Gail Simmons blogs the 'Top Chef: All-Stars' season finale

Gail-Simmons As told to Archana Ram.

I think we accomplished exactly what we set out to do this season. We brought back 18 of the most talented chefs on the show who did not win to get them back in the kitchen to see how they did, but also we stretched the show even further — took the challenges further, made things more complicated, exciting and delicious. I’m really amazed, looking back, at how much great food there was, how much I learned about the chefs, and how much I learned about food. I think every chef on this season has a lot to be proud of. We made them work for it, that’s for sure.

These chefs have already done this competition and Restaurant Wars, so we wanted them to do something different. We wondered: When they had total control over the kitchen and dining room, what would they do? And usually in finales, we only make them cook for 10 or 12 of us around one table at the same time. This forced them to use a completely different set of skills, which more closely mimicked the reality of restaurants. They had to manage timing and the front of the house, and every dish was theirs. They had to take responsibility for every single course, not as a group, but as a boss of a team. They had to execute, delegate and put their trust in their sous chef. And if they screwed up, it was their fault.

You may have wondered, like I did at one point, what’s in it for the sous chefs to cook a good dish? I think that the nature of chefs is such that they can’t help themselves, especially these really passionate, talented cooks. They’re not wired to do a half-assed job. There was a lot of pressure on Richard and Mike, and they didn’t want to disappoint them. What’s in it for them is the glory of knowing they contributed to a meal that made television history. That’s how young cooks cook everyday on the line for their bosses. It’s never about them. Their name isn’t on the door, but they’re cooking there because they love to cook and there’s an energy in the kitchen that’s infectious.

I thought the concept of Tongue and Cheek was great. It was very Richard. His style is always to recreate classic flavors in a modern way. It had a lot of spirit and playfulness, but it was also a really gutsy way to cook. Not a single dish was timid in flavor or construction. There was confidence in his cooking. The irony of the confidence that Richard has in his cooking but not in himself when he’s talking is kind of unbelievable. But if he was nervous, it didn’t show on the plate. His food gave us a great sense of who he is as a chef and cook.

That oyster amuse bouche was fresh, clean and started everything on a great note. The crème fraiche looked like pearls in an oyster, and that was really clever but the flavors also carried through. His hamachi dish was, if not my favorite dish of the entire season, certainly in the top three, and it was one I’ll remember for a very long time. The concept of the dish was sort of outrageous. It was a raw beautiful fish with fried sweetbread, which was a great concept in texture, temperature and flavor. The heavy richness of the sweetbread and light cleanness of the fish were fantastic, and then he added layers to it that made it sing — chilies, Asian Pear, pickled radish and garlic mayo. All of these added a brightness. It really blew me away. The pork belly was great, but I wasn’t as enamored with it as everyone else was. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I loved the concept, but I thought the fish felt a little watery. But no one else got that, so it sort of became irrelevant. He had fried the cod in a beautiful batter and treated it almost like a veal or pork cutlet with the seasoning and really concentrated breading. It was very satisfying. Everyone else went crazy for that dish.

Coming down from those three dishes, there was this momentum. Then the short rib came to the table. It was very straightforward, which is not to say it wasn’t good. Technically, it was flawless. A perfect braise. Rich sauce. The celery root puree was sweet. It all made sense. But every dish until that point had had something special to it, something that had made us all do a double-take and given us fodder for conversation, and this just didn’t do that. If someone else had made that dish, we might not have had those expectations. But when you’re on a trajectory with a meal that seems to be going in a certain direction and then goes to this, we felt it didn’t follow. That said, I appreciate that he wanted to show us that he could make something classic and make it well. And he did. You could not poke a hole in that short rib. But it sidetracked us a little bit.

But then we were brought back with the crazy foie gras-cornbread situation. There was part of me that thought he had this good idea in his head that he thought was clever. “Foie gras ice cream” sounds dramatic, so he did it without actually thinking if his dessert would improve with it. But I didn’t think it detracted at all. I think it added an earthiness that worked with the corn. It also started conversation. But what we had was very different from what Padma and their group had. It worked a lot better for us. I got it and I liked it. And I certainly liked it more that Mike’s dessert because I liked that Richard took a risk. I know if Richard had another few days with the dish, he would’ve nailed it. But it wasn’t far off. I thought the mango-foie gras-cornbread combination was really interesting. Do I want a scoop of foie gras ice ream on a cone during my summer vacation? Absolutely not. But the ice cream accentuated the richness of the foie gras. When foie gras is cold, it tastes quite different than usual but then in your mouth, it melts like regular foie gras. A lot of people were freaked out by it, but it made a lot of sense to me. I just think he needs to figure out the textural issue with it. I loved the cornbread. I thought it was excellent — just sweet enough to feel like a dessert but also a perfect canvas for the mango and foie gras. It was also nice to get mango because in the course of these two meals, we didn’t eat a lot of tropical fruit and we were in the tropics. It just felt appropriate. And the texture of the mango is sort of similar to the foie gras, so that was interesting because their flavors are so different. It was a ballsy choice for sure.

