and sound crews, transporting the cast and crew to and from each location, etc.

So you can imagine how, if we plan the Challenge to take place at dinner time, shooting can often go well into the early morning, based on everything we must do afterward. Our producers always try to avoid this -- since we're shooting in Florida, you would think they could slip us a few Early Bird Specials! -- but sometimes it just can't be helped. We usually debate our decisions for at least three hours, and what you see is boiled down to only a few minutes. As far as editing is concerned, at times I certainly am shocked when I see the final episode.

The magic of television makes our decisions look swift and easy, when in fact they are, more times than not, prolonged and difficult. I guess that is where our judging ends and the work of those who judge us begins.

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