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Gail Simmons blogs 'Top Chef: All-Stars': Episode 13

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As told to Archana Ram.

It was great to be in the Bahamas. We happened to miss two major snowstorms in New York, so that made us all very happy. Padma works a lot more than we do because she films all the Quickfires, but Tom and I definitely had some time off. I spent a lot of time on the water slides at Atlantis and Tom spent a lot of time deep-sea fishing.

We always take quite a large break between the bulk of the season and the finale. For example, the Ellis Island episode was shot in the middle of September, and then we took several months off until January when we shot the finale. We were four months older and wiser. We had watched the season and knew a lot more about the contestants. I learned about Mike’s burping habits, Richard’s self doubts and all the bromances — it’s all fun. But actually in January, the show had only aired about halfway so we hadn’t seen that many episodes. The contestants themselves also knew how they came across and how they had been received. They had time to think about their food, practice and train. At the same time, they had also been out of practice because they weren’t in the heat of competition every single day anymore. But every season, they come to the finale quite different — charged, trained and having done everything they possibly could to prepare for what they know will always be a great battle.

But it’s hard to get back in the game. Even though they were exhausted, by the end of their time in New York, they were competing everyday, so they were in competition mode, and had gotten used to the kitchen they worked in and the circumstances. When you go home to your family, it can be like not practicing a language. If you don’t practice it every day, you start to forget it. That first Elimination challenge after coming back is always a hard one, and yesterday’s was compounded by some problems with the kitchen. It’s not like you’re going back to the same kitchen. You’re in a whole new kitchen that you have to get used to, so it’s almost like you’re at the very beginning. You’re also, in this case, in a foreign country that does not have the same access to ingredients, equipments and products. You need to change the way you think and can’t take anything for granted.

I think the kitchen fire was very frustrating. You can imagine how you’d feel, for example, if you were writing an article for a magazine and the computer crashed halfway through, and you had to start all over again. It’s quite disheartening. They’re fighting for their lives, trying to do the best they can to keep their energy up and to keep focus — and then this happens. What you didn’t see were several hours that went by when they had to re-shop, re-clean the kitchen and re-shoot that whole prep. It took a lot out of them. And they were cooking well into the night. We ate pretty late, but we’re used to that.

I just think the finale spooked Antonia and Carla. They were nervous. They were tired and trying to find their footing. They just couldn’t get focused in that first Elimination because of the circumstances and because we threw them for a loop. We told them they were cooking for royalty, and they were hoping to be brought to some great Bahamian palace. Instead, they were brought to a fish fry stand with the King of Junkanoo. It wasn’t as simple as it appeared in the beginning, and that always makes them nervous. I don’t think individually there was anything different between Antonia and Carla. I just think nerves got to both of them.

Carla made some silly decisions with her food. She decided to deep-fry the tenderloin because of the equipment the kitchen had there. It didn’t have great pots and pans; it had fires and flat tops. None of us can understand why, but she chose to deep fry her pork tenderloin. I guess she thought it would cook more evenly. But it did the opposite. Our pieces were every inconsistent. Even though she swore that the meat she served everyone else was cooked to the right temperature, some were and some weren’t, which made it inconsistent. Mine was specifically quite raw. While eating raw meat is unpleasant, eating raw pork doesn’t have the same danger it used to. The issue with raw pork used to be the possibility of trichinosis, and trichinosis doesn’t really exist anymore. I’m not about to eat a carpaccio of pork loin necessarily, but having a bite of it will rarely make you sick. Luckily, on our show, we make sure to source our meat from credible sources.

We can only judge Carla on what we knew and what we could see, and that’s all we had. It was that combined with the fact that the dish was quite out of balance. The sweet potatoes, the applesauce, the apple chips — all that was very sweet with the pork. There was nothing to counterbalance. Eric, especially, had a very big problem with the sweetness of the dish. The two of those factors combined sadly sent her home. I know we’re going to catch a lot of slack for that. Everyone’s upset, but you’re not upset because you ate the dish. You’re upset because you love Carla.