I loved the concept of Restaurant Iz. I thought it was really on-point for this moment in American culinary history. I’ve been to Chicago, New York, San Francisco and L.A. all in the last month and every hot, of-the-moment restaurant in each city was one that did a rustic turn in Italian food, not the super fancy, refined Italian food. Whether it’s due to the economy or the mood we’re in as a nation, we’re focusing on ingredients, and simple, beautifully executed Italian-American food. People are enamored by it because it’s comforting, simple and delicious. It lets you highlight the ingredients, and that’s exactly what Mike did.

The spiced beets salad was really lovely. It was clean, fresh and a perfect way to start a meal. The beets obviously go very well with the mozzarella, but the chocolate vinaigrette was genius. It was subtle and not sweet in any way. It was more like a cocoa, which added an earthiness. It also looked like balsamic vinegar, so there was a connection to that classic Italian pairing of balsamic and mozzarella. It was smart and overall, a focused plate of food. Mike’s fish was simple, thoughtful and beautifully presented, but it just didn’t have the guts that Richard’s fish had. That being said, Mike’s fish was subtle and beautiful. I felt there was a focus to all of Mike’s dishes that I had never seen from him before. It’s hard to steam a fish and still make it exciting, but he did a beautiful job with it. It was delicate, and then he complemented it with the pancetta. Halibut is a meaty fish so it could stand up to stronger flavors without losing its integrity. I went crazy for his meat dish, mostly because it was silly. I had never in my life seen pepperoni served to me in any way other than on a pizza or sliced on a charcuterie plate. I was tickled by the fact that he made a sauce out of it. He literally puréed salami, and it really tasted like pepperoni. It also went well with the pork shoulder, which was braised beautifully with the turnips and cabbage. It had a soulful flavor. That sauce brightened everything up.

Mike’s dessert was a lovely idea, and I love caramel or flan, but his was a little dry and, as Tom said, cooked too fast. It didn’t have that rich, melty texture that you want in a flan. It was very elegant with the apple and celery, but it wasn’t that exciting. It was nice, and “nice” is not a great word. Coming off that pork shoulder, which took us to this great high, we needed something to stand up to it. This caramel custard did not. If I had eaten it on its own, having not just eaten the courses I did, it wouldn’t be bad. It just seemed like a letdown after that pepperoni sauce.

The finale Judges’ Tables are always long, but this one wasn’t as absurdly long as those from past seasons. (And it was great to have their family there. We all went drinking after.) I did feel strongly about Mike’s food, but when we looked at the meals as a whole, the risks they took, how successful they were in executing them, and their work, precision, and creativity, we felt that Richard had a tiny edge over his competition. Mike cooked his heart out. There’s no question. But this meal went to Richard, and I couldn’t have imagined it any other way.

My perception of Mike has done a 180 since the first day I met him. He’s lost some of that cockiness but not because he had to. I think he just grew as a person, and was humbled by the talent around him and by his own will. I think that’s a powerful tool to harness and understand what you’re capable of. I really think he converted America in terms of their perception of him. There’s no question that he’s going to open his restaurant and the people will come because he cooks great food. He’s a lot of fun, he’s smart and he cares about his food. I have so much respect for him. He should come out of this season with his head held high. They’ve both matured an enormous amount — Richard more so only because it had been longer since he was on the show. But I also think he’s a much stronger leader and has a greater knowledge and maturity about his food, himself and his capabilities. It’s great to see how much this meant to him and how he went into with a tunnel vision to succeed. He was able to do that because he was so honest in his intentions and so driven. He always wanted it, even when he lost to Stephanie fair and square in season 4. He knew he made mistakes, and he went home and honed them. He blew us away. He’s got so much going on in that brain of his. Sometimes I think it’s going to pour out of his ears! But for all of those reasons, he was our winner.

I hope everyone’s as pleased and thrilled with the end results as we were. These chefs exceeded our expectations. We were able to do so much amazing stuff with them because they let us take them on this crazy ride. I’m so grateful, because I got to eat really well along the way.

