As told to Archana Ram.
Carla won the Quickfire because she did something fresh and interesting but also something she had created herself. I think that’s what we’re always looking for, something that tastes good, is based in technique and appealing but you can still put your own spin on it. That’s why Tiffany was in the bottom. She just made nachos. There was nothing interesting about them. There was nothing different about them. It didn’t show any part of her personality. Carla, on the other hand, even though what she did was simple, she used them in a fresh way. She used that carrot juice. She infused rosemary from the rosemary potato chips and then she made a salad that was nice. It proves that you can make something out of nothing even when you’re given what seems like very basic ingredients. A good chef can come up something that’s refreshing, healthy and light. It doesn’t need to be pureed hot dogs.
But Mike’s bread soup looked disgusting. There are definitely soups that call for the use of bread, like classic gazpacho, which has stale bread in it that’s used to thicken it. I think he took inspiration from that, but he was grasping for straws, let’s be honest. I’m just glad I didn’t have to taste it.
The Elimination dinner was a family meal but much more emotional and personal than the Jimmy Fallon family dinner. It didn’t have the humor, but it wasn’t supposed to. It was a really wonderful feast. First of all, the food was great. But the chefs had just come from the last 48 hours of a really emotional experience. The chefs were really at the end of their ropes and had been running this race for so long and are so exhausted. At that point, they didn’t think they had one creative thought left in their brains. Seeing their parents and spouses energized them and really made the event special. I don’t think we would’ve eaten the food we ate that night and it wouldn’t have been as good if those people hadn’t been sitting at the table. They really were the source of inspiration. It was quite a serious dinner. We were joking and talking, but I think all of their families and loved ones were so nervous for the chefs and rooting for them. You could feel the tension in the air, but there was also a lot of love. It was the perfect end to our time in New York. It also spoke so much to what makes up America. These chefs are really diverse. It worked perfectly for that reason.
Antonia’s mom was just a hoot and so passionate. I’ve spent a little time with Matthew (Carla’s husband) and Jazmin (Richard’s wife), so it was nice to sit next to old friends in a way. Tiffany’s mom was so much like Tiffany. You felt like it was like looking at Tiffany several years in the future, which was amazing. She was soft-spoken and had that infectious smile and laugh. And you could tell Mike’s mom was so proud of him. She had really been such a major pillar in is life. When he cried at Judges’ Table, he showed a really great moment. We were all quiet and thoughtful because you could see the challenge had really affected him. It affected all of us. I watched the show on the couch with my husband and I was resting against his shoulder so I couldn’t see him. We both started crying – and I even knew the outcome! Then I looked at my husband to make fun of myself for crying, and he was crying, too! There was one little tear falling out of my husband’s eye. And he was like, “I cannot believe that your show had brought me to tears!” It was really authentic, which made the food so good, too.
When we cooked on the naval base in Las Vegas that was an emotional episode for all of us because we were cooking for the troops. We’ve had emotional moments when the contestants have cried or been upset, but this episode was an amazing breakthrough for all of us. It was the end of our All-Star season and it was so perfect that we brought it back to their families and their inspiration for being chefs in the first place. We couldn’t have scripted it better ourselves. But on to the food! Every dish felt very soulful. Every dish was steeped in tradition, but every one gave their dishes a modern twist and a bit of themselves, which was the point of the challenge. Mike’s gnocchi had a great textural component. The gnocchi had a pillowy texture There were some greens in the ragu that gave it bitterness and texture. The burrata gave it creaminess. It was wonderful.
Risotto and gnocchi are both things that need to be served à la minute, and there’s a lot of potential for failure – if it’s heavy, gluten-y, if you overcook the rice, if you undercook the rice. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of bad risotto on the show, but Antonia did a beautiful job. It was soupy enough, had enough moisture, the rapini and fava beans were a great choice because it lent bitterness and seasonality. The braised osso buco gave it rusticity and its gravitas. It was a great balance between light, springy flavors and the deep flavors of the braise.
Tiffany’s plate was very southern, as opposed to the Italian dishes of cousin Mike and cousin Antonia. Her roots are in that part of the country. It was great to see how she took inspiration not only from her docket in Staten Island, but also from her mother and the years spent in her mother’s kitchen. Her mother is an accomplished cook and cooked a lot of those things. It was a great homage to her mom that she remained true to them in some respects but then gave us something extra, like that oxtail marmalade, which was so delicious and rich. The okra was great. It was smart cooking.
