Carrying On

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?

Carrying On

James Oseland shares the recent loss of his mother and why she loved 'Masters' so much.

Hi, guys. It’s great to be back here. Blogging about Top Chef Masters, Season 1, turned out to be an unexpected pleasure, and it feels good to get back to it for Season Two.

The blogs I wrote last season allowed me to see each episode anew, to re-experience the crazy-quilt of foods we judges were presented with, and to re-assess not only those foods but my original reactions to them. It was a wonderful cushion, an addendum to the sometimes very raw — literally! — process of eating a dish on the Top Chef Masters set.

More than that, blogging provided me with clear evidence of what wonderful readers all of you are. The comments you posted edified me. They made me feel good. They confused me. They entertained me. They angered me. They humored me. But most of all, they comforted me. In the last blog I wrote for the season—about the finale episode, in which Rick Bayless took home the grand prize—I ended the entry by mentioning my beloved cat Pete, who was then dying of cancer.  The outpouring of support in the comments that you left was beautiful and humbling, a big cyber hug. Pete passed away in my arms on a drizzly Sunday morning in September. He was peaceful, a valiant fighter until the end who taught me a lot about what friendship can be. He’ll be dearly missed, but I’ll always have your lovely comments to guide me through difficult moments.

Sadly, I’ve recently experienced another loss. About three weeks ago, my eighty-five-year-old mom passed away in California. She was, until about six weeks before she died, a healthy, happy California mom. She drove her Toyota Echo to the nearby Trader Joe’s every few days to stock up on flax seed cereal and frozen peas. She did tai chi with a group of East Bay seniors. She learned conversational Spanish and was taking a class in Buddhist philosophy. Then, after a trip to Hawaii, she suffered a heart attack, followed by an emergency bypass, and then developed pneumonia—a particularly vicious strain of the disease that lives and breeds inside hospitals.

To describe her passing as devastating wouldn’t be close to accurate. In fact, there really aren’t any words to describe it. It’s more like a sensation—the feeling of being ripped open, completely and fully gutted. It is, simply, the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. My mom and I were intensely close. She was my guiding light, my best friend, my biggest critic, my greatest advocate. She was the person who not only introduced me to literature but made me love it, the person who taught me not only to taste food but to relish it. Actually, my mom was never much of a cook, but she was one of the world’s great eaters. Her palate was almost shockingly en pointe. Coming from such finicky stock, I hardly consider it an accident that a large part of my adult life has been dedicated to savoring — and describing — food.

In the last weeks of her life, my mom was nourished by way of a feeding tube. To help her overcome that cold and terrible indignity, I described to her, on a daily basis, everything that I ate. That might sound like a strange (if not cruel) thing to do, but she loved it. For her, it was like watching a great movie or having a really amazing novel read to you. Sharing those food narratives with her was wonderful and intimate and grounding.

I will miss my mom more than I can say.

Writing this blog, on the evening of the Top Chef Masters Season 2 premiere, is hard. I’d say I could think of lots of other things I’d rather be doing, but in fact, all I’d rather be doing is staying in bed, resting, which feels like the most comforting thing to do right now. My mom, however, would want me to carry on. She loved Top Chef Masters. She loved not only my blogs, but Jay’s blogs, Kelly’s blogs, Gael’s blogs. But I’m going to keep the rest of this one today short and sweet, or at least try.
What a joy to be back on the show, to be in the company of some of the best cooking minds in the world. And the chefs on Episode 1 largely knocked it out of the park. It was almost as though Susan, Tony, Govind, Jimmy, Ana, and Jerry had all studied Season 2. It was as though they’d learned from the first round of chefs the fundamental parameters of what works and what doesn’t work in the context of the show.  They seemed to have an innate understanding of what the peccadilloes of the judging panel’s palates are. They seemed not the least bit flummoxed by the romance-food challenge. Every one of them strived to be the evening’s winner with great confidence and vigor.

My least favorite plate of food? Govind and Jimmy’s lamb duo. You know, these guys can cook—they’re legends—but I found myself yearning for more panache. What they served us was good. It was solid restaurant cooking, a delicate vinaigrette, a lamb carpaccio that was as tender as butter, a gorgeously flavorful side of minced cauliflower. I just wanted more. I wanted more rigor. I wanted to be challenged, surprised. Instead, Govind and Jimmy offered a decent yet almost overtly safe combination of foods, especially when compared with what the other four chefs proffered.

My favorite plate of the night? Easily it was Susan and Tony’s jazzy marriage of black pepper shrimp and scallops and pasta with funky Tallegio. It was a pairing that shouldn’t have worked—it was as unlikely a pairing as Susan and Tony themselves. But in fact it worked. It did everything that Govind and Jimmy’s plate didn’t do. It made me crease my brow (in a good way). It made me think. It made me fall in love. And it made me desperate to find out what they were going to serve on Episode Two. If we were starting off with this much of a bang, what strengths might follow?

So, with that, I bid you all happy (continued) viewing and a good night (or day). I guarantee you that Season 2 is awesome. I guarantee you’re going to love it. I know my mom would have, too.



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.