Par for the Course

Kelly Choi breaks down the buffet challenge.

I absolutely loved this episode.

In fact, it’s my favorite of the entire season. For so many reasons, some of which include that through these challenges and the many twists I presented to the Masters, I was able to get to know each chef much more intimately. And I’m confident that you did, too. Pour yourself a generous glass of wine (or a fresh cup of coffee if you’re at the office) and get ready to relish the three-course menu of what I’m about to tell.

The First Course: The Blindfold Taste Test
This was soooo much fun. For one thing, it was physically the closest that I had been to Michael, Hubert, Rick, or Anita at any given moment in the entire competition, and being face-to-face with someone reveals a lot. Only a table with 20 small cups of ingredients, a plate of lemon wedges, and some bread and water separated us. Here we were, stadium spotlights blaring and the clock started ticking. The cameras seemed to descend into darkness, and the entire situation made me feel like something really big was about to happen. I think I can speak for each chef when I say that in that moment, we felt very exposed.

At least for me, though, I wasn’t the one who had to risk being made to look like a fool. Think of the pressure! Here you are, a culinary savant, a Master Chef, being put through the paces of having to test your palate on national TV. It must’ve very intense for each of them because how else do you explain that the highest number of correct answers out of 20 items was only seven? Weren’t you thinking the whole time, "I wanna try it to see how many ingredients I could guess right?"

So Michael was up first. I secured his blindfold and handed him the first cup. He took it, whiffed it deeply, then stuck his index finger into it. Then he tasted. It was silent in the kitchen, yet it
was almost as though you could hear his brain synapses firing back and forth. Michael’s technique continued like that, methodically and analytically as he sniffed first, touched next, and then finally, ate the condiment. Seven correct guesses for Michael.

Then it was Hubert’s turn. Blindfold on, he lept out of the gate. Hubert’s pacing was faster. He tasted each ingredient without necessarily smelling first, and it surprised me, especially after
Michael. Hubert’s approach scored him a five.

Now, Rick. Wow, if I thought Hubert’s method was quicker, Rick’s was 10 times more so. As soon as I handed Rick a cup, he dumped the food into his mouth! Did you hear that one time when he clanked his front tooth on the glass cup of mango? Rick didn’t bother with
smelling the ingredient first. He was a completely trusting and wide-eyed child. It was as if I had told this sweet child that I had something yummy for him to taste, and he lapped it up straight away. Six correct answers for Rick.

And finally, it was Anita’s turn. Anita’s tactic was similar to Michael’s in that she, too, smelled the food before she ate it. Her strategy, though, was to eat as much of each ingredient as possible in the hopes that tasting a lot of the food would make it obvious as to
what it was. A few minutes and many sips of water later, Anita guessed six right.
The Second Course: Picking (and Firing) Your Team
When the former Top Cheftestants all walked into the Masters kitchen, I was starstruck. Having been a fan of Top Chef from the beginning, I recognized all of the chefs, at least by face. Hey, there was tall CJ and Richard Blais, our molecular gastronomist. Look, there’s Italian
Stallion Fabio and Elia who shaved her head during the show. It was surreal to see everyone all at once, and at one point, there were so many bodies running around switching stations during the two-min interviews that it felt like utter chaos.

The Masters had now chosen their staff, and after they returned to the kitchen to start cooking for the Elimination Challenge, I just happened to be in the other room watching. I heard a voice yell, “Who you barkin’ at?” It was Dale. "What was going on?" I thought. “Whachoo gonna do about it?” Dale continued. He and Michael were in a standoff! Dale didn’t back down but Michael didn’t counter him either. It went on for a moment later but in the end, as you saw, nothing came of the spat. Stress levels were definitely high, and the chefs' tensions were
starting to bubble over.

The Third Course: The SLS Hotel and Buffet Lunch

What a rollercoaster day for all of our chefs.

They all woke up at the crack of dawn to start cooking. Pots boiling, pans sizzling, I tiptoed into the kitchen to tell them that we were moving venues in 30 minutes.Fast forward to the SLS Hotel. Now, I informed the chefs that the lunch would be outdoors in the blazing sun. Oh, and one more thing: cut a chef from your team. And please don’t kill the messenger! I was
sorry to our masters that every time I appeared, I had another psych-out to reveal.

When our lunch began, Gael, James, Jay and I couldn't be happier. We got to eat some ethereal food in a beautiful location on a hot, sunny day. The Hollywood insiders heightened our excitement and everyone was hungry.

Anita’s succulent pork spare ribs, Michael’s hearty risottos, and Rick’s avocado ice cream were memorable. Kudos especially to Richard Blais for helping Rick execute that luscious treat because it was a real hit.

However for me, there was only one Master chef who ran away with the culinary prize that day. His dishes were so extraordinary and each course so delectable that it was downright intoxicating: Hubert Keller.


Hubert’s 18-course feast was so superb and executed with such precision and passion that we couldn’t believe it. In-your-face Vietnamese gazpacho, tender rack of lamb, marinated oysters, red beet with comte cheese — the tastiest beet salad ever — and a parade of nectarous desserts. It was a heart-stopping display of culinary perfection, tantalizing and gratifying all at once. Hubert’s buffet (the word doesn’t begin to do his cuisine justice) was astounding. There were so many dishes that Hubert and his team created that to this day, I want to watch the footage of Hubert’s cooking because I’m convinced he must have had a dozen more elves helping him in the kitchen.

But as stellar as Hubert’s menu was, Anita’s was not. Besides her ribs and a flavorful noodle salad, Anita’s gummy dumplings and raw bar fell flat. I think she got beaten down by the grueling nature of the competition by then, because when Anita is on, she is brilliant. It
was, of course, sad to see her go, but she had produced some captivating food along the way.

And then there were three: Rick, Michael, and Hubert. The finale, next week, is oh so very special!

What did you think? Tell me here, and Tweet me, too, @KELLYCHOI

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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.  

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