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Pepperoni Sauce!

Gail Simmons breaks down the finale meal course by course.

By Gail Simmons Were you aware of the tension between Mike and Richard at the beginning of the episode?
Gail Simmons: I have to assume there are a lot of emotions at this point. Obviously they have a love-hate relationship. They've been in this together the whole way through, and I think they respect each other and each other's cooking. But that is what it comes down to when there's just one human being standing in the way of your success. This finale was a little different than seasons past conceptually since normally we ask them to make the meal of a lifetime, but this season we wanted them to make the restaurant of their dreams. What did you think about this change?
GS: I thought it was great and needed. In a regular finale you just have to make one meal side-by-side for a table of judges, and this was taking it to the next level. We wanted them to cook the food that they would make if they had their own restaurant. Not Restaurant Wars where you have to cooperate, but the way a restaurant is usually run where there is one chef in the kitchen and it's that chef's vision. We also wanted to make sure that it incorporated the ability to run all the moving parts of a restaurant. They didn't have to deal with construction since we gave them spaces that were already designed, but they had to communicate with the front of the house, they had to feed many people besides just the judges in multiple seatings at different times. They had to direct their team in the kitchen, plus being at the front of the house to make sure the food is coming out the way they want in the right time frame exactly how they envisioned it. I think it was a great challenge just because it upped the stress but also upped the reality factor, so you can see what they're made of when it's down to the final moments. Another difference this year was how they chose their sous-chefs. They had to do a blind tasting. Were you surprised how it turned out?
GS:You have to remember one important thing: as much as they all work together and know each other well, they don't taste each other's food that often. They never ever get each other's finished plates -- they only maybe taste each other's food while it's being prepared. For that reason it's actually not a surprise that they don't know each other's food that well. They see each other's style in the kitchen, their cooking abilities, and their knowledge, but they never actually see the finished product, so it's actually an interesting exercise. I know that the results of whom they chose weren't what they wanted necessarily or what they expected. But in the end I think it worked out really well. You guys were split up for two judging times. You were with Tom, Curtis, and Art Smith, and you went to Mike's restaurant first. What was that experience like? What did you think of the restaurant and the concept?
GS: I'm not going to talk about the aesthetics of the restaurant obviously. But I thought it was great. I thought it was timely in terms of the food we're all eating these days. In New York, L.A., Chicago, San Francisco, etc. the restaurants I've been going back to and the restaurants that are getting all the hype are the scaled down, simplified but really flavor forward Italian restaurants. And Italian-American plays on using great Italian ingredients, really refined cooking, but in a very casual way and in a way that really highlights the ingredients. I feel like that's exactly what restaurant Iz was. The menu read beautifully at first glance. There were certainly small problems with some of the dishes; they weren't all completely perfect. But overall I was really impressed with the thoughtfulness of the food and the restraint that Mike showed while cooking, which is something that we hadn't always seen before. He didn't come out guns blazing in this challenge, he kind of led us through the courses, and they just built on one another slowly and beautifully. The first course was very light, very simple, beets with mozzarella, and chocolate truffle vinaigrette. It was simple, it was clean. That chocolate vinaigrette was actually very subtle and worked really, really well. It was one of those pairings that you wouldn't necessarily think would be intuitive, but it wasn't sweet chocolate, it was just that cocoa flavor, and it really played into the earthiness of the beets. It was a great counterpoint to the mozzarella. It almost looked like balsamic, so it was a kind of funny play on balsamic. It had that same quality -- a little bit of acid and a little bit of sweetness that made the mozzarella better. It was simple and it was great. The halibut I thought was outstanding. He steamed it, and it was just so clean and so fresh and so perfectly cooked. The kumquat marmalade, the cauliflower puree, the pancetta crumbs all made sense. The halibut is a hearty enough fish that it can take on those stronger flavors, but he sort of played with some subtlety there with the cauliflower and the kumquat and then something more robust with the breadcrumbs and pancetta. I thought it was a really lovely dish. 

That pepperoni sauce was fantastic. The whole dish was great, it was herby, it was beautifully braised, and there was tons of flavor. That pepperoni sauce was just crazy. I got excited about it because it was a crazy idea to make a sauce, basically a puree of pepperoni. Really that flavor of pepperoni is very distinct and it reminds me of take-out pizza. I'd never seen anyone do anything with it that it took it in a whole different direction. It was intense! It was really intense. But after the two really light courses we all welcomed it. It made us think, it was thoughtful and focused, and somehow it came together. It cracked me up.

