Gail Simmons blogs episode 9 of 'Top Chef: Texas:' Skewered at the judges' table

Gail-Simmons

Image Credit: Scott McDermott/Bravo

As told to Nuzhat Naoreen

For many reasons, I thought there was a big weight on our chefs during this episode. The fact that obviously we were in Texas, they knew that this challenge was coming. We did it at the Salt Lick, which is really a legendary barbecue spot. Not only was the owner with us, but Nathan Myhrvold was with us, and we were all a little nervous to have him on the show because his reputation precedes him. About a year ago, he came out with this extraordinary tome of a book called Modernist Cuisine. He was the first person to really put down in a comprehensive way all the tenants of cooking, and [how] it’s really not just about foam and fancy tricks. It’s basically an encyclopedia of technique. Not only did he create this book, but he’s also a barbecue champion, which you think would be counter-intuitive to modernist cuisine, but it actually gets at the heart of it in so many ways. Understanding the science of barbecue, why barbecue is cooked overnight, why it’s cooked so low, what happens to the meat, how to infuse it with the most flavor, and how to make sure the texture is right — all of these components are so vital in understanding how to make successful barbecue, and that’s what he has really mastered. We were all in awe of him.

The difference between grilling and barbecuing is really, really important. Everyone can put a burger or steak on a grill. That’s not barbecuing. Barbecuing [involves] smoke, [cooking on] low heat for a really long time, and very specific cuts of meat that lend themselves best to that kind of cooking. Every kind of region has their own specialties. Ribs are certainly one, and brisket in Texas is sort of the ultimate thing to barbecue. My absolute favorite thing is a good piece of barbecue brisket.

This is one challenge [during which] I felt very badly for our contestants. We put them through a lot every season, but the heat was unlike anything I have ever experienced. I think it was hotter than we thought it was going to be. We filmed this episode during one of the biggest droughts in Texas history. Most of what we did was indoors, but this challenge really physically tested them and not for the best. We did look after them. You don’t see that behind the scenes there are medics and lots of water. It is a really difficult thing to be cooking in that kind of heat. It is not advisable. But then again, Salt Lick’s been doing it for many years. It’s not as if no one has ever done this before. Everyone in Texas is barbecuing and the weather doesn’t matter. Someone is standing over those coals all night long.

I think [Sarah’s illness] did put the [red] team at a disadvantage for sure. I think their food suffered for it, and I think it’s part of the reason that Ty-Lor wasn’t able to execute his barbecue the way he wanted to. All of a sudden they were cooking with one hand tied behind their backs. They did not have the time to slice, to serve, to plate, to make sure everything was done exactly they way they wanted it to be done. It was such a massive challenge and they weren’t really communicating to begin with. I have a feeling that if Sarah had been there and if the dynamic between the three of them had been stronger, regardless of whether she’d gotten sick, all of their dishes would have been better. At the end of the day, theirs was not the weakest barbecue. They were in the middle of the three teams.

[The blue team’s] nontraditional barbecue was not a risk to the judges, but it was definitely a risk to serve that take on barbecue to 300 Texans. Texas barbecue has a lot of history and is very specific and people are used to a certain way of eating their barbecue. We did talk to a lot of people there, and I think they were all a little surprised by the flavors and some of the ingredients [the blue team used]. But we were thrilled because none of us are actually from Texas so we don’t have that same sort of ancestral allegiance to very specific Texas barbecue. Also, we’re looking at the [contestants] as chefs, we’re not looking to them to do exactly what everyone else in Texas does. We wanted them to give us great barbecue, but give us their version of it. That’s what we’re asking with every challenge. We don’t want you to do exactly what the owner of Salt Lick has been doing. I mean, if you mastered it and gave us a perfect rendition, that’s all fine and good, but what does that tell me about you? I mean, you’re a technician but you don’t have any kind of creative skill, and I think to win the competition you’re going to have to show us just that. In the end, that’s why the [blue team] won, because their flavors and their dishes, although not perfect, showed us a really interesting use of the genre.

Both of the teams that were on the bottom went a very traditional route and both of them had major flaws. The [white team’s] food was certainly less enjoyable to eat than the [red team’s]. You couldn’t eat some of their dishes, particularly the ribs, which you saw by the terrible face I made when Tom forced me to try it. It was over-salted and unimaginative and it just did not show us what we were looking for.

All of [chefs on the white team] had flaws. Beverly made the weakest coleslaw I’ve ever eaten, which is a hard thing to do. Coleslaw should be cooking 101. Chris Cary — Pretty Chris, as they all call him — made these rubs that were far too heavy-handed, far too salty, you couldn’t taste the meat, you couldn’t get it down. Chris Jones made roast chicken essentially. I mean, he barbecued it but it didn’t have any sort of barbecue attributes that we were looking for. It tasted like it could have been done in an oven in an hour. It sat on a grill all night long, [but] it didn’t have any of that flavor.

Chris C’s decision to use Dr. Pepper wasn’t really a big deal. It’s one of those things that I didn’t care for either way. Lots of people use Dr. Pepper or Coke [as an ingredient]. It’s not completely uncommon. But it didn’t add anything. It didn’t do anything for us so it kind of just felt silly. For a chef to feel he needed to use such a trick felt forced.

Beverly is a bit of a kook. I think she’s fascinating and wonderful but I don’t have to work with her. She’s managing to stay in the game, but I think that people find her a bit of a hindrance because she’s sort of all over the place. I actually really like what Chris said about her that “she’s really book smart, but she’s missing a couple chapters.” I can’t vouch for that because I didn’t spend time with her, but I know what he means. She’s got a lot of knowledge, but out in the world she sort of falls apart a little bit. She is a very good cook when she gets her wits about her and she has given us some really good food. You will see as the show progresses she takes a very interesting turn.

I’m really sad to see Chris go. It was a really hard decision because any of the five of them (Ty-Lor being the sixth) could have gone home, and we spent a lot of time talking about it. Obviously, the thing we could not eat — and that was the rub — had to be thing that caused someone to go home. But we know that Chris is such a talented chef. He runs a fantastic restaurant in Los Angeles. I have a feeling he’s got a lot of lady followers and he’s going to do just fine.

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