Cooking Brunch Sucks

'Top Chef' Season 1 winner Harold Dieterle gives his take on this week's 'Masters' episode.

OK -- first I want to catch up on last week's episode. My favorite offal is probably duck tongue.
think it tastes kind of like chicken. You’ve got to blanch it, pop out the little bit of cartilage in it. I pop that out. And then I deep-fry it and I do a high preparation that’s called Larp, which is basically, when we take the duck tongues and crush them with toasted rice and deep-fry them.

What I don’t understand is that it just didn’t seem like Ludo thought it through. It’s not that different from a charity event in my opinion, where you know you’re making food for X amount of people. It’s going to be fast and furious. You’re going to be there by yourself. I just didn’t really think he thought. Why couldn’t he do some sort of French preparation? I don’t understand why everybody did something Latin. Rick obviously makes sense because he’s the King of Mexico …. And Wilo's obviously made sense too. The British thing I mean, Except for Ludo, I’ve been to all of their restaurants.

As far as the judges go, Jay is funny as hell. Jay is really, extremely entertaining. I really enjoyed listening to what he’s got to say. And you’ve got to love and respect Gael Greene. She’s been in the game a long time. She is super nice- very, very polite. She’s very well spoken and she’s very articulate. And she certainly knows her food. James Oseland is quirky. He’s very serious. He’s very much the scholar at the table. I’m also familiar with Kelly. And she’s easy on the eyes.

This week's episode brought me back to our all-star episode. Stephen won. He had a one-handed omelet.  What was interesting was, we had season by season, and so I feel like we had a little bit of an advantage because we were all helping each other out. A little bit of that took place; like John Besh was helping Anita out- I saw that a little. But in our season when we had had our little cook-off, we were all really getting each other stuff and helping each other out and trying to have everybody put out the best dish.Do I think John should have spent the littlest time helping Anita? It’s one of those things, it’s like, you know the temperature of your oven and you know how it works. I thought yeah, maybe he should’ve not waited for it to cook for fifteen minutes and see where it was at. I think he put a little too much confidence in the equipment. But what are you going to do? It’s one of those things. If you’re throwing any type of excitement or anything crazy out the window and you’re focusing strictly on technique and saying “I’m doing the perfect slow cooked egg,” then it would be perfect. It’s fine, but you’re not winning. It’s simple and he knows that, it just didn’t work out. There wasn’t anything else for him to do.

And oh man, cooking brunch sucks. I’ve got to be honest. It’s one of those things where if you don’t cook eggs all week long and you’re just open on the weekend, people want eggs very particularly. I know I do. They’ve got to be perfect.  And you can tell whose cooked eggs before and who hasn’t, in a high-pressure, high-speed environment. Cooking an egg, it’s one of those things, there’s not so much gray area. If you want them over easy, it’s over easy. 

I'm not a fan of magic, but I am a fan of Neil Patrick Harris. He’s been in the restaurant a couple of times. He’s a big Top Chef fan. He’s a super nice guy. At the table, I’ve met him. He knows his food. He’s a serious foodie, so I think he’s an appropriate judge for it.

First, Mark's dish: If it’s going to be something magical or a surprise, what else are you popping out? It’s fish. I think it was a tough challenge. I don’t know what I would have done for a surprise.

John had the right attitude. He bombed the quick-fire, but at least he went for it. He brought out the liquid nitrogen. It was kind of cool because it was like you were going into an alchemist shop He’s pouring the liquid nitrogen to try and make the sorbet and there’s that smoke coming out. I thought it was cool. I thought it really played well with it all.If he knew he needed more time to set the sorbet ahead of time, then he probably shouldn’t have done that or it’s one of those things, just to do it for a little bit of show, he could have had the sorbet already set up inside the bowl and then add the table portion while liquid nitrogen in there and stir it in- just so you still have that effect, because that’s what he’s looking for. Why not have the sorbet already set up. Guests aren’t going to know the difference.

Doug's was entertaining, watching him rub Sterno on the outside of the coconut and then light it up. I’m not really sure what he was thinking but again he kind of went for it. The duck looked overcooked to me but when food sits around, who knows. I take my duck very seriously.
But God bless him I was like “You’ve got to be kidding me; and you’re going to light it up and put it on the table.” What happens when the fire goes down?

Anita is a legit chef. People ask me what I think of her food. Her restaurant is on my top five list of restaurants to eat at. I really dig her place. It’s really nice. She’s just really talented. She’s serious about her food. She’s really good. It’s a little intimidating for me; she’s around the corner from me — that’s major competition over there.

The competition so far is pretty ridiculous. Part of me wishes that I were cooking with these guys. The talent is ridiculous.

I'm not really surprised by the problems the chefs are facing. It’s got to be tough. And I remember my first time on camera I was shaking like crazy. So there’s that build up until where I found my groove and they don’t really have that. It’s like, boom you do quick-fire, boom you do the elimination challenge, and if your stuff is not perfect, you’re done. But I’ve seen a lot of amateur mistakes that I’m sure if these chefs were sitting at home watching TV, they’d be like “These guys are a joke.” But then it’s not too easy when you’re in front of the camera.

- Harold

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.