There is Life After Bacon

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?

There is Life After Bacon

James Oseland discusses his appreciation of vegetarianism.

When Gael, Jay, Kelly, and I learned about the vegan challenge on this week’s episode, the polarization in our group instantly became apparent. Kelly and I blurted out a collective, enthusiastic “Great!”

Gael and Jay groaned. Loudly.

Quite a bit of vegetarian bashing goes on in the food world, and frankly I’m more than a bit tired of it.

Case in point: When I first got the job of editor of Saveur, an item in one of the New York media gossip columns reported the rumor that I was—horror of horrors!—a vegetarian. How could the editor of an esteemed epicurean magazine abstain from the gastronomic joys of eating meat? The rumors about me were just that, as it happens. But the implication was clear: today, when bacon is the new black and the trendiest foods are all grass-fed and dry-aged, vegetarian is a dirty word.

Yes, I’ve logged—proudly—a few years as a vegetarian. When I was growing up in California in the 1960s and 1970s, vegetarianism was not an anomaly as it was elsewhere in America. At an early age, I understood that vegetarianism could also be a pleasurable and endlessly interesting way to eat. Later, when I started traveling the world, I came into contact with the great global traditions of vegetarian eating: from the vegetarian-by-default simple country fare of El Salvador, where I’ve traveled four times and where meals often consist of stewed beans and hand-patted tortillas with hunks of salty, gamy cheese, to the grand and evolved meatless cuisines of India, such as that of Gujarat, where vegetarian cooking is a refined art.

I also spent a year living in a village in South India, where I ate no animal flesh at all. I wasn’t vegan—milk products, including yogurt, were a big part of my diet there—but after the first few weeks of quietly lusting for just a little bit of meat (or at least a fried egg!), I stopped missing it and came to appreciate the astonishing flavor combinations that came into focus without the overwhelming presence of flesh.

Trust me, there is life after bacon.

For those reasons, I’ve never felt the need to pass judgment on vegetarianism or veganism. Me, I’ll eat anything, and I do: from live queen ants in northeastern Thailand to milk-fed venison to street-stand hot dogs to pink cupcakes (which might just be a greater crime against nature than even the worst processed meat). That said, I definitely have my preferences, and for the most part, they tend not to be meat-centric.

Why? First of all, a meat-free meal makes me feel good. The amazing array of food that we ate for Zooey Deschanel’s lunch made for the only time during the run of Top Chef Masters when, for hours afterward, I didn’t feel like an overstuffed cushion. During the periods in my life when I have been vegetarian, I have slept better, I’ve come down with fewer colds, my skin has cleared up, I’ve lost weight, and, I like to think, my mind has functioned a little more clearly. I can’t back up any of this with scientific evidence, but it’s what I’ve experienced.

I also think that making vegetarian meals turns you into a more thoughtful cook. Not being able to fall back on the sumptuous, umami flavors of meat lays your cooking bare. If you really want to get a sense of somebody’s ability in the kitchen, ask that person to do away with the chicken broth and ham hocks and other meats and meat-derived ingredients hiding up most cooks’ sleeves. Vegetarian and vegan cooking are essential, reductive: the core flavors of the vegetables that form the basis of this kind of cuisine are subtle, and the cook has to be attuned to how to draw out, complement, and emphasize those flavors. When it’s done right, such cooking can be extraordinarily sophisticated and refined.

It was a joy and a half to watch the cooks on episode eight faced with this challenge. You could see that, for many of them, it truly was a challenge—and, for a few of them, the worst possible scenario, perhaps. But there’s something about reducing the number of tools that you have to work with to a minimum that can really make your innate skills shine.

Why did Anita’s eggplant turn out so greasy, and why was her plate as a whole so lackluster? She may have just been exhausted. By contrast, Hubert Keller’s plate was colorful and multidimensional; it bore no sense of any of the restraint that you often find hampering emphatically nonvegetarian chefs when they’re cooking vegetarian food. (Perhaps all those years working in California have rubbed off on Keller.) Rick Bayless’s dish was delicious but had too much going on; it lacked the smart clarity that his cooking usually exhibits. Michael Chiarello’s quinoa pasta with garlic and herbs was a standout; it marked the essence of great vegan cooking. Clean tasting yet rich, it captured the soul of the ingredients—a complete success.

Which leads me to my last point, which is off the vegetarian topic. At the critics’ table, both Jay and I had questioned Michael’s and Art’s reliance on store-bought ingredients for the dishes they were making. Later, we heard Rick deride our concerns as being not particularly insightful. I disagree.

Sure, I can grasp why both Art and Michael made the choices they made, but I would have liked to see them push themselves harder. They had the prep time, they had a fairly nonrestrictive budget, and, ultimately, they’re on Top Chef Masters to show their wizardry as cooks. Michael could have made from-scratch pasta out of quinoa flour or chestnut flour. The same goes for Art (though, obviously, I liked what he made—I finished the whole damn plate). He could have, and should have, made a sorbet or a granita, rather than taken a gamble with ready-made rice ice cream.

All that said, after Zooey’s fine vegan feast, I slept like a baby. No tums required.

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.