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The Best Thing I Ever Ate

Gail Simmons can not say enough about Paul Qui's Elimination Challenge dish.

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 the Quickfire Challenge was… interesting. What did you think?
Gail Simmons: I thought it was fascinating. I think we’re so used to using all our senses when we cook, it’s such an interesting lesson when you take one away and realize how much you rely on it. I think we could have been a little nicer though and started them in the pantry. What did you think of the winning dish? It was kind of an interesting combo – corn soup with onions, peaches, and mushrooms.
GS: It’s interesting because we always preach “if it grows together it goes together.” I understand Tom’s comment to Sarah that mushrooms and corn shouldn’t really go together because mushrooms are very fall/winter, and corn is such a prime summer ingredient. They have a different seasonality, and it’s a strange combination of flavors, but it seemed to work. Sarah had it in her head that she was going to do a soup, which was smart in case she picked an ingredient that didn’t make sense. It’s easier to put everything in a blender, if you can get it cooked in time. And if you have really good ingredients, then you have to do very little to them, and a soup lends itself perfectly to that. I loved that she used our wood-burning oven to roast those mushrooms. Corn chowder is delicious. It sounded like a great dish. But so did Ed’s for that matter. That was really smart with the casings.
GS: Ed killed it. I thought he would win just for those pork casings alone. I mean, they are not something that you usually want to eat, unless you’re making sausages or pate. It’s the stomach lining of a pig! So the fact that he had about seven minutes to incorporate it into a dish, and obviously he didn’t have time to make sausage with it, I thought it was genius that he put it in water and used the briny, porky flavor as a stock. That was So the fifth chef comes back from Last Chance Kitchen, and it’s Beverly. What was your reaction to that?
GS: I knew obviously that she was coming back, and I’m really proud of her for it. It proves that this isn’t a popularity contest -- if you cook well and your food is great, that’s all that matters. I know that this was probably difficult for our chefs, especially Lindsay and Sarah, who weren’t huge fans of Bev. Look, anyone coming back makes their lives more difficult and enhances the competition. They thought they were the final four people and then we threw someone else at them, out of nowhere. But you know what? She deserves to be there, for all the reasons you can see on For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs mentors all come back, and all the chefs really started breaking down. Were you surprised to see like Paul crying?
GS: I was really surprised to see Paul crying, but I loved it. I think at this stage in the competition every season, our chefs are at the end of their rope. They are on edge. They are under so much stress. They’re exhausted. They miss their families. They feel alone. I think that’s why bringing back their mentors was so perfect at this moment. Firstly: because it obviously brought out so much emotion in them. It meant so much for them. It came at a time when they really needed someone who was on their team cheerleading for them, not judging them, not fighting against them. And secondly, it inspired them and reminded them why they cook in the first place. Of anyone it also just happened to be that these mentors are all pretty extraordinary. It wouldn’t have been the same if it had been five different chefs. The only chef I didn’t know personally was Sarah, but she’s super lovely and obviously accomplished. Tony, Frank, Michelle, and Tyson I know well and I’ve eaten at all their restaurants. I just couldn’t have asked for a better group to have inspired our chefs. It’s just amazing how far our chef’testants have come under their tutelage. I think this challenge was just as meaningful for the mentors in many ways, as it was for the chefs. Going back, were you surprised at all that Sarah chose immunity over the car? There was kind of a debate over whether she should cook anyway, even though she won the Quickfire.
GS: That’s such a conundrum. Interestingly, I think if other chefs had won they would have made the same choice, when it came down to it. Either way there are pros and cons, and why we give them this amazing choice: get a car or get a free ride to the finale. I think the others chefs felt that if you take that free ride you might regret it, or you might feel like you cheated yourself out of really cooking your way into the finale. But I think they all need to lose the guilt. Stop the martyrdom. Sara deserves to be in the finale, and she has proven that many times over. So at this stage, any advantage you can get, you should take. She would be silly not to. So what if someone else just gets the car. That’s not why she is competing. She’s competing to win. So let’s talk about each dish.
GS: The great thing about Beverly’s dish was that I think they were all very skeptical when she came back, and they probably didn’t think she had it in her to do this well. They were a little condescending to her, but her dish was the second best dish of the night. She made a very complicated dish. This wasn’t just some stir fry like you make in your college dorm room. She used a professional wok. She made a very complicated Singapore noodle dish, with a complex curry blend. She cooked her shrimp beautifully. That’s a very hard thing to do for eight people all at once. That’s a lot of balls to be juggling in the air, so to speak, and she did it really well, which takes a lot of experience. It was a fantastic dish and I adored it.

