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If it Grows Together, It Goes Together

Gail Simmons explains why the reasons Grayson went home were actually three-fold.

By Gail Simmons

How to Watch

Watch the Top Chef Season 21 premiere on Wednesday, March 20 at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock. So, Pee-wee Herman as guest judge!
Gail Simmons: I loved him. I spent a lot of time with Pee-wee as a child on Saturday mornings. So did everybody I’m sure, but my older brother and I always watched Pee-wee Herman on Saturday mornings together and would make the voices of the characters. I loved Chairy. He loved Terry the Pterodactyl. Looking back, it was such a memorable part of my childhood, so it was an honor and pleasure to have Pee-wee with us for a couple of days.

Oh! I think the best thing to come out of this entire episode is that he put me on his Christmas card list. He makes the best Christmas cards I have ever received in my life! So we’ll start with the Quickfire. They had to make pancakes, and we had a lot of extremes, from super whimsical to a little more elevated.
GS: I have to say, watching the Quickfire made me really hungry for pancakes. And I never eat pancakes. When I eat breakfast or brunch I am an egg girl. I’m a savory girl in the morning. But I really was craving pancakes coming out of that Quickfire. It seemed like they all did a great job and were very creative. Even just looking at the list of flavors – blueberries, raspberries, bacon, champagne dipping dots, peach compote, cocoa nibs, whipped cream, marcona almonds -- it just all sounds delicious. And Edward won with his little bits.
GS: Yes! His actually was the one I was most skeptical about, until I saw that it was the best pancake that Pee-wee had ever had. That was On to the Elimination Challenge. I thought this was the most difficult challenge, maybe we’ve ever had.
GS: I agree. I think it was definitely the most difficult challenge we’ve ever had, certainly this season and we’ve had some pretty tough ones. There were different skills required. If I look at other difficult challenges like the overnight BBQ challenge, which was certainly physically demanding in its sleeplessness and the quantity of food, that challenge was really about long term endurance and quantity/volume. This was completely the opposite, in terms of what we were asking the chefs to accomplish. This was much more about flexibility, adaptability, thinking on your feet on the short term. Even though the quantity they were preparing for was only four people. They were given a bike and a hundred bucks, and had to literally scavenge for their food and scavenge for a place to cook and then get it all to the Alamo for lunch! They also had to take into consideration Pee-wee’s likes and dislikes and the fact that it was lunch. We gave this challenge to the chefs at this stage in the game because we knew that with only five left they are the strongest five and they could do it. We’d never have given this challenge in Episode 4. It would never have worked. There’s method to our madness. And they all really did succeed. All five of the chefs gave us great lunches. We were choosing the least best to go home, as opposed to the worst. I think the person that went home has a big fan base.
GS: Yes, she certainly does. It’s going to be a hard one. And I also have to say it’s going to look like we sent her home because she put tomatoes and squash on the plate. But I think that all three (Sarah, Ed, and Grayson) that we put in the bottom, made mistakes, were flawed -- although not by much. We were kind of splitting hairs as we always say. The problem with Grayson’s dish was actually three-fold, I thought. First: the flavors didn’t meld so well. People might not understand why Tom was hung up on that idea of tomatoes and squash. They’re grown in distinctly different seasons so they don’t make for a great flavor combination in terms of all the vegetables she could choose. With tomatoes you think Mediterranean. And with squash you really think a colder climate, a colder season. As we love to say, “If it grows together, it goes together.” And those two just don’t. So there was sort of a bit of a disconnect there, but that wasn’t her greatest issue. Second: Her portions were massive. Her dish was disproportionate to everyone else’s in size. Third: she made a specific claim that she purposefully took the skin off her chicken to make it healthy, because Pee-wee likes to eat healthy. (He’s actually incredibly fit. He rides that bike like nobody’s business.) But at the same time she stuffed her chicken with egg yolk and gorgonzola cheese and drizzled it with bacon vinaigrette! So, for us, it was a real discrepancy in her conception of this dish. You have to remember that when you make decisions, like taking the skin off chicken, there’s a reason that people cook with the skin on the chicken, because it gives it moisture, it gives it flavor, and it helps to cook it properly. Without it your chicken risks being dry and flavorless. But then she put all this fat in it afterwards, but at that point you can’t change the doneness or texture of the meat. That’s not to say they weren’t a great idea and they weren’t delicious, for a different challenge. But if you’re trying to give Pee-wee Herman a healthier dish by taking the skin off. I would have much preferred to eat the fat of the skin then bacon, gorgonzola, and egg yolk. It was a conceptual issue, that to us didn’t sit right.That’s not to say that everyone else’s was perfect and hers was terrible. It still was a good dish, and I guarantee that if she had made this exact dish five episodes ago, she would never have gone home for it. But that’s where we are in the game.

I wanted to mention Lindsay and Paul's food too. What we loved so much about Lindsay's was that she set herself apart. She was the only person who didn’t do chicken or egg. She used beef. Her dish had a ton of flavor, despite her difficulties in getting to the Alamo. Conceptually she thought a lot about her dish. It was very appropriate for lunch. The portion was right. It was easily transported because she chose to use these very substantial squash "boats," as Pee-wee liked to call them. That made it very contained. Very easy to transport, which is very much part of what they had to do, and then easy for us to eat. It was totally appropriate. It was just a well-conceived dish for the challenge. We really felt that it fit both.

Paul’s dish really was beautiful too, a little on the sweet side, not quite as balanced, which is why he didn’t win. He knew it. But it was also a great concept, and we loved that he took into consideration that Pee Wee likes spicy food. It felt a lot like Paul’s personality, Paul’s style, very refined but fun and understated.

Ed and Sarah both made good food but also made mistakes. Sarah under-seasoned her food, which is critical at this point. And Ed made a mistake of execution, choosing to poach the chicken in beef fat. I just don’t know why he needed that step. Poaching chicken is OK if you’re doing it let’s say for a soup or a stew. But poaching it for this purpose was just an added step that didn’t actually add anything to the flavor or texture in a positive way. Instead it made it sort of rubbery. Of all the ways to cook chicken, I could think of 17 that would have been better. That said, we still liked it more than Grayson's over all.Grayson’s a great young chef. I love her. She’s a super fun chef. And she’s a totally sunshiny, bright, wonderful person. She makes me happy. Although we sent her home, she’s going to go far in her career. I just know it.

Next episode is a tear-jerker. I will say this: it is the most emotional challenge, to date. We’ve done really emotional challenges before -- cooking for families, the armed forces. We’ve certainly done things that have tugged at our heart-strings. This is the Ellis Island episode of this season. What I mean is that the Ellis Island episode from last season, I think was the best episode of all time of Top Chef (we should have won an Emmy for it, but whatever...). This episode is similar in that it is so emotionally inspiring and the challenge causes our chefs to create what I believe is the best food they have made all season long – which is exactly how it should be in the episode before the finale.

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