What did you guys think of the finale? And the season as a whole? Did you think Richard would take it home? Sound off below!

Comments (72 total) Add your comment
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  • Jon

    From what I saw this season, the right person won. Obviously the viewers cannot taste the food or judge based in anything that did not make the final edits, but Richard seemed the front runner the entire time.
    While Richard was my pick to win, his neuroses got to me a bit as the season wore on. I understand where he is coming from, but he has to be careful about who he confides that in or he runs the risk of appearing disingenuous. But conpared to Mike’s horrific attitude and behavior, Richard’s internal stress was nothing.

    • l

      agreed! “horrific attitude and behavior” is right. Even in his exit interview Mike still acted like an a-hole.

      Random: I laughed when Richard was describing one of his dishes and said “this one has blah, blah, blah, and bone marrow.. exactly what you want to eat.”

      • yoyolover2f

        i love what people said here ,I am a 28-years lady ,beautiful and mature . Now I am seeking a good man who can give me real love , my friends told me a nice place …
        —–Rich’Friends.órg ——it’s the most effective site in the world to connect with, date and marry successful, beautiful people.-Meanwhile, . It’s worthy a try. You do not have to be rich or famous.
        —-@@@@I thing Richard deserved to win, but I was really impressed by Mike, the progress he made and the final result. It may all be an illusion, video editing, making the former ‘bad guy’ into ‘Mr. Nice Guy’, still in the end I was rooting for Mike.
        Still a great show, looking forward to next year.

    • Ba Ba Booey

      If Mike offered to send Gail a bottle of that pepperoni sauce whenever she wanted it, and all she had to do was show him her boobs once, would she do it?

  • roselalala

    Yes, I think you made the right choice! Mike obviously performed well but it’s Richard who is likely to do something truly innovative in the future.

  • BruceS

    I thing Richard deserved to win, but I was really impressed by Mike, the progress he made and the final result. It may all be an illusion, video editing, making the former ‘bad guy’ into ‘Mr. Nice Guy’, still in the end I was rooting for Mike.

    Still a great show, looking forward to next year.

  • Ben Piper

    The right guy won.

  • Terry

    Mike should of won. I can’t stand Richard. No doubt he’s a decent chef but he would of probably slashed his wrists had he lost. He was awe shucks one moment, suicidal the next.

    • CV

      I know this is off-topic, but I just can’t stand it any longer: it is NOT “should OF” or “would OF”…it is, rather, should have or would have. Or perhaps what you’re aiming for is the contractions “should’ve” and “would’ve”. Don’t they teach this in school any more? Geeesh.

      And, for what it’s worth, I’m thrilled that Richard won.

      • KM

        Thank you!

      • CarrieC

        Oh, who cares about your grammar lesson??!!

      • VC

        Don’t they teach this in school any more? NO, they don’t taught us’m this stuff

      • moe

        Also, thank you to CV.

      • Shelley

        Thank you CV! CarrieC, some of us DO care about grammar.

      • Petunia

        Let’s leave the grammar off the table, why does the fact that you don’t like someone become the deciding factor on whether or not someone should win a COOKING competition?

      • Mr. Holloway

        Yes, but where do you stand on “woulda” and “shoulda”

      • bwags

        at least “woulda” and “shoulda” are obvious slang/conversational speak as opposed to blatent bad grammar that “would of” is. (don’t get me started on the number of teachers I know that make this error too)

      • Susanne

        Thank you, thank you, thank you! Where does this dumb “of” come from anyway? I even see it with a lot of people I consider educated. Don’t get me wrong, I misspell things, but the “should of”, “would of” is just about EVERYWHERE!!!!

      • shay

        exactly, and the morons who spell “lose” as “loose” sheould get lost, too.

  • Lee

    Really glad Richard won. (I wanted him, Dale, Jen or Angelo to win.) He deserved it.

  • joy carolino bush

    Gail, thanks for the insightful blog. I enjoy your blogs so much. You really take us inside the head of the top chefs and the judges on the table. You are awesome. Yes, the right chef was crowned. Was really surprised at the outcome. I didn’t think mike had it in him to compete in this level..but he blew me away with his finale dishes.

    • lesliemd

      Surprised at how much I loved this episode, since I have never been an Isabella fan. All about the food – finally. No tricks, just cooking.

