Beasts of the Kitchen

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?

Beasts of the Kitchen

Who does Jay think has the most soul? Read his thoughts on the latest challenge

Many cultures have a soul food tradition; they just don’t call it that. In France it’s the Cuisine de Grand’Mere (literally, grandma’s cooking). In Italy, they intone the name of Nona (grandma, all over again). Whatever the name it refers to food with a domestic pull and, most importantly, the visceral reach of childhood: an armed assault on the immature vascular system, by love, saturated fats and carbs. There is, however a difference between what goes on in Europe and what goes on in the US. In France and Italy there is a direct line between those homely, domestic dishes and the product of the most ambitious, gastronomic kitchens. So serious French chefs do riffs on cassoulet, pot au feu and the venerable daube. Likewise, every Michelin three star Italian restaurant will have on its menu great reworkings of classic pasta dishes.

For decades in the US the same was not true. Soul food was soul food and you didn’t screw with it; didn’t try to gussy it up or try to make it fancy. If an ambitious American chef wanted to get all haute they too headed for the comforting shores of the French or Italian. Only in very recent years have serious US restaurants started to work up riffs on milk fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, grits and lobster rolls and gumbos. And even then, with a wry and ironic nudge to the ribs.

So getting five big beasts of the kitchen – and I include wonderful Carmen in that title, even though she could win a limbo competition without bending her body – to cook soul food was always going to be interesting. On the one hand this is a cooking competition. On the other, as Marcus put it, ‘you don’t want to compete with grandma’. No, indeed, you don’t. Cos grandma can get awful cross. Which may explain why David Burke did so poorly: personally I liked his egg, with its crab, bacon and corn topping, more than the others. (It had shards of crisp bacon in it. What’s not to like?) But he appeared to have pirouetted too far away from the mother lode.

Marcus, on the other hand, hit a home run by doing soul food, but just doing it very, very well indeed. Ooh, that mac and cheese. Gosh, those collard greens. The chicken? Well, perhaps not so much, but it was still good stuff. His success with all that did raise an interesting question. If an Ethiopian born Swede, who did not grow up with this food, can do it so well, does that mean American soul food is really quite simple, or that Marcus is just a very good chef? I lean towards the latter.

And then to the main drama of the night, or Carmengate as I shall call it, being a British journalist with a taste for the cliché. We did all know that something was up. I was waiting at the set for the car to the hotel for the shoot, when another crew car pulled up and Carmen jumped out and flashed past me (I’m in the shadows of the entry bay as she charges in). Quickly we found out what had happened. That said, we weren’t entirely aware of the scale of the disaster. We didn’t know what she hadn’t been able to cook, or what had gone wrong in the kitchen. We didn’t know, when James praised the simplicity of her offering, that it was a matter of necessity. What we did know was that her stew was fantastic, and we scored accordingly. Watching the edited show, and seeing the lengths Monica went to help, I would be inhumane if I didn’t feel a twinge of compassion for her. Did she ruin her own chances, by distracting herself from the task at hand, by helping out Carmen and therefore not cooking her own shrimp properly? It’s possible. But hey, it’s a competition and there are no prizes for being a good sport.

Still, those closing frames, when Monica wept at the way things had turned out, proved one thing to me. Regardless of her food, she had more soul than the others put together.

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.