Gail Simmons blogs 'Top Chef All-Stars': Episode 1
Image Credit: Kelsey McNeal/BravoHi, guys! Welcome to my very first Top Chef All-Stars blog!*
All too often, a fan favorite or a person who we know is really excellent doesn't win. So I think Bravo thought, "Let's bring back all those people—who we're constantly being asked about, who are on our radar, who we know our audience loves—to compete against each other." This season, there's nothing separating the best from the weakest.
I have nothing to do with the casting process, but when All-Stars was announced, people were writing and tweeting me about Kevin Gillespie and Brian Voltaggio [from season 6], two of the most compelling characters and the most talented chefs we've ever had. It would've been pretty amazing to see them compete. And I'm sure Sam Talbot would've been a great competitor. There are so many people I would've loved to have seen who either weren't available or perhaps weren't even asked.
As for those who made it, I was curious to see how the familiarity factor played out. I became friendly with many of the contestants after they left the show, and the culinary world is a small place, so once you're on Top Chef, you become a part of this family. When we first walked on the set in The Russian Tea Room and I saw them all, I had this instinct to run up to them — "Hey! How are you? How's your wife? How's your son?" — but of course I had to stop myself. But it's almost easier to be impartial because there's no one who can claim any sort of edge when they're all that good.
The contestants also arrived in a different head space. They certainly weren't as intimidated as they had been first time around. They were more open to our criticism, talked back a little more, and asked more questions. They all knew what it was like to pack their knives or make it really far in the competition. We all knew what we were in for, and that allowed us to just concentrate on the food—making it, eating it and being challenged by it.
Now getting to the episode at hand!
Most of the contestants did a good job in the Quickfire, but some fell back on clichés. The real challenge, though, didn't lie in the ingredients; it was about working as a team in a short time. The fact that they had to make a dish to represent their city was just an excuse to get them working together. But I wouldn't have done a hot dog for Chicago. Of all the places we've filmed, Chicago was definitely one of my favorites. Chicago has an amazing underground cocktail scene and a really avant-garde chef movement, and maybe I would've done something as an ode to that.
As for the New York team, their biggest flaw was that they didn't work together — and that's always going to show on the plate. Plus, there's so much more about New York than apples—the immigrant experience, New York as the gateway to America. They could've gone a little deeper, but ultimately, the themes were secondary to working together.
As judges, we tried to keep our mouths shut and let the contestants talk during the Elimination challenge because we didn't want to give too much away about what we thought until we could discuss at judges' table. When the second group came in, it was tense because they had just heard us say things they didn't like about their dishes. That was clear between Fabio and Anthony Bourdain. But as much as we let them talk and critique, that was just a way to create tension and hear their voices. It didn't necessarily influence us.
When I eat the dishes, I just need one or two bites. I try each component on the plate individually then a bite of everything together, and I definitely drink a lot of water along the way. We were at The Russian Tea Room for three hours, but you saw five minutes, so it was a trip down memory lane. I had eaten most of the 18 dishes before, and some I had eaten five years before, and I was amazed by how well I remembered them, like Dale T.'s butterscotch scallops and of course Spike's scallops. You could never forget those. I think [Spike] did such a brilliant job of making it better. I loved that he had a sense of humor with it. I knew exactly what he was doing. And Richard's pork belly and Casey's pork belly—both were redeemed for sure. Both had been a problem of execution, not conception like other dishes, and they both knew exactly how to fix them.
Unfortunately, Richard did go over the time. We went back to the tapes many times before we decided that we couldn't allow him to win, but it certainly wasn't something he'd be eliminated for. Other contestants saw that he went over and we needed to be fair to all of them. His was just an honest mistake.
I don't remember how long we were at judges' table, but on average it takes 5 to 6 hours when it's not a finale or really heated discussion. Especially with the first episode, we have so much to get through. Last night's took 6 to 7 hours, and that included everything, like lighting.
We all loved Angelo's dish when we ate it in Singapore a few months ago, but there were glaring mistakes to it then. It was a conception problem. We knew that he saw there was a connection between the pork, noodles and watermelon, and that there was something interesting going on there. He just didn't nail it in Singapore, and we had talked to him about it at length at judges' table in the finale. Angelo had probably worked that dish over in his head 50,000 times since Singapore. When he lost, he was probably devastated that he got sick and couldn't perform to his potential, and it was a huge blow when he didn't win season 7. That feeling was still raw for him. He didn't have the luxury of time to forget about it.
There had been this weak infusion of tea, and Angelo knew to take it out and instead put that watermelon back in in a much stronger way and bump up the flavors of the whole dish. The handmade noodles were absolutely perfect. He constructed the dish in a much easier way to eat, so each bite had all of the flavors instead of taking a bite and getting just one thing. It really felt organic.
The bottom three were all bad. I think that with Fabio and Stephen there were execution problems, but more so conception problems. I don't think their dishes were ever going to be perfect. They needed to be tweaked, especially Stephen's, which had 2,000 components. That said, there was so much to his dish that we were all impressed with how much he was able to get done and how many techniques he was able to show, which is why we didn't eliminate him.
None of us were fans of the paper on Fabio's plate. I certainly wasn't as bothered by it as Tony was, but I did understand his issue with it. Because he put it out on a platter with that paper (as opposed to in a bowl), it looked sloppy. You didn't understand what the paper was adding, and it hindered instead of enhancing. It was always going to be muddy unless he changed the way he cooked certain ingredients. I would've kept some of the crab pieces whole. The kind of pasta, which is so integral to that type of dish, was probably not the best choice. It was this fresh pasta that's so delicate, and it fell apart and added to the mushiness. But he did show us that he had a mastery of the technique he was trying to achieve. For that sake, he did do it correctly. Whether or not we liked it was a whole different story. There are two parts to judging: Do we like how it tastes? And was it done properly? We understood that Fabio had a grasp of what he was doing.
Unfortunately we felt Elia made no attempt to improve on her dish. She really made the dish exactly as she had made it previously — with very slight changes that weren't enough to make it interesting. There was little personality in the dish and that was the case the first time around. Stephen and Fabio's dishes showed us a boldness, something of them that we didn't see in Elia. Because of the inconsistency in the tealeaf and perhaps the way her fish was cut, a lot of her pieces were completely undercooked.
When she made that last-minute plea not to be eliminated, it was heart-wrenching. The contestants certainly had a lot more gumption this time around! But there's not much you can do once you're already in front of us, unless you have a really good piece of information we never knew before and can really justify why you did something. Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding.
We know Elia is talented. We know all the contestants are talented. There was no one to eliminate who would've made it easy. That's how it's going to be all season. They're all that much further along in their careers. They have a lot more to gain in terms of their reputation and also a lot more to lose.
What did you think of the first episode of Top Chef All-Stars? Sound off below — I'd love to hear your thoughts!
*As told to Archana Ram