Gail Simmons blogs 'Top Chef:' Guns, gondolas and ice picks...let the games begin!
As told to Nuzhat Naoreen.
[Shooting in the cold weather] changes the way you cook, especially when you actually have to cook outside, which we made the cooks do, for better or for worse. It also just allowed us to do so many different things for the challenges that we’ve never done before. [We were able to] have [the contestants] face a complete extreme opposite situation than they faced in Texas. We went from 116 degrees everyday to 20 degrees, which was a bit of a shock for all of us.
[In terms of the gondola challenge], altitude affects the rate at which things cook, it affects the rate at which water boils, and if you’re not used to it and don’t account for it, it really will change a cook time. So, when you only have 22 seconds and you need to get water boiling, you need to make a sauce, you need to sear your meat, you really need to pay close attention or the results will not be what you expect.
Lindsay did a few things that I thought were really smart [in that challenge]. First of all, she was able to get a great sear on the salmon skin. It was crispy, it was cooked beautifully. She also made this beautiful risotto with chorizo and a little bit of crème fraiche and quinoa, which I thought was really creative and sort of lent itself well to being a sauce for the dish. It had great flavor that I had never seen before. It was creative and worked, you know? It didn’t sound like it was going to be delicious, but it looked great and it tasted even better.
I thought it was very smart of Beverly [to do a cold dish]. There was nowhere in the rules where we said they couldn’t. They’re in the middle of winter [and] doing something cold is just one less thing to worry about, but just because it was cold doesn’t mean it was easy. [To make] a really great tartar, you have to take a lot of things into account. There’s a lot of really serious knife work that needs to happen to make a good tartar. Every piece needs to be the perfect little brunoise, and on a moving gondola, that’s not an easy thing to do. You also have to season very differently when things are cold, because things taste differently at different temperatures, and when things are warm, the flavor comes out much more. When they’re cold, you need to season more aggressively and carefully so that you can actually really taste the flavor of the food, and Beverly did that really, really well.
Compared to the other two, [Sarah’s dish] just wasn’t that interesting. She took a piece of pre-made chorizo and seared it. She made a bit of a sauce with it. The gooseberry was a great idea and lended some great pop that was a good counterpoint to the fatty sausage, but it didn’t take the same amount of skill and it just wasn’t as interesting as Beverly or Lindsay’s dishes were.
It’s been a long time, if ever, that we’ve seen Paul at the very bottom of a challenge. He had a lot of obstacles in his path. He’s afraid of heights and he gets sick in moving vehicles, so [the challenge] was certainly not an easy thing for him to do. His dish wasn’t bad, but the main issue with it was that he couldn’t cook his lamb properly, so to compensate, because it wasn’t getting the sear he wanted, he took it off the bone, cut it in half, and then put it back in the pan, which caused it to be cooked very unevenly. So when you looked at it, first of all, it was just gray and unappetizing. Second of all, it was sort of cooked on one side very well and then the other side was still a bit pink, and it just didn’t taste good because of that.
The ice pick challenge was insane, I can’t believe we put our chefs through it. Thank goodness Paul redeemed himself, he really did. He also managed to help his fellow contestants, because really, what that challenge took more than anything else was brute force to get the food out of those solid blocks of ice, and the other two – I mean, it was just so much harder than I think the other two imagined. So he helped them and then he made his own dish, and he did it very well. He made this beautiful king crab dish with a mango chutney and brown butter, all great flavors and together they were even better.
It was [exciting to see Beverly and Sarah in the final two] especially because leading up to it, there was so much tension between [them]. They didn’t see eye to eye, they didn’t really get along, and I think in a lot of ways, Sarah didn’t really respect Beverly. But no one can say that Beverly did not prove herself in this episode. Beverly may not have a lot of confidence. She comes across, as Paul said, as a little bit meek and she doesn’t seem to be as powerful a cook as she is when she gets going. I mean, she skied like crazy, she can shoot a rifle like nobody’s business. I mean, do not cross her. I was amazed at what a great job she did in this challenge, and throughout the whole episode, actually. She really worked hard, she used every ounce of strength she had in her, and she did really well the whole way through. At the end it just came down to which of those two dishes were better, and I think Sarah did just a slightly better job.
Sarah’s dish was really hearty, it was so appropriate [for] a cold, wintry night. It had a great combination of flavors: cherries, hazelnut, rabbit, and cabbage, which she made into a sauerkraut puree. I thought that was so smart, and it really tasted great. She thought to cook that rabbit in a way that made it really delicious and hearty, and her sauce had a ton of flavor.
There were a couple of flaws to Beverly’s dish that you actually didn’t see. She left a piece of lemon that she was cooking with on the fish that wasn’t supposed to be there and her fish was a little overcooked. But she had great ingredients, she’s a very strong cook, and even though she went home, I am so, so proud of how well she did.
We’re headed to Vancouver [next week], one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It also has amazing Chinese food, Thai food, Japanese food, and so we get to see a lot of that. The next two challenges are even harder than this, if you can believe [that]. They are exciting and they are freezing and there is a lot of warm clothing to be worn.