A Case of the "The Masters"

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?

A Case of the "The Masters"

Jay Rayner explains why he very well may have been grumpy during this week's episode.

A number of people, including the chefs themselves, accused me of being grumpy during this week’s Quickfire. I watched it and wondered whether they had a point. Was I? Thinking back to when we filmed this it struck me that I might have been.

Anybody who whined about the Top Chef Masters gig, would deserve to be poked with the business end of cattle prod. It’s a huge privilege and an honour to be involved with this show. And hell, we even get paid. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its strains. The shooting days could be very long – certainly much longer than would ever be allowed in the UK – and the shoot itself is concentrated. I know those chefs, pushed into the deeper days of the competition round, feel it and I have no idea how the crew, working much longer days than us, manage. Still, there is a certain pressure on us as judges and I had some of my own. My newspaper, which craves my attention, was keeping me working all the time I was out there, and I had been filing features from Los Angeles on what were supposed to be my days off. Indeed I had worked flat out for a couple of weeks.

And then, on what was supposed to be my first real day off, I get a very early morning call. One of the Quickfire judges can’t make it, and I’m in. See you in 20 minutes. So was I grumpy? You know what? Possibly. Did this interfere with the way I looked at the dishes? Absolutely not. Sure, I might have been less bubbly and effusive. There might have been a little more piss and vinegar in my pronouncements, but at the end of the day – or the very beginning, which is when we shot this – the basic critical faculties still kick in. Rick’s octopus was tough. There wasn’t enough crab in Jonathan’s crab pasta. And the skin on Susan’s chicken was crisp. Put me through four days of sleep deprivation and a little light waterboarding and I’d still come up with the same answers. Would I say they were definitive answers? Absolutely not. We all know that James Oseland has a palate calibrated by the scientists who built the Large Hadron Collider for CERN. He might reach a different view. But both of us would be consistent. Grumpy or not.

If there was one thing guaranteed to lighten my mood, it was always when the Top Chef Masters team went out on location. For a Londoner, starved of sunlight, it was always a slight disappointment that we were locked for most of the time in the studio complex. And then all of a sudden we were going to the game, and what a remarkable operation it was. Nothing I have ever seen in England prepared me for this: the size, the vitality, the drama.

Seemingly from nowhere the production team conjured up a full tent village, complete with a video gallery to run the shoot, and the six cooking stations for our chefs. The sun shone, the crowds cheered, and we tramped out to eat our tailgate food. This, for me, was the essence of Top Chef Masters. Any of these guys, given a properly-equipped kitchen and enough ingredients, could play a blinder; but here they were in the field, with just a Weber Grill with which to work and cramped surroundings. Plus, for two of them — Marcus and Susur — it was completely alien territory. They had no hard-wired cultural memory of what a tailgate party might be. Curiously, I think that might be why they went through and Tony didn’t.

Marcus and Susur just cooked. Susur in particular simply decided to regard the grill as another hot thing. The dumpling might have been one of those ideas to be filed under "very bad," but his Korean beef was luscious. Tony, by contrast, headed towards the essence of tailgate and went for party food, which meant simple food. The problem is if you do simple food there is absolutely no margin for error. It has to be perfect. Tony’s grilled pizza simply was not perfect.

Which was why he lost. Which was why he went home. Which was why, in this edition of Top Chef Masters, he was the one who ended up being genuinely grumpy.


Jay Rayner is the author of The Man Who Ate The World: In search of the perfect dinner, published by Henry Holt. Follow him on twitter @jayrayner1

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.