'Top Chef' finale: Gail Simmons on choosing the winner
As told to Nuzhat Naoreen.
It was a great season. It felt different for all of us, partially because of the chefs and the locations and some of the challenges that were so special. It was very memorable for me. I’m excited that we have a winner but I’m also sad it had to end.
[The finale challenge is different from] restaurant wars because one chef is in charge, as opposed to a team that’s involved. This has nothing to do with any of the other contestants, this is one chef’s vision, personality, and culinary style. It really gets to showcase who they are as chefs. We [had a similar finale challenge] for season 8 All-Stars as well. We realized that it’s just a much more realistic challenge for chefs of this caliber. It used to be that they’d have to cook for 10 or 15 of us [in the finale, and] serve everyone at once banquet style. But that’s not what a chef does in a restaurant every day. They have to serve many, many people and every batch of food, every plate that goes out has to be the same and has to be consistent. This really mimicked a restaurant experience much more. As the chefs get better every season we really change the finale.
We loved [that the sous chefs] had to cook their way in. Our finalists had to taste [the dishes] blindly and what’s great about that is that they then get to see how hard it is for us. We don’t have to taste [food] blindly but the idea is that the only thing that matters is what’s on this dish. You can’t base it on how you know they cook or how they are as a person, all you have to judge on is what’s in front of you. As you can see, they don’t necessarily always pick who they think they’re going to pick. The same goes for us when we’re judging, so it kind of puts them in our shoes in a way. I think it’s really smart because they end up choosing chefs really based on their culinary skill — not on who they’re friends with.
We [included chefs Barbara Lynch and Marco Canora] to throw people for a loop. We had never done it before and we wanted to see how it would turn out. I think it was great. They chose Barbara but not Marco. I bet they were all kicking themselves because Marco is an amazing, amazing chef. He worked for Tom for I want to say 10 years. He was Tom’s executive chef opening Craft restaurant and now he has Hearth that is really a special place in New York. They missed a good opportunity there but everyone’s palate is a little different and you only have one bite to base it on. We gave [Lindsay, Ed, and Beverly] a break [from the sous chef challenge]. They were still recovering from the gondola [challenge] I think.
The crowning course on Sarah’s menu was the first course, I think. I know that a lot of other people liked her dessert, but I preferred Paul’s dessert. Sarah’s first course — the spot prawn tartar over this gorgeous squid ink pasta — was just beautiful. It had heat, it had sweetness from the prawns, and the pasta, in Sarah’s signature style, was perfect. I thought it was such a successful dish. For me, and I was in the minority on my team, her weakest dish was still the veal cheeks. It didn’t fly for me. A lot of people really adored it [and] I commend her for stretching herself with that dish. When she spoke to us about her menu, which I don’t really think they showed in the episode, she said she wanted to show her German-Italian cooking style, but she also wanted to show us how much she’d learned along the way from her fellow contestants. She put a bunch of little nods to [the other contestants], and using the dashi — a very classic Japanese ingredient — was a big stretch for her. It was a little nod to Paul, which was so brave and so generous of her as a chef. I appreciated it [but] I personally didn’t think it worked. Forgetting all the other pieces of the dish and whether the polenta was good or not, for me [the dashi] detracted [from] what I wanted from that dish. It added a saltiness and a brininess and a bit of fishiness. I understand where she was coming from but for me it didn’t work. It really wasn’t pleasing to eat and the textures were very, very soft. You know the polenta, persimmons puree, sweetbreads, and veal cheeks all just sort of melted into one muddled dish and it was my least favorite.
We all had a lot to say about Sarah in the most positive way [at the judges table]. I really do think she took greater risks and with risks you can have great reward and you also stand to lose a little more, but I’m proud of her for that. She also showed us how technically skilled she is in so many different ways, the precision of how she cooked the fish, that lovely roasted white chocolate dessert with hazelnut and cherry. To me that first pasta course was Sarah in a nutshell — brave, creative, but really rooted in the element of modern Italian cooking.
There were so many things [I enjoyed about Paul’s dishes]. Chawanmushi is a very difficult thing to make and it was perfect. I’ve only eaten it once or twice before in very different ways, and it was so special with that spot prawn. I thought it was brilliant, I really did. I actually learned that [he had to swap out the crab for prawn] much later on, after I had eaten it. It doesn’t matter to me, that was so smart. Thank goodness he had the foresight to do that, that’s how a great chef should think. You taste it and if you have any hesitation you change your game and you’re flexible and adaptable.
[Paul’s] grilled sea bass was also unbelievable. We had a bit of a split on the dessert. The other side of the judges table didn’t like his dessert because the batch they got was not really the same as ours. I guess their rice was overcooked. I thought his dessert was simple and smart and really had that perfect balance between spicy, sour, sweet, and salty, which I think is a great accomplishment of Asian cooking. It was all in every bite. He made a couple of mistakes too. There was that inconsistency issue with the chawanmushi. There was an argument to be made about the fact that he did two egg courses essentially, the chawanmushi and then the congee with scrambled egg. I liked that course a lot, I just thought it was a strange choice considering he had already shown us an egg course, then he did a second one that was similar. But when we talked the whole thing out, course by course, element by element, overall, by a hair, we thought that Paul’s menu and the execution of his food was just a little more complete.
[We started deliberation] at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. [and] I think we were there until 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m. There was a breakfast taco truck waiting for us when we finished. It’s never cut and dry. We all saw great sparks of talent in both menus [and] none of us could deny that both were great. It’s always a back and forth. What’s interesting about this judges table is that it was the first time ever in nine seasons that we had five judges. We were basically squishing in at judges table. It changed the balance of things a little bit and I thought it was really productive actually to have an odd number because it really does create a different dialogue, a different conversation.
How do we [decide who’s Top Chef]? We talk, we talk, we talk. We go through every element and we go through them again. There’s so many things to be said about every course and there’s so much that I may think when I eat something but then when I talk to people who ate it and experienced it differently they bring up things I hadn’t thought about. I learn from them, they learn from me. We discuss elements and often someone will have a really convincing argument that you understand and that makes sense. So it’s just a process from beginning to end. That’s why it takes so long. We talk it out, we really do. Sometimes to the point of exhaustion, where we turn to our producers and say, “Please come on, help us out here.”
I love Sarah. I’m going to Chicago next week I can’t wait to see her. It could have been either of them [but] I feel very confident in our decision. I feel fantastic [that Paul won]. I mean look, over the course of the season, Paul won like $45,000 or $60,000 in prizes, he won a car, he won a trip to Costa Rica. There’s a reason he’s Top Chef. It’s not that we based our decision on his past [winnings], but clearly the guy is an über-talent. So it’s not a massive surprise to anyone that Paul won, but he still had to prove it and he still had to do it all every step of the way and never let himself slip. I’m extraordinarily proud of him. I think he’s a great leader. Not only is he an excellent cook but he carried himself through this competition with dignity and integrity at every moment, and again that has nothing to do with our judging, but I’m just saying in the aftermath that I’m happy he’s the Top Chef. I’m going to be in Austin in April with [Paul] at a festival, so I’m pretty excited to get to hang out with him a little bit and be able to actually have a conversation.
Next up, now that Top Chef is done, I am on a book tour for my first book, Talking With My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater. I actually watched the finale from Seattle in the middle of my tour. It talks a lot about Top Chef, how we come to our decisions, how it all started, and it’s a lot of fun.