      Too bad the editors gave away the ending with the preview las week and during the commercials. When they show where the cheftestants are standing in relation to Judges’ Table, then cut to Padma saying “You are Top Chef” while looking in Richard’s direction, I knew the winner right after last week’s show. Who’s the amateur who cut that clip for preview? Unforgivable.

      • JMB

        I originally thought that too, but then I noticed during the show that Padma was kind of off-center at the table and would have had to look to her right no matter which one she was addressing.

  • Christi

    Best season and best outcome yet! As much of a fan as I am, I might have stopped watching Top Chef altogether if Mike had won. There’s no comparison between he and Richard…Mike’s rapid maturity doesn’t overshadow the heart, technique and generous spirit that Richard embodied throughout.

    • jeroseta

      Well put.

    • Jill

      Generous is the perfect word to describe Richard Blais

      • Nick

        Generous is the perfect word to describe Richard being granted the win…

      • Ryan

        Disagree with Gail in that she thinks Mike converted America to like him.
        NO. He didn’t.
        95% of the people who wanted mike to win only did because they thought richard’s neurosis was obnoxious. At least he wasn’t rude, arrogant, and mean-spirited.
        Richard won because he was the best. That win wasn’t generously given to him. He’s consistently the best chef of those two.

  • lgg

    Love Richard! And really glad that he won.

  • Just sayin

    Considering who the 2 finalists were, I’m glad Richard won. That said, my preference would have been to not have either Richard or Mike in the finale. Mike is way too arrogant, and Richard’s neuroses wore thin very quickly. Overall, a good season.

  • Suda

    Before I begin: None of us who are responding here were able to taste Richard’s or Mike’s food, so we are all responding to their personalities as revealed by “Top Chef” editing.

    As shown on the shows, both last time and this, Mike has appeared to be a sputtering bully..someone who would push aside, scheme, almost anything really–with that sly win–and then justify it by saying something such as : I gave up my honeymoon….or I gotta WIN this time around.

    As also portrayed by the editing, Richard needs to toughen up and do his crying at night, not in front of the staff.

    But much of running a business is working with the owner, and I’d far more rather work with a sensitive person than a sneering bully–that’s for sure.

    Caveat–my response is totally based on how the program edited their product. I wasn’t there. However, watching both men being interviewed at the end when they were more relaxed, their basic personalities did appear to be as I described them, above.

    • G

      I agree that the editing monkeys were hard at work this season. All season Mike’s a jerk and then suddenly seems nice to his sous chefs and appropriately confident yet gracious during the finale? I really didn’t want him to win but also think I was duped by the editing to some degree.

  • Cyndi

    I’m still upset over the episode where mike cheated by stealing richard’s idea and then winning with it. Then his arrogant attiude and lack of remorse did it for me. I would have quit watching had he won, and I’m still upset that he made it to the finals after than instead of dale, stephanie or even jen. It really kind of ruined my season. My sense of justice was offended…

    • madeleine

      I can’t stand that Mike. He is a JERK! He should never have been in the finals. I thought it would be Dale and Richard.

  • AlysabethInAustin

    What a great season. I loved every minute of it. Well,except when Jen,Angelo,Dale,Carla and Fabio- AND ANTONIA-OUCH!!- went home. I definitely expected a different final 3 or 4….but props to Mike. He came such a long way. I don’t think his behavior was all that bad. I grew up in my father’s kitchen-and I’ll say that every chef was a bit of a prick/egomaniac/narcissist in some fashion. But,that doesn’t bother me….it draws me in,esp on TV!! Thanks for a great season. Richard, I LOVE YOU!!!!

  • Janis Ian

    Pepperoni sauce!

  • Jaymi

    I saw on the after show that 82% of fans who voted agreed with Richard’s win.(yaaahooo) But the fact that the vote was so lopsided makes one wonder if a Richard-Antonia finale would have made for a much better ending?

    • Mike

      Considering how great Mike’s food was… not sure that Antonia could have done any better. The reason Richard’s vote was so lopsided is because people like him a lot better than Mike. There is no denying Mike was the second best chef on this season. People like ot hate on him, but he absolutely crushed it in the Bahamas. He worked his ass off and deserved to be there.

      • Karate Pants

        Sorry, but Mike was NOT the second best chef this season. He might have been somewhere in the top 5 or 6, but anything that propelled him beyond that was just good luck (and bad luck for those who left too early).
        An Antonia-Richard show down would have been heart wrenching, they are both WONDERFUL – but I think Richard still would have come out on top. He deserved the win.

      • madeleine

        Mike was Not the second best chef this season. That would be Dale.

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