A Bacchanalian Feast

Best of the Best

Francis Lam: What's on the Menu?

Curtis Stone's Lemon Creams with Poached Cherries

Bryan Voltaggio: "I Thought I Won. I Know I Won."

Jennifer Jasinski Was a "Great Miracle"

Lesley Suter's 'Ratatouille' Moment

What it Takes to Be Top Chef Master

The Finale Countdown

Doug and Sang: Bad Romance?

Sang is Back!

David Burke Has Titanium Balls

See Ya, Suckers!

Why Jennifer Jasinski Didn't Go Home

James Oseland's Teacher Tribute

Gail: "I Still Can't Believe Sang was Eliminated"

The Strangest Episode of 'Top Chef Masters' Yet?

Lesley Suter: On Tongue, Flautadillas, and Birthday Cake

What Has Curtis Stone "Spewing"?

A Series of Unfortunate Culinary Events Leaves Blood on the Mat

Gail: "We Couldn't Excuse Neal"

Lesley Suter: Hey, Chefs, Why So Raw?

Pull it Together, Sang!

Francis Lam: I liked Sang's Fish

Curtis Stone in Nacho Libre

Gail Simmons: "Neil Went for Our Bellies"

The Evolution of Sue Zemanick

Curtis Stone: Throwing Curveballs

Ruth Reichl: "I'd Rather Be Training a Nation of Food Warriors"

When Plex Met Toodee

'Top Chef Masters' ' Toughest Critics Yet

Gail Simmons: No "Chef" in Lynn's Dish

Restaurant Wars: 'Getting' Busy

Francis: A New Kind of Locavorism

What Being a Chef Really Means

Ruth Reichl's Perfect Los Angeles Restaurant

Restaurant Wars' Controlled Chaos

Franklin Just Did Too Much

Curtis and Lindsay: A Perfect Pairing

Curtis Stone: This Episode Sends Hearts Racing

Franklin, Can You Hear Me?

A Bacchanalian Feast

Rick Bayless had Kelly at mole.

Set in the hills of the Pacific Palisades, the Getty Villa is a modern day Mt. Olympus. Tall, sleek columns give entryway to grand pavilions anchored by a vast fountain, and outdoor courtyards are guarded by Greek and Roman figurines. Lovingly manicured bushes and flower gardens dot the ornately-tiled walkways. Busts of Artemides and Athena look on toward empty benches as if to beckon a visitor. This is a place where the Gods and Goddesses would surely like to play, and on this day, the site was the backdrop to where I revealed the final Herculean challenge to our Master chefs.

And what an emotional moment it was for me!

I don’t think anyone caught me blink-blink-blinking away the tears that welled up in my eyes when Michael, Rick, and Hubert walked down the steps in front of me. I felt like I had completed a lengthy journey along with these culinary virtuosos. Each chef had expressed
his cooking style and peerless technique while being gracious with their competitors. It was the perfect prerequisite for me to commission the Autobiography in Four Plates final challenge. Us diners were in for a meal that even Dionysus would revel in.


The First Food Memory

An eye-opening treat, it was, to watch and listen to Rick, Hubert, and Michael tell the stories of their childhoods. Rick’s separate closet of dating clothes, Hubert’s laundry day meals, and Michael’s pasta-making; their pasts were expressed through their food so beautifully here. And the dishes – BBQ quail, a duo of gnocchis, and the baeckeoffe – were such intimate portrayals of THEM. While I loved the tales behind Hubert and Michael’s plates, my favorite of the three
was Rick’s quail dish. Tangy ‘cue’d bird paired with juicy sweet watermelon cubes was clean and flavorful. I loved it.

Becoming a Chef

Two words: Black mole. Here’s where I think Rick captured the title. I admit I have an infatuation with black foods – squid ink, black caviar, truffles, and portobellos – and I have always had an obsession for mole sauce. Rick’s version was spectacular. Umami-loaded, rich and velvety, it coated the plate like a mink blanket and complemented the tuna and starchy sweet plaintain impeccably. The nut crunch on top of it all showed Rick’s sensitivity to texture, too. I don’t know if I can eat mole sauce again unless it’s made by Bayless.

First Restaurant Opening

Rick called his cochinita pibil sophisticated, and it certainly was. Taking what some people might consider unsavory animal bits – pig’s feet and atypical pig parts – then fashioning a cake out of that and setting it atop of creamy sunchoke puree and adding pickled red onion
was a genius creation. It stood out from Michael’s bone-laden rouget as well as Hubert’s lamb with garlic in the center. As for Hubert’s dish, I found my piece of thrice-blanched garlic to be pleasant, while the other diners claimed their garlic to be too sharp. Maybe it’s the Korean in me, but I liked that part.Your Future as a Chef

Of the final three dishes, Michael’s tender short ribs arrested my palate. When the waiters brought out his plate, what you, dear reader, didn’t see was Michael wafting smoldering branches of cabernet cuttings through the air. It was all a part of his love for storytelling and setting the mood for his food. But his meat didn’t need the prelude. It was savory fall-off-the-bone delicious, and his five-onion cavolo nero which accompanied it was hearty good.

