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Gail Simmons blogs 'Top Chef: All-Stars': Episode 14

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As told to Archana Ram.

For the Quickfire, I actually think Antonia and Tiffany had a better plan than Richard and Mike gave them credit for. Padma never told them they had to make something incredibly complicated. Obviously, there needs to be some thought and cooking, but they just wanted it to taste good. But both teams were smart to cook in large batches. Everything was the same, and that’s really important. Otherwise, you risk consistency.

Richard and Mike’s dish was more complex in terms of the cooking process. They needed to cook the vegetables and meat, which perhaps takes a little more finesse. On the other hand, Tiffany and Antonia’s dish had several more plating components. Richard and Mike, all they had to do once the sauce was made, was make the pasta, toss it all together and dump a spoonful onto the plate. There was no garnish, plating or presentation. Tiffany and Antonia, as much as theirs might’ve been a simpler plate from a cooking standpoint, it was a more complicated plate from a presentation standpoint. They had a dressing, a salad, which involved prepping the vegetables, and the meat placed on top. That took time and operational skill. I think they did a good job. I can see why they won. It was appealing as a small plate and a smart way to go about the challenge.

I’ve never worked with conch before, but I’ve eaten it and certainly know why it’s a difficult protein. It’s alive and clings to the shell when you take it out of the water. It has a tougher, chewier consistency and is quite thick and dense, so it needs to be finessed a little. It’s a hard thing to work with, not unlike lobster or anything else that you need to first take out of the shell. It was interesting that none of them had done that before. Even Richard and Mike, who had cooked with conch, had never cooked with it in its completely raw state. It was fun seeing them swim for it and then wrestle with it. It added an element to their challenge that energized them and stepped up their game.

It was interesting to see how everyone else at the table reacted to the conch compared to us. The four of us had no preconceived notion of how conch should be cooked. We were happy to get it any which way. The Bahamians have distinct notions. It’s like giving pizza to New Yorkers. And I was so surprised there was no sand in the food. I’m still, to this day, mesmerized by it. We’ve cooked outdoors with contestants a lot, and there’s inevitably sand in something. Everything was clean and fresh. The challenge reminded me a lot of season 6 when we made them cook in the desert — and what a disaster that was. There was so much sand in the food. I don’t know if it was because of the location or because these chefs are a little more experienced.

Richard did a very clever thing. He used sweet potato instead of regular pasta, and they were so thin and so beautifully presented that everyone else thought it was really pasta. I caught on that it was sweet potato because I got one with a little crunch that regular pasta wouldn’t have. Sweet potatoes are really starchy, so it’s a good substitute. I was really impressed that he thought to do that. Because it was raw, it didn’t lend too much sweetness. Instead, it had a subtle earthiness that went really well with the conch. It was smart and creative. I understand Richard’s worry of not doing something tropical because everyone else sort of was, but he used ingredients that were certainly of the area and made them his own. He was the only person to really do that.

I had that initial visceral reaction to Antonia’s dish because I got a big piece of chili. But that being said, I liked it. Even Tom, who usually doesn’t like spicy food, liked it. Spice was what she was going for. Bahamian people love spicy food. Everyone else at the table thought it was very reminiscent of the food they eat on the island. As a whole, her dish was fresh. Some people intimated that it was too simple, but she turned that around and said that’s her style, and I believe her. I would take a simply plated dish that has a lot of flavor and is cooked really well over a dish that might reach a little further but isn’t executed properly. What’s interesting about Antonia is she is really great at knowing her reach. She’s not trying to reinvent the wheel every time, but she always gives us good food that is thoughtful and really flavorful. Obviously we want the contestants to push themselves, but I think you can also do that by making sure that your food is well-seasoned, well-thought-through, and well-balanced. That’s all more important to me than the bells and whistles. Guaranteed, if you cook that way time and time again, your customers will leave happy. Hers wasn’t the most ambitious dish of the day, but it had a resounding appeal across our table.

