'Top Chef's' Season 1 winner gives his take on the last two episodes.

Let's get caught up on last week's episode first. The Burger Quickfire.  What did I think of those burgers? I was really surprised Anita went there with that soup. I liked the fact that she goes for it, but sometimes it's a little too out there. I think she overthought it. It was really scary. I've eaten her food before and I thought it was a slammin' but I don't know.

I thought Rick's burger looked really good. Chiarello had the big burger and it looked good, but it looked like just a straight burger. It was very rustic and very him. For Hubert, they said the Roquefort cheese was overpowering and I could see that. I don't like blue cheese on my burger, but that's just me. I probably wouldn't have liked it, but I do know people who like blue cheese on their burger. When you have those super pungent cheeses it overpowers it. I like it on a salad or in a fondue if it works well, but on top of that I'm not a fan.

Then the elimination cooking for Zooey Deschanel. I've cooked for vegans before. I did a tasting menu once for Robin Quivers from the Howard Stern show. It's nice to know ahead of time that that's what you're getting into. It's not that hard... I think the soy thing was challenging and it would be challenging for me because I use a lot of soy products. If you know how to be creative with it you can do it. If you go to a Whole Foods there is so much you can do and there is so much you can put together. I think I would have had fun with that challenge.

Anita's eggplant wasn't one that I found to be particularly interesting. I'm not a big eggplant man. If you're gonna cook it, I really don't wanna eat the skin. I'm not into it. I wasn't excited about that plate.

I thought Michael did a nice dish with his pasta. I probably would have used sunchoke pasta which is something I've really enjoyed. They take sunchokes, grind them up, and make pasta out of them. Obviously you can't use breadcrumbs with the restrictions, but I would have figured something out because I love sunchoke pasta.

I thought Rick made a very calculated and intelligent decision by using those greens. I thought it was very smart.

Hubert just makes masterpieces and they are really so beautiful. I think it could be a little tiring using just that guacamole because there's nothing to grab onto, there's no real texture. It seemed like he did a pretty good job.

Art didn't really make the best move. I mean, you've got all your equipment there so why couldn't he have made some sort of sorbet? There's a flash freezer there, so it' s like, dude, make it. I'm trying to figure out what he spent all that time on. He didn't need 2 1/2 hours to prep. Even with the brittle that's crazy. I just wasn't that impressed. Hands down the right person went home.

Now let's talk this week. In the Top Chef Masters taste test quickfire it looked like they didn't really know much. But if you go back and look at the Season 1Top Chef taste test, we got hosed. The ingredients they pulled out for us were so ridiculously hard and the things they pull out now are like corn and soy sauce and I'm thinking, seriously? They made that challenge a lot better, however, the elimination challenge was tough. I was having flashbacks to the wedding challenge with that one.

I can't go through the chefs mind and figure out why they chose their sous-chefs, but if it was me, I would have been happy to cook with any of them. Honestly. I was surprised by Michael and the way he spoke to Dale though. I'm not saying Dale's not a little hotheaded too though...

With my sous-chefs, everyone needs to spread their wings. That being said, it's a different situation because I've worked with him for five years. He knows my style, and I know his style. This is a situation where you're with people you've never worked with before and you don't know very much about them. You say "make food that's going to represent me" and I'm not sure I would have been any different than Michael. On the flip side, if Richard's avocado ice cream hadn't worked, Rick looks bad. It's a catch 22. It can happen to work out when you're trusting someone else, but if it doesn't work out then it's like, why are you letting people down? It's a double edged sword.

A little taste of the finale... I think it's gonna be a good battle. Three different chefs with three different styles who have really dominated all through the competition. It's gonna be a lot of fun.




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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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