Food of the Gods

Gael Greene breaks down the competition as they create dishes inspired by Greek gods.

There is still a lot of genuine camaraderie among the five surviving Top Chef Masters as they compete to see who has the keenest palate in tonight’s warmup competition. You can see it at the beginning this week And you see it at the end as they comfort each other after hearing our verdicts from the Critics' Table.

But each is already scheming to outwit the pack as they head toward Whole Foods to shop for the elimination challenge – cooking a dish fit for the Greek God fate has granted them.

Rick tries to goad himself with determination to make up for his earlier gaffs and fires himself up to devise a devilish dish for Hades, God of the Underworld. He has that satanic laugh done perfectly.

Marcus as the youngest decides youth is his best advantage cooking for Ares, God of War. He breaks into a dash racing across the market to get first choice at the butcher counter. But he loses that advantage when he wakes up with his back out and can scarcely lift a heavy skillet. 
Susan is her usual cheerful self, marketing her Coconut jam toast as a surefire way to win Aphrodite, the God of Love and Sex. She is perhaps a little too hung up on the sex part, like a kitchen-wise Doctor Ruth, focusing on an egg, sweet butter, and ginger infused nectar as Aphrodisiacal foods.

Jonathan is more sure of himself than he was last week cooking scary exotica. He’s like a kid as he confesses to feeling lonely away from his family on his birthday. And like a kid, the surprise birthday cake quickly cheers him up. In a beat, he has decided on scallops as the key to a dish fit for Poseidon God of the Sea. And is it possible?…did the normally laidback Jonathan actually beat the crowd to corner all the scallops? I think he did.

As for Susur, he’s having a cultural meltdown again given Dionysus, god of Wine as his inspiration. Or maybe he’s just trying to seem vulnerable after a few weeks of playing the indomitable chef to beat. He has no sense of Dionysus’ ribald character – his unruly trickster play. 

Of course I only know all this after watching the show tonight. And revelations of personality, injuries, faulty thinking or outright mischief outside the actual cocktail party and the Critics' Table can’t affect my vote. For me the truth is on the plate. They are all masters. They have each triumphed earlier to reach this stage of the challenge. Anything can happen.

Susur’s roasted and confit’d Chinese pork loin with orange carrot glaze was delicious; his feta cheese rice croquette a wow. But the dish struck me as too well-bred for the unruly Dionysus. Jonthan’s inferior scallops (whether his fault or the market’s) left him merely treading water.  Marcus’s seafood beef with apple broth and oyster foam looked warlike but, I must admit, foam turns me off.  

As Susur comments hearing Susan boast that simple is the secret of her dish: “Simple is stupid.” At the very leasy, simple is naïve. I think Susan did get carried away with her orgasmic fantasy.  We critics – and I am sure Aphrodite too – were not expecting toast and jam from a Master Chef. 

What impressed me most was Rick’s crimson potatoes, the wasabi cream, the fiery pea crunch – both luscious and fitting for Hades the god of the underworld. I even forgave the too cooked swordfish for the imagination of his dish.

You could see from Jonathan’s face that he fully expected to be sent home. Perhaps he was even relieved at the thought. It was close. And so it was that we said goodbye to Susan, the darling of this now all masculine troop. A jelly sandwich was as big an insult to us as it might have been to Aphrodite.

Gael Greene

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.