(As told to Archana Ram) The biggest challenge as a responsible adult cooking for kids is you want to make it nutritious and taste great, too. The problem is a child’s palate always wants the sweetest, junkiest foods and that can trip people up, which is what it did for many people in last night’s Quickfire. It was difficult for our chefs to separate what they were being asked to do: Cook something for the kids that would be chosen by the adults – at least for the first half of the challenge.
Joe Jonas – heartthrob, musician extraordinaire – narrowed it to the top two and we let the diners decide, and of course they went for the more sugary dessert, but it was also the most fun. There was no problem with Tiffani’s being sugary because we didn’t tell her not to make it sugary. That wasn’t the challenge at hand. It was supposed to be a fun decadent treat. Hers was fun and played to familiar flavors in a new form the kids probably hadn’t seen before.
Being the one who usually is the one who tastes things, I know there’s more to the dishes than I was able to get as a viewer. I always say, “You know why I know that I made the right decision? Because I was there.” Unfortunately, that’s the tricky part of our show. Our viewers don’t get to taste the food. They need us to be their taste buds. So I had to trust the taste buds of a certain teen heartthrob in this instance.
Actually, we’ve been quite amazed by the onslaught of love people in Hollywood have for the show. Tom and I met Joe at the White House Correspondents and at a party at the French Consulate. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and there was Joe Jonas! He was so excited to talk about the show and had all these great challenge ideas. I was like, are you trying to produce our show right now? But he was clearly an enthusiastic food lover and fan of the show. We traded restaurant recommendations and emails, and when we told our producers he was a fan, I guess they hooked it up.
I had spent a lot of time at the Natural History Museum just about a month before because my nephew had been in New York City for his 10th birthday. It’s an iconic place and sort of a fantasy world. Their food is run by a quite conscientious food and catering company, so they do a lot of good stuff in-house.
Overall, I think both teams did a pretty good job considering the limited nature of the two diets and how little sleep they were running on. To give you a sense: It was a little after midnight when Tom gave them the challenge, then there was time for lighting and set changes, and they must’ve gone to bed at 3 a.m. and got up at 4 to start making breakfast. We had to be finished with the challenge by the time the museum opened at 10.
The Brontosaurus team pushed themselves quite a bit. We were impressed with the flavor combination, the depth of flavor, and the diversity of what the Brontosaurus team did. There was an enormous amount of knife work and precision. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had terrible gnocchi on Top Chef. The only good gnocchi I can think of on Top Chef to date besides this episode was when Michael Chiarello made us gnocchi in the finale of Masters’ first season. He had the luxury of a good night’s sleep, a sous chef, the Top Chef kitchen, and the fact that he’s been making gnocchi for 25 years.
Carla and Spike’s gazpacho had a ton of knife work and a great balance of flavors. It was fresh and bright. We could see all that went into the banana parfait. The fruit was cut beautifully in perfect proportions. The banana puree took skill; they didn’t just put it in a blender and call it a day. They roasted fruit. Each piece was perfectly placed. It was a beautiful plate of food and tasted the best of anything we ate that day. It was all just done well.
Without a doubt, there were more flaws on the T-Rex team. I know they had meat, eggs, and cheese, and meat requires more cooking than fruits and vegetables, but I don’t think they did anything more difficult than what the other team did. Tre’s sauce was over-reduced, which made it incredibly intense and salty. Antonia and Tiffany’s frittatas were inconsistent in their doneness. Tiffani and Dale’s steak and eggs were actually pretty great – unoriginal, but pretty great. The Hollandaise was nice, smooth, and unbroken.
And then there was Jen and Jamie’s braised pork belly and hard-boiled egg. Ultimately we thought all of the flaws made by Jen were greater than Tre’s sauce. As much as his dish was salty, I could still eat and understand it. But I couldn’t get through Jen’s braised pork belly. We all unanimously came to that decision. In its entirety, it wasn’t something we wanted to eat.