Lindsay’s dish: Her mistakes were obvious to all of us, and even to her. She knew it from the moment she brought it to us. She used dried spices that she didn’t cook through enough so they tasted raw. There’s no substitute for fresh spices, and if you’re going to use raw ones, you need to use them very gently and very carefully, or else it can be overpowering. The other issue was Lindsay’s addition of cream. It was a last-minute, impulsive decision that she didn’t need to do. I would have been way happier if it had been a brothy sauce, as opposed to an emulsified cream sauce. The flavors in the dish were very Mediterranean, which you don’t associate with cream. That’s much more Northern European. It was a beautiful dish with a gorgeous seafood stock and beautifully cooked seafood, which showed incredible expertise. Her cooking skills did not go unnoticed. She just made these two errors that made her dish not as good as the top two. But she should still be very proud of her work. I know that Michelle was.

I actually don’t think we conveyed just how extraordinary Paul’s dish was. I can actually say without hesitation that this dish was the best dish I have tasted from anyone all season long. Hands down. Possibly one of the best dishes ever cooked on Top Chef. It was un-f--king believable. If you asked me a month ago if I remembered a single dish from the entire season, I wouldn’t be able to tell you a single dish, because the second they're done it’s all a blur to me. They all go into the archive of Top Chef dishes that I’ll never have to eat again. But this single dish, I could recite every single ingredient, every detail. It was a chilled soup, which is so deceptively simple. I’ve never tasted anything like that in my whole Chilled soups can be gross. 
GS: Yes! I didn’t think anyone could get me excited about a chilled soup. But Paul did. What did Tyson say?
GS: Tyson loved it. He tried to stay quiet because he was so obviously biased. He didn’t have to say anything, because all of us sat around that table literally licking our plates and moaning in pleasure. It was embarrassing. It was quite obvious at the time to the eight of us sitting at that table. Dashi is a Japanese broth, very intensely flavored, made usually with bonito flakes (dried fish flakes). That, combined with these very fresh, beautiful ribbons of vegetables, and pureed sunchokes (which are somewhere between a potato and an artichoke, with a very creamy texture) was simply stunning. I’m so curious as to how he thought of that soup. Had he made it before? Was this just a total inspiration out of nowhere? I can’t imagine it was, this dish tasted like a three-Michelin star restaurant dish in Tokyo. It was not something you just make on the fly. And then Edward bought canned oysters.
GS: A lot of Edward’s dish was really great. The pork crackling was beautiful. The actual meat itself was cooked really well, had a lot of flavor. He made these amazing pickles that were a great counterpoint of sour and acid to the fatty, porkiness. And then he made this oyster sauce. Smoked oysters pureed with cream. Do I even need to say anything else? It was just so off in conception and in execution. He fell into that usual trap that a lot of chefs fall in: they get that idea in their head and even though they can’t find exactly what they need to execute it properly they can’t get out of it, they’ve gone too far down that path. I don’t know why. He should have changed direction when he realized there weren’t fresh oysters at the market. It’s not that oysters in a cream soup, fresh oysters, I mean, don’t work -- case in point: Carla’s oyster stew in penultimate finale episode of Season 5 in New Orleans! But this was a smoked, canned oyster. It had a very rubbery texture and an overpowering, almost synthetic smoky flavor. It was too bad because everything else he made to that point in the challenge had been great. All he had to do was not serve that sauce. And yes, it’s upsetting, but that’s how the game is played. I’m crazy about Ed. He’s a fighter. He’s an amazingly talented chef and I will be visiting him often in Louisville Kentucky. But we will not being seeing him compete in the finale... Well next week, we’re off to Whistler. 
GS: Sneak peek -- we are heading to my homeland. I am very proud of that. It will be cold and snowy, but beautiful. I can tell you that this next episode is for sure the most physically demanding episode we have made, for all of us, but especially for our chefs. We put them through an “Olympic”-style hazing.

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