I think Richard did something modern and interesting. The plating was beautiful with the short rib and then using the glassworts. I had never heard them called glassworts. I used to cook with them and we called them sea beans. They’re a green, crunchy, salty little bite. But he pickled them, which is nontraditional and then paired them with short ribs, bone marrow and potatoes, which are all very earthy. That pickled glasswort was kind of ingenuous. The saltiness cut the rich fattiness of the rest of the dish. It also gave us a crunch and something green. Yet it all felt like it made a lot of sense for the part of the world that he was talking about – Ireland and England. It still felt very much like Richard. I assure you, that pairing with pickled glassworts was not done by his ancestors. It had roots in Ireland with the potatoes. Then there was an American component, that corn puree, which moved us from the Old World to the New World. And the glassworts tied the whole thing together and made it feel modern. It was a great trajectory all on one plate.
Carla was worried about the biscuits, but they were fantastic. She had nothing to be worried about. And she served them in a smart way. We touched on this in the episode, but the fact that she brought them out separately and put them in the center of the table and let us pass it around – it’s little touches like that that she might not have even thought about that added so much to the purpose of the challenge because it made us feel like we were sitting down at our own family table and sharing together. They were homey, simple and had a great cheddar and buttery taste. Her grit cake was really smart and cool. Instead of having soft grits, she made them into a cake and fried them so there was a crunch and caramelization that was really good. And then those traditional southern flavors – the sweet potatoes, corn, braised pork shoulders. It was really soulful. I counted how many times we said “soulful” and it was maybe 7 or 8 times in the episodes. But that’s what this challenge was about – that connection to your soul. This is such a great example of how food brings people together.
Everyone had such nice things to say about the food, but we were all with people’s family members. We, as judges, also were on our best behavior. We had to go back to Judges’ Table, duke it out and find fault. But in all honesty, there was not a lot fault to be had. And thank god it was like that across the board because if there had been one person who had really messed up, it would’ve been awful because everyone was so generous with their praise. It was just honest. Everyone was feeling a little lovey-dovey and emotional, so we were all probably giving off exaggerated praise in some way. Everyone was feeding off each other and the energy of the dinner table. But it was true and heartfelt. Plus, the food was good, and when it’s good, it’s good. Everything made sense on every plate we ate that night. Sure, there were tiny little missteps along the way – something that was slightly over-salted or something that was plated in a way that didn’t make quite as much sense as if it had been incorporated better – but nothing was worth discriminating against. If I had received any of those dishes in a restaurant, I would’ve been very pleased with my meal and happy to pay a lot of money for it.
I think we all realized in eating Antonia’s food that there was a simplicity in it that spoke for itself. She did two things: She made a risotto and she braised veal. Everyone else had many more components on their dishes. But her dish was so perfectly crafted that you could really tell the time, energy and focus she had spent on those two components. It felt ancient in a way. It felt like something that had been around forever, but it also had this twist of greens and fava beans. We were sopping it up on our plates. We couldn’t get enough of it.
Very often people get so mad when we kick people off, but the entire point of this show is that it’s a competition. We don’t do it for our own entertainment. And you saw that even when Antonia’s mom asked at the table if we could have all five chefs go to the finale, we kind of laughed, like, “That’s ridiculous!” But when we got to Judges’ Table, we realized there was no way to penalize any of them for what they had made. We, for the first time, were at a stalemate. We just couldn’t think of a legitimate reason to get rid of anyone. But I don’t want anyone to think that this is setting a precedent. This is not the point of the show. It took probably an hour of begging our producers to let us do it. They kept us there for a while, saying “Guys, deal with it. Make a decision.” Then finally, after a long time of hashing it out and none of us feeling comfortable, we decided to bring everyone to the finale. Rest assured, we will be eliminating every single person except one in the finale. There will not be Top Chefs! We just prolonged the inevitable. It does not let someone off with a free ride.
Richard clearly almost had a heart attack when Padma psyched him out. I thought he was going to jump over the table and strangle her. He started to say, “How could you do that to me?” I’ve never met a more stressed-out chef than Richard Blais. I wish he would have some more self-confidence because his food is so good and he’s such a confident cook, but he’s such a struggling soul. He’s wrestling with his demons at all times. Poor man.
Next week we’re in the Bahamas, and there’s everything you want in a finale. It’s tropical and beautiful, there’s incredible food, there’s horrendous food, there are kitchen fires, there’s drama, there are tears, there are crazy costumes. It’s just over the top. It was a really, really great experience.
What did you guys think of the episode? And who do you think will be the next one cut in the Bahamas?