Gail Simmons
March 01, 2012 AT 07:01 AM EST

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.

NEXT PAGE: Paul’s dishes, and deliberating into the wee hours

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