The dessert was definitely Mike's weakest link for me. As Tom said, the custard was cooked a little too fast and not completely evenly, so there was a division in the custard. It wasn't completely smooth, and the texture was a little off. It had some bubbles in it, and it wasn't as creamy as we would have liked. It was a little bit on the dry side. We wanted it to be super smooth and just melt in your mouth. The pine nuts, citrus, cherry, and apple were totally good. It was very light. I kind of wished it had a little more punch. There was a crunch there and a little acid, but it was a very subtle ending, and after that pepperoni sauce you needed something to keep you in that moment, so it got a little lost. After Mike's restaurant you went over to Tongue & Cheek, Richard's restaurant.
GS: Richard did an excellent job as well. Richard's ability to blend modern techniques and classic flavors and bring you back to nostalgic things in a new way always excites me. I think he did a great job with that here. He cooked a gutsy meal, and I think that was his intention. A lot of bold flavors, a lot of double entendres to go along with the tongue and cheek theme. There was a playfulness, an energy, and an excitement to his food. I have to say in terms of the atmosphere of both restaurants, we noticed Mike's restaurant was kind of quiet and subdued, and when we got to Richard's we all commented on how the energy changed. Maybe it was just because we were eating later, but that makes a difference when you're eating. The energy at Richard's was really fun, exciting, and vibrant, and I think that really came from the food that Richard was serving. It was exciting and it lent itself well to conversation
The oyster with lemon horseradish and crème fraiche pearls with salsa verde was really bright, and it went together. I don't necessarily associate dairy and oysters,  so it wasn't necessarily what I would choose, but because it was crème fraiche it had a sour note that went really well with the cold oyster and made it feel really fresh.

The hamachi with fried veal sweetbreads, Asian pear, pickled radish, and garlic mayo was my favorite dish of the competition. It was so delicious and gutsy and bold. It really made a statement when we tasted it. The raw tuna was beautiful, and then it had those fried sweetbreads. So it was this raw, clean fish and these fried sweetbreads, which countered it. There was also some spice to it, there was some heat there, with the chiles, the Asian pear, the pickled radish. They all really cut the fat of the fried sweetbreads, and it came together beautifully. So this was your favorite dish from the entire season?
GS: I have to say it might be, yes. There was a lot of great stuff to be sure, so it's definitely top five.

The pork belly with the black cod cutlet was also a great dish. I had a little problem with the cod cutlet, but no one else did, so I have to believe it was just my piece of fish. Mine was a little bit watery and mushy, but no one else had that issue. Otherwise the flavors were great, and it was the most exciting piece of fried fish I've had in a long time. He treated it almost like a veal medallion or chicken fried steak. And the bone marrow and pork belly, I mean wow, super rich, but really the kind of food you want to dive into.

The beef short ribs with mushrooms was really well executed and technically a very strong dish. However it wasn't the most exciting dish I've seen from Richard, especially coming off the two before it. I know his point was that he wanted to show us his more classic side and his technical savvy, which I appreciated for sure. It was a comforting, very classic dish. At this level of the competition though, I want to see something on your plate that I've never seen before or a new combination. It doesn't need to be smoke, mirrors, and magic tricks by any means, and in fact I'm against all that. I just want to see people do things that I couldn't just get anywhere else which proves them as a chef, and I didn't actually see that in Richard's dish, especially again in comparison to the dishes that he just served us, which were so extraordinary. I had never seen anything like them before; I had never eaten those combinations. So from an excitement standpoint, I found it the least exciting for sure. But you couldn't really argue with it technically from an execution standpoint. It tasted great, and it was just a beautifully braised short rib. The mushrooms were great. The cabbage marmalade was lovely. I thought it was interesting that they both had cabbage in that course. The celery root was very sweet so that was excellent, and the horseradish had acidity which helped with the fattiness of the ribs. It was really nice. And then we get to the ice cream, which might be the most contentious part of his meal.
GS: Right. Well what we tasted and what Tom and Padma tasted were totally different. It wasn't Richard's most finessed dish of all time, and he knew it. But when we compared it to Mike's dessert, it was still far stronger in its concept, in its flavors. It was a conversation piece; foie gras ice cream is interesting. It did work; I got what he meant by it. Would I order a scoop of it in a sugar cone over the summer, no, but it added that sort of really rich creaminess and earthiness. There was also fresh mango and whipped mango on that cornbread, and it all kind of seemed crazy, like how do foie gras and mango on cornbread have anything to do with each other? The cornbread was sort of like a canvas, but it was really well made. It was just sweet enough, but not too sweet that it was too much with the mango. And the mango was nice. You know we were in the tropics, and that was the only ingredient we ate all night that felt tropical, so it was kind of refreshing. The texture of the whipped mango was similar to the texture of the foie gras, which was interesting because they had such different flavors. Do you think Richard's initial idea for Cap'n Crunch ice cream would have worked with the rest of the menu?
GS: It's hard to tell. It would really depend texturally on how it came out, because it might almost have tasted too much like the cornbread. Cornbread and Cap'n Crunch are both kind of starchy, so I think it was actually smart that he chose to do something different. So what are your final messages to Richard and Mike?
GS: There have been many Judges' Tables that go late into the night and I've left the dinner table not knowing the answer, and this was certainly one of them and in some ways even more exaggerated. We all disagreed for a while. We struggled because it was not a clear path. In the end, they both did a really great job and they really impressed me all season, so I'm proud of both of them. I am excited for both of them and the opportunities that will come to them. You get so attached to people, so it was really hard for us to let go of Mike. But when we went back and thought about the dishes, we just thought that Richard had with all his components a slightly stronger advantage in the outcome of his dishes. He went bolder, he took more risks, and 99 percent of them were executed successfully. He showed us so much more of who he was consistently. This was just a really consistent culmination of a meal for Richard. It was the meal that we hoped he would cook. He didn't stray from the chef that he was from the moment he walked on-set for All-Stars up to that day. It felt deserved in every way. Are you excited for Desserts?   
GS: I can't even imagine… I need a little break!

How to Watch

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

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