Vim and Vigor

Vim and Vigor

Gail Simmons explains why she was almost happy to see Jennifer Carroll react the way she did.

While shooting our seventh season of Top Chef in D.C. last spring, Padma, Tom and I were given the unique opportunity to attend the White House Correspondents Dinner, which happens to take place in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton Hotel, where our show was headquartered. After dinner, Tom and I attended a party at the French Consulate. As I was entering, I felt a tap on my shoulder and, turning around, came face to face with teen heartthrob and musician Joe Jonas (known to me up to this point only from my two young nieces’ screams of delight while watching Camp Rock 2: Final Jam). We immediately launched into a heated discussion about food, our favorite restaurants, and the politics of the Top Chef Judges’ Table. I was impressed by his knowledge of and passion for the subject, as well as flattered by how much he said he enjoys watching our show. So it was no surprise that the Top Chef cast and crew welcomed him to our All-Stars set just a few months later. Unfortunately, I was not able to be at the Night at the Museum Quickfire Challenge that day, but was thrilled afterward seeing his enthusiasm come through in the episode.

Tiffani Faison won the Quickfire, in which our chefs were asked to prepare midnight snacks for about 150 tweens (a.k.a. the quintessential Joe Jonas audience) at the American Museum of Natural History, as part of a giant sleepover under the museum’s famed Blue Whale. Exhausted and beaten down by the onslaught of miniature sugar-addicts, our chefs received their next Elimination Challenge: sleep at the museum and cook an early-morning breakfast for the children and their chaperones. In the shadow of looming dinosaur skeletons, Tom explained that the two teams must execute a meal inspired exclusively by the diet of either the carnivorous T-Rex (meat, dairy, eggs) or the Brontosaurus, a herbivore (fruits, vegetables, grains). Tiffani, the Quickfire winner, got to pick the diet her team would use. Knowing that T-Rex was at the top of the food chain, she chose the carnivore option. Spike, captain of the opposing team, was left with the humbler vegetarian diet.

After what must have seemed like a mere few minutes’ sleep in the Hall of American Mammals, our chefs discovered exactly what ingredients were available in each team’s pantry. As much as T-Rex may have ruled the animal kingdom over 65 million years ago, Tiffani and her team actually found their breakfast choices extremely limited, with no herbs and few other flavorings.Their menu definitely had repetitive elements, but when they presented it we were happy to see that they managed to serve a relatively varied, savory breakfast, as heavy as it may have been.

Spike’s team jumped head-first into the diversity of the produce they were given, providing us with a lighter buffet that was certainly more colorful and imaginative. That said, even though it may have had many more components, our young diners were skeptical, to say the least. The line for the carnivore buffet was twice as long as everyone scrambled for what they liked best. At least at first impression, meat and cheese were more familiar, desirable and alluring, proving only that perhaps our human instincts are still quite primitive. Unlike the Quickfire, in which we allowed the kids to decide a winner, we judged this challenge ourselves. And here is where I feel the need to explain a few points in our decision-making process. I hate to think we need to justify who we chose to send home, but I have a hunch this dismissal will incite more than a quiet outcry from our dedicated viewers.  

First among our guidelines, the food must be appropriate to the audience eating it. But, as cheftestants have discovered, our top priorities are always what tastes best, and what is made with the most efficient skill and precision. We surveyed our diners that day, as we always do, to gain insight into what worked for them and what didn’t. Often our opinions differ greatly from those of our guests, but after tasting all the options, this was not the case. It was absolutely unanimous as to the dish everyone liked least (personal preferences, like a child’s refusal to try tomatoes or aversion to fish for example, aside).

Second, remember this: The outcome of any previous challenges or seasons, as well as what we think the chef may be capable of, can never come into play. We must judge on what is in front of us and what we tasted that day only. Otherwise, we are basing our decisions on their previous accomplishments and not on the results of the challenge at hand. This defeats the purpose of having new challenges at all and diminishes any incentive for the chefs to cook in the moment.

We all agreed the dishes from Team Brontosaurus were stronger, more creative, and all-around more delicious than their competitors’. Fabio and Stephen’s Gnocchi was pillowy, moist, and light; their spinach and mushroom garnish was flavorful too. Carla and Spike’s Fruit & Vegetable Gazpacho was bright, fresh and balanced, while Dale T. and Mike’s Corn Grits were creamy and satisfying, with just the right amount of stewed peppers and salsa verde on top. The silky smooth Banana Parfait with Seasonal Fruit & Tandoori Maple, by Marcel, Angelo and Richard, was crafted beautifully, despite its simple appearance. It had rich, layered flavor and so many perfectly placed pieces of both raw and carefully roasted fruit that it almost looked too pretty to eat. Almost. For all of that, we decided the Banana Parfait was the challenge winner!

In contrast, Team T-Rex’s preparations had several noticeable flaws. Tre’s Shrimp & Apple Smoked Bacon Sauce, served over Casey’s delicate pan-roasted salmon, was intensely over-reduced and salty. Antonia and Tiffany D’s Mini Frittatas were inconsistent in doneness—some runny and undercooked, others tough and rubbery. Most troubling was Jennifer’s Braised Bacon with Hard Boiled Eggs—something I would not want to eat again. It was texturally unappetizing, with no contrast in mouthfeel between the fatty bacon and the scant crumbles of hardboiled egg. Unfortunately, the bacon was also incredibly strong in flavor, to the point of overpowering the weak jus and egg garnish around it. The kids did not like the dish. And as much as we tried, neither did we. After a tense exchange at Judges’ Table, Jennifer was asked to pack her knives and go.

I assure everyone who feels this was an injustice that it was not a decision we took lightly, nor one that could have gone any other way. By all accounts, hers was the least successful dish, or even component of a dish, in the challenge—and that is how the game must be played. For what it is worth, all of our diners were in agreement with us. No amount of yelling or posturing would have changed that, or made her dish any better. When such clear faults undermine dishes on the bottom of the pack, Judges’ Table can only serve to help us understand how that chef made the dish, what they could have done better and whether their intentions matched our taste experience. In this case, they simply didn’t. I must add that we all were strangely pleased to see someone defend their food with as much vim and vigor as Jennifer did, as angry and disrespectful as she may have been! No one, in my memory, has ever had the gumption to do so and it was actually refreshing to know she was not willing to leave without a fight. I just wish that fight could have taken place in the kitchen a few hours earlier. It might have made her food taste a little better.

I know Jenn was devastated. But I also know this dish will by no means define her, moving forward. She is a gifted and committed chef, a fierce competitor and a courageous leader in her field. Regrettably, even the brightest stars have a bad day or, in this case, present an ill-conceived dish once in a while. It keeps your ego in check, humbles you in the face of obstacles and allows you to come back next time, stronger than ever. I wish her luck, although she doesn’t need it. She already is a great chef and I hope she knows how much we all value her.

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