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Divine Inspiration

Gail Simmons explains why the successful chefs this week didn't necessarily do traditional dishes.

By Gail Simmons I know you weren't there, but care to comment on "Pea Puree-gate?"
I’ve been out of the loop and away for the past few weeks, so I’m just getting back and catching up myself. I can’t believe I missed Pea Puree-gate. My official word is that from what we know, it’s entirely inconclusive. I don’t know why Alex would risk stealing anything – it’s just too risky considering how many cameras that we have shooting them. I wish I had been in the kitchen, but because I wasn’t, I knew very little about it. I wish I had an answer. Onto this week’s Quickfire the chefs had to cook Ethiopian food, and a lot of them hadn’t even eaten Ethiopian food. What kind of experience do you have with Ethiopian food?
I don’t have extensive experience with it. I haven’t cooked it at all, but I’ve certainly eaten it before, and D.C. has amazing Ethiopian food, which I was lucky to eat when I was there, and I’ve eaten a few times in the past. I’ve also had the pleasure of eating Marcus’s food, which isn’t strictly Ethiopian, but certainly on Top Chef Masters a few of his dishes had Ethiopian influences. In recent years Marcus has become known for and has taken a turn in his cooking path to really focus on his African roots, even wrote a book about it. So I’ve tasted his interpretations of Ethiopian food. It’s really flavorful and is in fact a cuisine most often eaten with your hands and with injera. It really is a unique cuisine unto itself – there’s nothing like it that I can think of, and Marcus was the perfect person to judge this challenge. Were you surprised with how well the chefs did?

I was really surprised. The truth is, if you cook good food, then you’re not going to lose – even if it’s not classically what the challenge calls for. Marcus and Padma were not looking for the chefs to give them traditional Ethiopian food. They wanted them to be inspired by the flavors, by the spices, by the ideas behind Ethiopian food, and make it their own. At this point of the competition every season, especially on Season 7, the chefs are starting to understand that – the challenge isn’t necessarily as important as simply cooking well. If you cook well, focus on technique, and make it taste good, then you’re in the running. We saw that, because even though Angelo’s was very Ethiopian, Tiffany won with a goulash.
Tiffany was smart to not set up expectations that it was going to be classic. It was very clear that this was the first time she had done something like this. It looked like a beautiful goulash, or stew. Just looking at it as a viewer, with that perfectly-poached egg on top, I wanted to eat it. So that is exactly what I mean. If you cook well, and you have a good starting point, cooking is cooking and braising is braising, and if you know how to stew, if you know how to roast, that can apply to any flavors you choose — Ethiopian, French, or otherwise. Let’s just face it: this was the Tiffany Episode. She killed it. If you don’t love Tiffany after this episode, then you’re a mean and terrible person. So there was this one moment when Kelly was going for a pressure cooker, and Alex was going for the pressure cooker, and she felt he was kind of aggressive. Do you feel that the chefs kind of turned against him?

