Marcel and Antonia judge the judges, plus Padma, Gail, and Graham weigh in on which cheftestant has the edge in Season 15.
For the first time ever, all four judges from Top Chef turned the competition on its head by standing in front of the judges' table to compete in a Quickfire Challenge for a good cause. Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons and Graham Elliot all donned aprons while past season contestants Antonia Lofaso and Marcel Vigneron hosted a Facebook Live event today, the winners of which would earn $10,000 for the charity of their choice.
Elliot competed on behalf of Smile Train, which helps repair cleft lips and palates in the third world. Lakshmi chose Shanti Bhavan, which houses children from the slums of India until they go to college. Colicchio picked Food Policy Action Education Fund and A Place at the Table, while Simmons competed for José Andrés' World Central Kitchen.
The competition started off with each judge having previously picked a special holiday dish with personal meaning, the ingredients for which were stocked in the pantry of the private dining room kitchen at Colicchio's Craft restaurant in Manhattan. Elliot's dish of choice was whipped maple sweet potatoes with marshmallows, Lakshmi's was a mozzarella salad with pomegranate and mint, a recipe created by her daughter Krishna. Colicchio picked baccala, a marinated salt cod with garlic, lemon, and parsley, and Simmons chose, appropriately for the first day of Hanukkah, her aunt's recipe for potato latkes.
Teaming up Gail with Tom and Padma with Graham, the judges had to meld their two dishes together into a new holiday favorite. With just 25 minutes, the pressure was on for the two teams to deliver, but partway into the competition, the curveballs of chestnuts as a secret ingredient and requiring the use of an iSi canister somewhere in the dish were thrown into the mix.
In the end, Padma and Graham's winter salad—pomegranate, serrano chile, mozzarella, sweet potato two ways, pecans, and a dressing of olive oil, yuzu, and aged balsamic, using the chestnut as a garnish like a truffle—narrowly beat out Tom and Gail's traditional latke topped with a baccala salad, lemon, parsley, chiles, and a roasted chestnut and garlic foam. Bragging rights aside, all of the judges ended up taking home $10,000 for each of their charities, regardless.
We spoke with Gail, Padma, and Graham after the competition to find out how it felt to compete under the Quickfire clock for the first time.
F&W: What was it like being on the other side of the judges' table?
Gail Simmons: I loved it. I felt very lucky that I got to cook something I'm very comfortable cooking. I was confident I could finish that. Then it was just about helping Tom with what he needed since he had to deal with that foam and chestnut curveball.
Padma Lakshmi: It was my first time and it was pretty easy because I know the ingredients but it was also nervewracking because I didn't want to disappoint my charity and everybody who's loved Top Chef. I was worried when Tom and Gail were going to do something with a protein as well as something fried because you fry anything and it's delicious.
Graham Elliot: I hadn't done one in a long time, but I've been on Top Chef Masters twice so I know the clock. This was a short Quickfire, but even then you feel good until the last three minutes when you've got to get in on the plate.
F&W: Will this experience change how you judge cheftestants in future challenges?
PL: No, I fully expected to be judged the way I judge them: on the dish. It's never personal on Top Chef, it's always about the food. It's all in good fun. [Marcel and Antonia] were constructive and helpful.
GS: I've watched 22 variations of seasons of this show so it was not a surprise to me, but it certainly felt good to walk in those shoes a little bit. I've always had an appreciation for how talented the chefs are. It's good to humble yourself once in a while.
GE: It's funny, when you get back into this, even if we're a little rusty, you realize that if these chefs on the show are really competing to win we can almost make it even harder on them, not easier.
F&W: Why did you choose your charity?
GE: Smile Train sends doctors in to teach local doctors in third world areas to repair cleft palates, and my son Conrad was born with a bilateral cleft, so to go through that first-hand experience and understand that there are some people who are 30 years old getting these surgeries who have lived so long with this condition, it's why I've supported them from day one.
PL: Shanti Bhavan takes the poorest of the poor and gives them everything they need, housing and education, to get to college, and they help fill out the forms and pay the application fees, and study for tests. I think it's a beautiful charity.
GS: I really try to give to hunger causes, especially this time of year, and this year more than ever there have been more natural disasters, more political disasters, and more reasons to give than ever before. With the hurricanes and fires that have ravaged this country, I wanted to give to World Central Kitchen because it's about chefs working to solve hunger and right now we need it more than ever.
F&W: We're only one episode into season 15, but do you have any favorites to make the top three at this point?
GE: I think Brother [Love] is doing great and both Joes [Sasto and Flamm] are awesome. At this point, it's fun to see the personalities but you start to see the mindset behind it—who's already their own chef and has their own voice.
PL: It's hard to tell. In the first Quickfire, we had the contestants judge each other and I was surprised everyone picked Tu [Phu], not because the I didn't think the salpicon was good, but it just wasn't what I would do in that situation.
GS: We can always figure out pretty early on who the "best" chefs are, but that doesn't mean they're going to win. You can have a bad day and you're out. I love that there's a really amazing, diverse group of chefs this year.
F&W: And finally, what do you think of Mustache Joe's mustache?
GE: It's incredible. It looks like the younger version of Chef Boyardee. I can grow a beard but not a mustache so I have a lot of envy, for sure.
PL: I'm into a good 70's mustache.
GS: It's a sight to behold. He believes in that mustache. Not a lot of men can pull that off. Very few women can, either.