As for Fabio and Stephen’s gnocchi, it was no more or less appropriate than salmon with shrimp and bacon sauce. And actually potatoes, mushroom, and spinach – the components of their gnocchi – are pretty appropriate for me. I eat all of those with my breakfast all the time. The gnocchi was like a soft, pillowy hash brown – perfectly fine. The appropriateness of the breakfast dishes was never on the table for either team. Every dish everyone made was perfectly appropriate. I can’t say it enough, it’s about whether the dish tasted good. At the end of the day, again, did the gnocchi taste good? It tasted fantastic actually.
Jen’s didn’t. I know viewers are so disappointed. We all are. The truth is: We need to judge on what was the best and worst dish of the day. If it’s your first time at a restaurant and you have an incredible meal, you’re going to go back. But if you go and have a terrible meal on your first go, you’re never going back. Restaurants don’t get another chance when you’re a diner. Every single time has to be great. It’s actually very real to the world of restaurant reviewing. You can’t allow the chefs to rest on their laurels and say, “Well, Jen did a really good dish two episodes ago.” Then what’s the point of having new challenges if you’re allowed to base your conceptions on what they did in the past? The only way to make the show fair is to wipe the slate clean every week.
Jen’s dish wasn’t good and why do we know it? Because we were there and we tasted it. We always survey our diners to see what they think, but at the end of the day, for an Elimination challenge, we decide and often don’t agree with what they think. In this case, we all did. No one at the museum liked Jen’s dish. It was pretty unanimous. The pork belly was unappealing, overpowering, fell apart and had no textural counterpoints. The hard-boiled egg was totally forgettable. It wasn’t a good plate of food or something we would’ve ordered in the first place. And that’s what it comes down to: What dish do you want to eat again and what dish do you never want to see again?
When Jen defended her pork belly at judges’ table, the vibe was pretty tense, but not because we were angry. We just wished we could’ve sat down with her and explained it, but she was so convinced that her dish was good that there was nothing we could say that was going to convince her otherwise. If some of us liked it and some of us didn’t, perhaps her rant could’ve changed things, but no amount of yelling at us about how good her dish was was going to make us change our minds. Her dish, unfortunately, was the weakest dish of the day.
We understand. We don’t blame her. In fact we applaud [that she stood up for her food], as Tom said. We often wonder why our chefs don’t talk back. I think that’s partially because, in the beginning, they’re intimidated. But this time around, they all know us pretty well and they’re comfortable giving us a piece of their mind, which is great because it evokes better conversation.
In theory it may have been a brilliant dish, but this version wasn’t a success in the context of this challenge. That’s not to say she isn’t a great chef in her own right. I have no worries about Jen’s success in the future. And I think she knows that because I’ve spoken to her since. We were sitting in a quiet moment and she said, “I hope you know that I didn’t mean it personally when I got so angry at judges’ table.” And I said, “Jen, I cannot even imagine what you went through that night, and I know that it must have been amazingly hard because of what a fierce passionate person you are, and rest assured it wasn’t personal from us either.” And then we proceeded to have some cocktails and have a good night.
I know whenever we eliminate a woman, we’re called sexist. Whenever we eliminate an African-American, we’re called racist. I am neither American nor a man and I do not believe we’re either of those things. The professional restaurant industry is not an equal industry and that’s a fact. There are more men working in professional kitchens than women. On Top Chef, we purposefully start our season with an equal number of men versus women. That actually stacks the deck for women. So if you think about the fact that only one woman has won across our seasons, that’s actually pretty accurate to the industry, for better or worse. What I always say, sadly, is, can you name five women in New York City who own multiple restaurant empires? Can you name any men? Unfortunately, it’s an unfair reality. I think we’ve made incredible strides in the last few decades, and I’m a ferocious advocate for women in the restaurant world. So it’s upsetting, but it’s the truth.
Every week will be controversial and difficult to digest – pun intended. There are no good [eliminee] options. Every single member of the cast is talented and interesting, and we’re all invested in them. There’s never a good elimination this season.
What did you guys think of the episode? Sound off below – I want to hear what you think!