As I said, I’d rather take a simple plate that’s great than an ambitious dish that has messy flaws, and Mike’s dish was the rare exception of getting both right. When faced with a dish that not only tastes great, but also presents a flavor that makes you think, that’s when food is most exciting to me. He took pineapple, appropriate to the Bahamas and a fruit that has a lot of acid, and he braised it. I’ve had pineapple baked, raw, and marinated, but I’ve never had it braised. He kept the sourness but eliminated a lot of the sugar, and in doing so made the pineapple meaty and savory. But it still had the sour counterpoint that went really well with the fattiness of the pancetta in the vinaigrette.

Although Tom thought the butter wasn’t necessary and made it greasy, I liked it because the butter and pancetta added a richness that the pineapple played off of. It cut the grease, and I found it really well-balanced. The reason butter isn’t used in hot tropical climates is because it’s heavy and adds a creaminess, and when you think of the tropics, you don’t think of creams; you think of oils. Tom was saying that it didn’t need that added richness. If he had eliminated the butter and used olive oil, Tom thought it would’ve been just as good if not better. I’m not disagreeing with Tom but the butter didn’t bother me. Either way, we all loved the dish. The fish was soft and flavorful, and the conch itself was in big enough pieces that we got the taste. But the banana leaf made the dish. Unlike Elia, who steamed the banana leaf in the first episode, Mike grilled it, and the oils from the leaf added another flavor altogether — a nutty smokiness. That was fantastic. It penetrated into the fish and pineapple. I don’t even know if it was intentional, but he must’ve had some inkling. I really found this dish to be interesting and exciting. For me, picking Mike’s as the winner wasn’t difficult. We always want to be fair, so we talk about the pros and cons of everyone’s dishes. But none of us could argue that that dish wasn’t the most exciting and unique. He pushed himself in a way that really impressed us.

We take every dish on its own merit, and Tiffany could’ve made anything. A conch chowder, a play on clam chowder, is actually a great idea. The question wasn’t: Was it appropriate for the Caribbean? For me, it was: How is the soup affected by the temperature? Picture yourself in Boston, eating a classic, piping hot clam chowder — which I do in the summertime in Boston even when it’s 95 degrees — and then think of eating that clam chowder cold. That’s kind of disgusting if you think about it. Soup, specifically soup meant to be hot, changes a lot when the temperature isn’t what it should be. When it cools down, the soup, especially when there’s a lot of fat in it — cream and coconut milk in this case — becomes greasy and the flavors come across very differently. I think the temperature affected her dish a lot. Regardless of where we are, I don’t want to eat cold conch chowder. But her intention wasn’t to serve cold conch chowder. I’ve tasted enough chowders to know that if it was hot, it would’ve been a lot different of an experience.

The other flaw was that she then put raw conch on top of the soup, which if the chowder was hot, would’ve been very strange. If it was hot, the ceviche wouldn’t have stayed cold. That was a strange idea. You want a ceviche to taste clean and bright. That was a problem with the conception of the dish. And then the execution problem was that she plated it too early. There was quite a wind, so the soup got cold and lost a lot of its integrity on its way to the table. They had a grill and all these ingredients. Was soup the best idea in this case? Probably not. When I look at a grill, I don’t think soup. If she was making a cold soup, that would be a different story. But with a hot soup, there were obstacles, like the flame and the distance to the table. There were too many variables, and she lost control. Soup is a strange choice in general, unless you’re sitting right in front of the fire.

Of the four dishes, which one left us with the least enthusiasm? Which had the least technical skills? Tiffany’s answered that question for us, but not without a lot of debate and sadness because we all know how fantastic she is as a person and chef. We did deliberate for a long time for this challenge. It wasn’t totally clear, and we liked them all. But in the end, we felt fair about our decision. I’m glad it getting harder for us to decide. We always say we’re splitting hairs, but the last few challenges, it’s really anyone’s game. Next week is set in one of the most beautiful indoor spaces we’ve ever shot, and it’s also one of the most stressful challenges we have ever produced.

What did you guys think of the episode? How do you feel about our picks for the night’s winner and loser?

Photo: Bravo