She's Tricky

She's Tricky

Gail Simmons gives a bigger picture about what she thought of each of the finalists' dishes.

This is where it gets tricky. I know we probably say this at the same point every season, but I truly believe this was by far the most difficult decision we have had to make in the history of the competition (until next week’s, of course!). Never before has Top Chef had four finalists of such equal and notable skill vying for the title. That is not to say we have not had impressive talent in every season along the way, but I think most people will agree that these four cheftestants were pegged from the start as the ones to watch. As they stood before us at Judges’ Table in Napa, we knew destiny meant for them all to be there. This is best proven by the fact that throughout the entire sixth season, no chef other than these four won a single Elimination Challenge.

We shot the two-part finale only about six weeks ago, so much of it is still fresh in my mind. As I will explain, the food served in this challenge was all beautiful and well-produced. I enjoyed almost all of it, whether that actually came through in my commentary or not. As I have said before, our Judges’ Table discussions are never taken lightly. We rehash every element of food served by each chef and we are all given ample chance to say what we liked and disliked about everything. We debate at length the merits of each plate, the skill used in its preparation and the flavor combinations, as well as the presentation. This can often take six hours or more (finale Judges’ Table sessions usually run into early morning, as was again the case this season). It then becomes the job of our producers and editors to boil our discussion down to its most vital points, which are shown within the larger show as a mere few minutes. Such is the nature of reality television….

With that in mind, I want to stress how difficult our penultimate challenge was for the final four chefs. We asked Kevin, Bryan, Michael, and Jennifer to create two tasting-size dishes to serve at a winery “crush” party, celebrating the Napa harvest, for 150 guests. We gave them five hours within which to cook, requested that one dish be a vegetarian option, and that everything be sourced from a nearby farmers’ market carrying only local products, with the exception of salt and oil. They also had to cook and serve these 300 dishes from start to finish without assistance. For any seasoned caterer, this would have been a complicated feat, let alone having to do it in front of multiple cameras, in an unfamiliar restaurant kitchen. Talk about pressure.

None of the dishes we tasted were ill-conceived per se. They all made perfect sense in concept and were thoughtfully presented. Almost everything tasted good, so it was up to us to take each one apart in detail and discuss the tiniest possible discrepancies, in order to come to a fair decision. As we mentioned on the show, Michael’s Vegetable Pistou with Heirloom Tomato Coulis and 63-Degree Egg was clever and flavorful, but the egg had not been shaken carefully enough from its watery shell and appeared to overwhelm the other elements of the dish. Also, the brunoise vegetables were chopped so finely that they lost their structure, causing them to be a bit mushy and not as recognizable as we had hoped, considering the clear amount of work he had put into them. It was his Turnip Soup with Foie Gras Terrine, Poached Pear & Glazed Turnip that took my breath away. Here was one of the most interesting flavor combinations I had tasted on the show to date and it spoke to the immense talent Michael has at pairing contrasting flavors and textures. What you did not hear me say to him was how truly incredible the combination was: that bitter, bright green turnip soup, paired with smooth, rich foie gras and sweet, soft, wine-poached pear. It was a revelation! My only small issue (stated mainly because I wanted more) was that, when not eaten in the same bite as the other components, the turnip soup was quite bitter, as turnips always are. Since there was much more soup than foie gras or pear, this happened more often than not. I personally think the dish would have been absolutely perfect had the soup been thickened slightly and used as more of a sauce or puree.

Kevin’s dishes were just what we had come to expect from him: simple in presentation but elaborate in taste. His vegetarian dish of Roasted Beets & Carrots with Carrot Top Puree & San Andreas Cheese was striking to behold and had deceptively bold flavors for such a stark plate. His Grass-fed Brisket with Pumpkin Polenta & Marinated Root Vegetables was also a lovely idea. On top of the brisket lay a small, highly acidic pickled salad that lent a fabulous crunchy contrast to the rest of the plate. But the brisket was clearly undercooked and tougher than even he could argue it should be. That’s the thing about Kevin: He is so articulate and passionate about his food that he could make any flaw sound intentional. His knowledge, cooking methods and explanations are so interesting that it is easy to be swayed by them. In this case, however, we were not convinced. 

We all agreed Bryan’s two dishes were the strongest overall and so he won the challenge (a fitting episode conclusion, considering his brother won the Quickfire, including a new Toyota Prius). His Goat Cheese Ravioli with Delicata Squash Puree & Bronze Fennel was subtle and so savory. It was the perfect harvest dish, combining plenty of earthy flavors and silky textures. It also showed off his pasta-dough-making skills. It could have benefited from a little more salt, but that was certainly not enough of a reason to dislike it in any way. His Fig-Glazed Short Ribs with Celeriac Puree, Wax Beans & Wild Arugula was almost as enchanting. Each element was cooked impeccably; the combination of ingredients was clever and cohesive. Our only small quandary was that we wished the figs he used for his glaze were more pronounced. Again, hardly a criticism, considering the balance the dish already demonstrated.

After tasting all this wonderful food, we felt that Jennifer’s dishes did not quite measure up. The concepts for both were excellent and I am confident that, given a few more hours or some off-camera time to work on them, she would make them winners. She simply fell short in a few areas of execution. The Chèvre Mousse with Honey Mushrooms, Braised Radishes & Basil was significantly oversalted. The duck breast in her Braised Duck Legs and Confit of Duck Breast with Squash Puree & Foie Gras Vinaigrette was a bit bland and dry. The braised legs had been chopped so finely that the meaty texture was lost, and the vinaigrette, although delicious, was in short supply.

I do not mean any disrespect to any other of the incredibly talented and creative people we have had as contestants over the years, but I believe without a doubt that Jennifer is by far the strongest female cook we have had on the show. Correction: She is by far one of the strongest cooks we have ever had on the show, period. Had this been any other season, I am sure she would have smoked them all (then sliced and served them to us in the most elegant fashion). She proved time and again, through the 26 challenges she faced, that she is a formidable force in the kitchen. I am inspired and awed by her. Most importantly, I am sincerely grateful I was able to get to know her just a little and taste of her wonderful food.

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