Yes, I do feel they are all a little down on Alex after last week’s challenge. This usually happens in this point of the season – they’re getting tired and they’re looking for a scapegoat or someone to pick on — it looks like Alex is playing that role, for whatever reason. He probably is getting on their nerves, and a few of them are pretty certain that he is not as strong as them in the kitchen, plus the fact that he won the last challenge and there was a controversy, adds to their frustrations. But it also plays into how the game works – it shows that we, as judges, do not judge food on what happens in the kitchen, we do not judge on if we like the person’s personality, we judge on what is set in front of us each day. We don’t know any of the rest of the details. We don’t know what went on behind those doors. So what tastes best in that moment is what’s going to do well on the show. But that’s also frustrating to them too, because they all know that they may have worked harder, they may have played more fairly, but at the end of the day none of it matters if their dish isn’t good. For the Elimination, which was sort of an around-the-world situation, they got to pick different countries. Which country would you have picked? Do you think some were harder than others?
I do think some were harder than others, but that depends on who you are as a cook and what kind of experience you have. I remember when we were working on this challenge and the producers sent us a list of countries and asked what we felt would be the best pick. We all had different opinions, and they wanted to have really tough countries at first, they were going to use nine really outrageously and unique countries. We all said, “Why load the deck against them?” I think the countries we used were pretty fair, and pretty mainstream. Of course there’s Brazil, a lot of people don't know much about Brazilian food, it’s not as common in our country as Spanish, French, Italian, even Indian or Thai. I think it was the oddball, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Again, going back to the Quickfire, we were not necessarily looking for them to give us classic, authentic experiences from that country that had to be perfect. We were looking for their interpretation and inspiration. We wanted to taste the flavors of that country, and stay true to those flavors, but we did not need them to make classic text book food. Sure, Stephen could have definitely incorporated a lot more inspiration from Brazil, but even if he didn’t use any Brazilian ingredients at all, as Tom said, if his rice was cooked well, if his meat was cooked well, he probably wouldn’t have been in the bottom. Some of the chefs get too stuck in their heads instead of just cooking from their hearts. As far as which country I would have chosen, I don’t think I gave an answer to that question. I probably would have chosen Spain because I was there quite recently and came back really inspired by the food. Or, maybe, Thailand, because the flavors are super bold. What was it like having Jose Andres as a guest judge?
Jose Andres is good friend, and one of my favorite people. Not only because he’s a talented chef, but because where Jose goes, the party follows. Follow Jose around and you will always be in good company, eat well, drink well, and have a really good time. So I was pretty excited he was with us. Obviously it was also very appropriate to have Marcus there too because although they are both American, they are also immigrants. They both want to help America understand the influences that make up this country and its cuisine. I mean, Jose’s mission in life is to spread the gospel, not just for Spanish food — Jose has a Mexican restaurant and a Greek restaurant, and more. I know he was just in China for several weeks with his family, exploring the cuisines of China. He really is an ambassador to this country, in many ways. So, certainly, is Marcus. Which dishes stood out for you?
There were a few really great dishes that day. The ones that stand out are, of course, Tiffany’s tamale and Kelly's Carpaccio. Hers was simple, simple, simple, simple. Again, we’re not going to argue. We’re looking for good, not fancy. She knew the circumstances they were working in, that they wouldn’t have burners at hand, and she did something she knew she could be really proud of and that she could control. Kevin’s curry was fantastic! Like Tiffany in the Quickfire, he didn’t set us up for disappointment. He was very open with the fact that he had never cooked Indian food. He didn’t call it a curry, which was smart. He called it a “stewed chicken with curry flavors,” or something like that. And he called the salad a cucumber-mango salad, not a raita! So it became his interpretation and we weren’t looking for something that was by-the-book, so to speak. Kenny gave us a Thai noodle dish that was also very good. I remember thinking that I wish it had a little more heat, but he was on the money. When you tasted it, you knew where you were – it had a sense of place, and I think that was very important. Then, of course, there was Tiffany’s tamale. She also kept it simple. She knew the limitation of the location and the challenge itself, so she didn’t take on too much, and fall short. She definitely had her work cut out for her – let me tell you, making a perfect tamale is not easy. I’ve had a lot of tamales, and, in the past, they haven’t been my favorite food because it’s hard to find one that is moist, that has flavor, that still tastes of masa, that is fresh. There’s a lot of work there, a lot of mise-en-place that comes with it. Tiffany's was clean, it tasted like a tamale. I was really impressed with how well she did in the whole episode. She didn’t compromise herself, she really set her goals and achieved them. And then there were the bottom dishes.
As many good dishes as there were, there were bad dishes too. Alex was a mess. He was pretty close to going home. It was almost a toss-up between Alex and Stephen that day, but, ultimately, Stephen expired. Alex’s dish, in theory, should’ve added up to a Spanish dish, those components should have tasted like Spain – but it really didn’t have much flavor at all. Nothing had flavor or seasoning. Of all days, in front of Jose too, which I’m sure was devastating for him. It’s one thing to pick Spanish food and mess it up, but not in front of the best Spanish chef in this country....not good. And Angelo, you said he kind of hid the fish with other flavors….
Yes, Angelo. I remember thinking how strange Angelo’s dish was. Again, it had all of the components of Japan, there was that beautiful, fresh fish, the wasabi peas, but he chose to cut the fish in a strange way – they were almost like noodles. They looked sort of like udon noodles, I guess that was what he was trying to go for, what he thought would be interesting. But it didn’t work for me. They became so soft and small, and they were coated in this wasabi mixture, that totally eliminated the taste of the tuna itself. So, textually, Angelo’s dish was very odd, and I didn’t enjoy it. Ed’s dish could have been excellent. It had this beautiful plum sauce that wasn’t discussed in the final cut. You could see he was really was trying – the work that went into Ed’s dish was exceptional. I just think he took on too much with the lack of kitchen time they had, and he didn’t render that duck fat, which really should’ve been the first thing he did. So that was unfortunate. Although he was in the bottom, we were never going to send him home for that dish. It was much better than the other two. Stephen's dish could have been from any Latin American country, but there was no inspiration, no flavor, no finesse. It was flat, it was boring, and it was overcooked. Unfortunately, Stephen is a very lovely and funny man, but his time on Top Chef was up. So next week we have Restaurant Wars, do you want to say something about that?
Ummm, just that it’s really awesome! Restaurant Wars are always exciting, and I actually haven’t been on the restaurant wars episode for a few seasons now. Suffice to say, I am very excited for it. It’s a really great episode for a lot of reasons, mostly because chefs have more trouble with it than ever. Which usually happens, because in Restaurant Wars the chefs are essentially totally freaked out. Just wait until you see what actually makes it to our plates. And there’s a special guest judge, who I think really kicks up the pressure.

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