Surprise in a Box

Gael Greene reveals her inner conflict over judging Jonathan Waxman.

As soon as we got the morning call sheets for Surprise in a Box, I began to obsess. One of the competing Top Chef Masters would be Jonathan Waxman. I’ve known Jonathan since he came to New York bringing a breath of the West Coast – cool white walls, a collection of bright abstract paintings and his own special style of minimalism on the plate to Jams on West 79th Street. He stood out from so many local chefs, straining to outdo each other with nouvelle cuisine by using French technique but with a Californian passion for ingredients, rarely more than three or four of them on a plate. Grilled or roasted fish in a puddle of beurre blanc, perfect chicken under a haystack of fries. (Indeed, those addictive fries set off a new passion for potatoes in New York that has never ceased)

And it was meeting Jonathan and Chef Larry Forgione (An American Place) at Wolfgang Puck’s first Meals on Wheels benefit in the parking lot at the old Spago that led to the two chefs founding role in our own first Citymeals on Wheels fund-raiser honoring James Beard in the Garden and restaurants of Rockefeller Center – an event that both chefs continue to grace with their presence even now in our 25th year.

Of course I wondered if Jonathan might choose Citymeals as his charity. Nothing was said or even hinted. But as the board chair and co-founder of Citymeals-on-Wheels I had something to gain and much to lose. I worried that my judging might be influenced by my admiration and affection for him. Or the reality of just how much the final $100,000 prize might mean to our goal of bringing weekend, holiday and emergency meals to the city’s 17,500 homebound elderly in a year when we had lost  many donors, including a most generous foundation and a major corporate benefactor.

I had recently been to a product launch in Art Smith’s house in Chicago and we’d met before but only for minutes and I knew him as Oprah’s chef. I would not have called him a master, but rather a homey Southern cook, as he styled himself. Of course I was aware of Roy Yamaguchi’s extraordinary success as the owner of 37 restaurants but I had never reviewed his spot in Manhattan. And I knew nothing about Michael Cimarusti.I was a little bit tense as I tasted. Quite clearly improvisation was not Roy’s strength as he confessed on the show. Pairing shot ribs and mahi mahi as a first and second course on the plate was not especially impressive though he’d done wonders with that mahi mahi. As I watched the show myself last night I wondered how long it had been since Roy and Jonathan too has actually been in a supermarket. But I loved the sense of camaraderie – none of them was trying to sabotage the other, quite the opposite, giving Art that chicken was indeed a blessing. It was a chance to do the Southern comfort food he can do with his eyes closed. Michael produced the most refined plate but too much salt lowered his score.

Listening to the chefs respond to our questions, I was won all over again by Jonathan’s laidback style and philosophy. He struck me as wise and funny and charming. I was put off by the way his sauce pooled all over the plate and by the look of grated black truffle (it does have more flavor than slices but it looked a little like cigarette ashes).

And then there was Art’s glorious fried chicken – I couldn’t remember ever loving any fried chicken more. It was odd that he took the skin off his smothered chicken (A dieting Oprah touch perhaps) but I didn’t mind chicken two ways on the plate. His smoked cheddar grits were sensational and that little mango tartlette pretty much seduced us all. That meant Art would win.

Watching the show itself, seeing the by play back in the kitchen, hearing the chefs' thoughts as they shopped, and dined together, as they cooked and waited for our votes. I liked Jonathan even more and I berated myself all over again worried that I had leaned back too far to be fair. Given the way all the votes lined up, I hoped it was not my vote that made the difference.  It was only afterward by accident that I learned Jonathan had indeed chosen Citymeals as his charity. Now I have to face my board who won’t care about pork chops or fried chicken. And Jonathan. I’ve already seen him just recently cooking at our Citymeals garden party. “I’m so sorry,” I said.

“It’s not about winning,” he said. “It’s about playing the game.”

Gael Greene,

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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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