On Ludo

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?

On Ludo

Jay Rayner explains his love-hate relationship with the returning chef and why his dish failed.

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: I don’t have any negative feelings about Ludo Lefebvre because he’s French, and the country of his birth is burdened with a surfeit of culture compared to the skinny offerings in Britain. I leave that sort of thing to petty xenophobes. If I have any negative feelings about Ludo at all it’s because (just between you and me) he’s a bit of a schmuck. All that shouting and bellyaching and whining. I mean really. It’s a cooking competition, not primal scream therapy.

If I have any negative feelings about Ludo at all it’s because (just between you and me) he’s a bit of a schmuck.

All that said, in his two appearances on Top Chef Masters, I’ve actually found Ludo pretty entertaining. I came to his defense in Season 1 when he drew the short straw of pig’s ear for the offal cook out at Universal Studios. It tastes of bugger all, being solely about texture, and he had precious little time to cook it into anything really interesting. Having finally seen the edit of this latest show, I think he was bullied by Moonen; that the latter’s demand that he get the fish because he’s the "fish guy" was tiresome in the extreme. That said an Irish stew should have put Ludo in his comfort zone. It and the venerable daube, boeuf bourguignon, and coq au vin are all relatives. Instead he decided to treat the source dish with more than a little bit of disdain and come up with something which, while not without pleasures, had such a thick American accent I couldn’t understand a word the plate of food was saying.

That’s the thing with pub food. It is what it is. It does not want to be reinvented and re-engineered. I’m tempted to start muttering about pigs and lipstick but that takes us into dangerous political territory, so I won’t. The point is, however, that you have to understand the essentials of these very basic  confections and play to their strengths. None of this is complicated food. But it can be executed well, using complicated techniques.

I felt most for Mark Peel, who really had gone for it. Was the idea of a fish based toad in the hole a good one? I have absolutely no idea because his was such a total failure; the lack of a properly hot oven and the collapse of his Yorkshire was a disaster of epic proportions. But I did admire the idea. Graham Elliot Bowles, on the other hand, was burdened by a simple problem: hating half the ingredients he pulled. Steak, he could get behind. Kidney, he disdained. Now kidneys are not simple things. Get them wrong and you will indeed be left, as James Joyce wrote in Ulysses with "the faint tang of urine’"(and yes, that was my attempt to win the most pretentious critic of the year award). Overcooked, they can be hockey puck rubbery; undercooked and it’s atrocity exhibition time. For all those complications, however, simply trying to hide the ingredient in vinaigrette was never going to be the way to go.
Which was why Jonathan Waxman’s riff on Shepherd’s pie was such a total winner. Sure, it wasn’t in the classic style, the ingredients piled into a pan and baked for a moment to give a crisp shell to the mash. But the lamb stew was ripe and rich and the pommes puree was the sort of thing cardiologists send their kids to college on. Yum, yum and, as they say in these parts, yum.

As for dear sweet Ludo Lefebvre I’d say he made a pig’s ear of it but that, I think, was last season.

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.