Top Chef Master!

Before I announced the winner, everyone was visibly excited. What an intense and full-on experience it had been, and all of us – the critics, the entire crew, and the competitors — had grown close in a short amount of time. For the chefs, the finale wasn’t a Clash of the
Titans but more like a celebration of their careers and futures. Mexican maestro Rick Bayless was the winner! And the Gods were very proud.

P.S. As an aside, I thought it was funny how everywhere I went, ladies (and some men) confessed to me that they had crushes on the finalists. I sat in on more than a handful of conversations and debates about which Master was the hottest / handsomest / cutest. Who knew our three master chefs would become such heartthrobs? And more importantly, who is your crush?

How do you feel about our Master chef?

Tell all here, and also tweet me @KELLYCHOI.

P.P.S. - Thanks everyone, so much for your support thus far. I had the time of my life in the presence of such passionate and inspiring artists doing what they do best. Yes, the food was staggeringly good at times and disappointing at others, but ultimately, I learned so much from watching all of the chefs pushing and perservering and relishing what they love to do most. I was the princess in this wonderful fairy tale dream!

Francis Lam: What's on the Menu?

The critic focuses on the first part of the cooking process.

When I talked with Chris Cosentino about cooking last season's Top Chef Masters finale dinner, he said one part of it was easy --the menu planning. The challenge then was to cook four courses, with a theme of letters: a love letter, an apology, a thank you note, and a letter to his future self. Chris' menu came together quickly because, he said, "I know who I am." The wording of the challenge was provocative, but it was really just a way of asking the chefs to tell a story about themselves through their food. It left lots of room for personal interpretation. 

This year, the finale challenge also asked the chefs to dig into their personal lives but with more specific instruction. Asking Jen, Bryan, and Douglas to make dishes that represented their past selves, their current lives, something from a mentor, and something from a protégé was asking them to encapsulate their careers in four courses. (Only giving them a day and a half to do it meant that no one could lie on a therapist's couch to unpack their memories, which is probably a good thing.) 

I loved this challenge, and I was happy to not actually be there as a judge, but rather as a diner, as an observer, and as a fan. Without having to worry about who did “better” than the rest, I could just focus on the food and, even more, on the insight into each chef’s culinary life. Who these great chefs thought they were.   

I loved the way Douglas’s first thoughts were to his formative cooking experience, the first dish he remembers making in a restaurant, and how it became his mussel billi bi soup. I once had a version of that soup at his restaurant Cyrus in 2007. It had so much mussel flavor I can still taste it. To taste it at finale was, for me, like the past come back to life. And for him, someone now so inspired by the lightness of Japan, to reach back to the glories of a wallop of cream and brine… it felt like he was starting the meal by going back to his roots. 

I loved the way Bryan went in another direction, going to the first dish he ever cooked for his wife. I thought his dish was fantastic: the sweet subtlety of crab hovered over the grains and the egg yolk, but honestly, I also could’ve eaten the OG version of a sautéed chicken breast with crab and cream sauce. I kind of miss food with names like Chicken Chesapeake. Who will be the brave soul to bring back ye olde cruise liner food in their restaurant? But anyway, Bryan’s cooking impressed me through the whole season with its creativity and intelligence—I was shocked to realize he hadn’t actually won a challenge until the end—but it was so great to see, in the end, how grounded he feels in his emotional side as a person and as a chef. The dish was light; it felt full of possibility. You could tell his was cooking with the memory of being at the start of something, the excitement of it. 

And I loved it when Jen took the “something borrowed” part of the dinner as a chance to nod to her old mentor Wolfgang Puck, from when he was borrowing from Chinese cuisine at Chinois on Main. Her “Chinese duck with shiitake broth, eggplant, daikon, grilled bok choy, and duck wonton” was too busy, too over the top, too 1992… and just freaking awesome. Just like L.A., really. (I used to think that L.A. is stuck in the '80s and '90s, until I realized that, no, it’s just that in the '80s and '90s, the rest of the country was just trying to be like L.A.) I hadn’t had the pleasure of eating her food before Top Chef Masters, but I could see a direct line between what she was “borrowing” and her own food: it pulls flavors from a global palette—pulls them mightily, puts her back into it—to come up with thoroughly American dishes. Her cooking is so muscular, so full of umami and depth and, when she wants to use them, pungent spices. 

There were many other dishes that day: thrilling ones (Bryan’s white-on-white dessert), masterful ones (I mean, you try to wrap a piece of fish in individual noodle strands like Douglas did!), just bang-up delicious ones (Jen’s paella gnocchi. That is all.) But I most loved seeing into these chefs’ past and how they went from there to who they are today. I haven’t had a chance to talk with them yet, but I wonder which of them will say that writing the menu was easy. All three of these chefs were so good, their cooking so assured, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that from all of them.