The difference between Antonia’s dish and Carla’s was that Carla’s was raw and totally out of balance. Those are major issues for a cook. If you can’t eat the dish, you can’t think well of the dish. Antonia’s was hardly as bad. The shrimp were dry, but they weren’t inedible. That’s a major difference right there. The meat in her grits was an odd choice. It didn’t go well, but the flavors weren’t jarring or out of whack. It wasn’t well thought through, but it wasn’t badly cooked. Her original dish sounded beautiful and there certainly would’ve been a way to make it more rustic, but she second-guessed herself. Changing her dish was completely her own prerogative, and we were happy to let them all have that choice because the fire threw everyone. They all were on an even playing field; they were all starting from scratch.

Tiffany’s dish was sort of forgettable. In fact, I wrote them all down, and I remember everyone’s, but now I have to go back and look at my notes because I literally don’t remember hers. It was fine. There was no major problem with it. But it wasn’t seasoned in a memorable way. It didn’t taste like curry, which we were hoping for to add some passion. This was not a winning dish, but it certainly was not a losing dish. But I’ll forget it tomorrow, and that’s not really what we’re going for.

I feel bad for Richard, but he really needs to get over himself and get some confidence. I love him dearly, and he’s so capable and talented, but I can only imagine that, to the other chefs, it’s getting tiresome hearing him hate on himself so much, and have so much doubt and self-loathing. I can’t believe he doesn’t know the difference between when he does a bad dish and when he does a good dish. I can’t believe that! I do understand that artistic process. I know it’s hard to have perspective on my own work whether I’m writing or cooking. But when it’s good, it’s good. It’s just when it’s bad, I don’t know how to change it. Even if he feels that way, he’s got to keep it to himself. If he does a great dish and is constantly ragging on himself, everyone’s going to want to hate him because they’ll be think, “Stop crying wolf. Poor little you, making great food and complaining about it,” which is really annoying if you’re a fellow contestant. If his dish is really bad, stop complaining, figure out what’s bad and fix it. Richard needs to work on that. But I’m not his therapist, so it’s not my problem.

In terms of his dish, I liked it. But I didn’t think it was as strong or cohesive as Mike’s. I think if he worked it out for a few more days, he would nail it. It was almost a perfectly articulated dish, but not 100 percent. The lamb was really great. I loved that mustard. The pickled turnip cannelloni was an interesting way to hold the meat, but we were split on whether we liked how it had turned out. If Richard did that dish again, I bet he would tweak it slightly and improve it to make it stronger. Maybe he needed to make the turnip thicker or marinate it more — that’s the experimental process. We try to not judge on what he could have done because it doesn’t really make sense. But I think we all would’ve liked another component to brighten up the dish. Maybe something green because it was a very heavy dish with the lamb, the turnip, the mustard and the braise. The turnip was meant to have some crunch, but because of the way he prepared it, it didn’t have as much crunch or counterbalance to the dish.

Mike’s dish was great — fun, creative, beautiful and tasty. The chicken was cooked perfectly. The lobster sauce was rich, really smooth and emulsified, and had a lot of depth. The earthiness of the mushrooms and yams complemented the dish. His seemed the most cohesive and articulated. He wouldn’t have to do much to it if he were to make it again. It was great the way it was. Mike certainly came into this finale with his game face on and ready to attack. He did a great job that night.

To all the Carla fans, we’re all Carla fans. I don’t think I know anyone who’s not a Carla fan. We are all proud of her. We know she’s capable of enormous success, and I know she’ll have that success with whatever she chooses to do. But bottom line: She didn’t make a good dish that night. She knew it and we knew it. She was not upset by that specific outcome. She totally understood. She knew she could do better because we’ve all seen her do better. She’s made some of the best dishes the entire season. I think that speaks volumes about her.

As for next week I can’t tell you much, but I can tell you what you won’t see: me in a bikini!

So, what did you guys think of the episode? How do you feel about Richard’s self-doubt? And were you surprised by last night’s outcome?

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