Popping the Quickfire Challenge Cherry!

Grilled Cheese sandy enthusiast Kelly reflects on her first QC tasting.


Finally, my Quickfire Tasting cherry has been popped!

After hosting almost a dozens episodes of Top Chef Masters where the culinary gods cooked their tantalizing food for our Quickfire judges, this time, their task was to create versions of the humble grilled cheese sandwich for just one diner: ME.

Why was I so excited for this? Because usually come Quickfire tasting time, I don’t get to sample the food. Maybe you haven’t noticed because this footage get whacked, but during the Quickfires, I’m asking our diners questions and trying to illicit some telling comments from them, so eating isn’t an option for me.

But not this time!

The call for our Masters in this Quickfire was to invent a divine grilled cheese sandwich, their very personal adaptation of an American Classic. A grilled cheese sandy can be interpreted in so many ways that the task is actually a daunting challenge. Which cheese or cheeses should one use? What about the bread? What else to put in between the slices of bread, if anything at all? Too many options can lead to gustatory disaster.

Luckily for me, it didn’t. Not by a long shot. When I burst into the Masters kitchen to call time, I was crazy hungry, and my taste buds were ready to be dazzled.

Up first was Carmen Gonzalez.


First of all, I’ve never met anyone so pint-sized in stature be so giant in personality and gumption. This clever Puerto Rican chef created a garlicky, herb-licious manchego cheese concoction with lime and cilantro that was mouthwatering. Her baguette was wonderfully crunchy, a perfect jacket to the filling inside. That Carmen had the nerve and confidence to do just that simple nibble with no other accouterments on the side really made me focus on her sandwich alone, and it was a spot-on representation of the full-bodied flavors she is well-known for. While I walked from table to table, I hadn’t realized she’d cut her finger, and I’m glad I didn’t. No pity for kitchen accidents, because it really is all about the food. Carmen’s Latin-inspired dish was a very close second place finisher for me.

Next up was the illustrious chef David Burke.

I’m a big fan of his ingenious and ambitious cooking style, and he’s a huge name on the New York dining scene. His grilled cheese sandy included prosciutto, almonds, tomato, rosemary, then topped with cornichons and olives. A plethora of delicious ingredients to be sure, but for me, one too many that left a salty aftertaste on my palette.

Onward to Marcus Samuelsson.

A fusion of Gruyere and American cheddar cheese paired with a tangy gazpacho and a light, crunchy salad made up his generous presentation. Chef Samuelsson knows so much about so many different cuisines, that he’s a true educator through his food. I relished all of his elements and they balanced various flavors adeptly, but in the end, the number of components on his plate stood out more than the actual grilled cheese sandwich itself.


The always entertaining Chef in the Hat, Thierry Rautereau, created taleggio and goat cheese morsels filled with olives, harissa and pear that he accompanied with a tiny arugula salad. I’m gaga for harissa, that North African chili condiment used a lot in European cuisine as a spread in tartines, so my hats off to Thierry, for that. However, my longing for a cheesier presence in his sandwich left me wanting more.

Lastly, chef Monica Pope’s voluptuous creation of salty feta and thick, mild farmer’s cheese with sweet dates on a buttery raisin nut bread blew me away. And orange blossom honey dressing on her salad? I’m salivating just thinking about all of it again. It must’ve helped too, that Monica had coincidentally been making lots of grilled cheeses with her daughter around that time, because even though her flavors sound like they’d appeal more to a sophisticated palette, I could see how kids would love her bold, delicious flavors just as much.

Deciding the winner was not easy.

Eating the Master’s creations alone – what with the chefs all waiting for me to come by, their warm grilled cheeses getting colder every second – is not a leisurely task.

Take a few bites, make mental notes.
Move on to the next chef.
Chew, chew, chew...Marcus is staring at me as I drink his gazpacho.
Munch, munch, munch.
Thierry’s smile is charming, but his eyes are searching for my reaction to his creation. It’s his first time making this grilled cheese, he admits.
Next table, next chef: Take a bite.
Quickly, the other sandwiches are getting cold!
It is a Quickfire, after all.


For me, it was such a luxurious and visceral pleasure, but also stressful, to say the least. What each Master presents on his or her plate is an incredibly personal and intimate portrayal of who he or she is as a cook, and ultimately, him/herself.

I, of course, had to choose a winner, and Monica’s exotic Moroccan-inspired grilled cheese invention scored magic on my taste buds.

After the joy of being able to judge a Quickfire challenge, all of my other memories of this heat almost faded away. Having Mekhi Phifer come to the kitchen to ask our Masters to create gourmet soul food for his birthday party became a slight blur to me. I alone had just experienced the pleasure of polishing off some delicious Quickfire food, and was still in a state of reverie.

Chefs Carmen and Marcus would woo the critics and march on to the Champions Round, but my first Quickfire tasting was sensual and enduring.

Like the first time doing anything meaningful, this was my very own sweet memory that I’ll never forget.

Bryan Voltaggio: "I Thought I Won. I Know I Won."

Bryan compares his Top Chef Masters finale to his Top Chef Season 6 finale. How are you feeling going into the finale? Tired? Reinvigorated?
Bryan Voltaggio: Certainly not tired. This is something we do every day, day in and day out, cooking. Going into the finale, I am feeling excited and nervous -- I want to do a great job and win. What went through your mind when you found out Graeme won the last Battle of the Sous Chefs?
BV: I was very excited for Graeme because he finally had an opportunity to shine and he brought it all to the table. I felt a great sense of redemption for him because he got to win a challenge when it counted the most. I strongly believe that Graeme helped us get all the way tothe end-- he clinched it to get us to the finale. Can you elaborate on your menu planning? How did you decide which dish will go for which course?
BV: When it comes to the menu, and what I learned the first go round on Top Chef, you need to cook what you know. There are time limitations, surprises (planned and unplanned), so you need to do what you can to troubleshoot and get good results on the plate. You can't bring anything to the challenge that you've never done before. I go back to dishes we've created at VOLT, things that Graeme and I both know, things that I don't even have to speak to Graeme about. You had a little over 20 minutes less than you thought you would have to prep because of traffic. How nervous were you that you wouldn't get it done?
BV: Traffic was a big factor, but I knew the food, I knew the menu, and I knew I could get it all done. It was worth going to get the extra ingredients (the proteins), and it was worth it in the end. How do you feel each dish turned out? Was there anything you would have done differently?
BV: I was very proud of every plate I put forward. I thought that every dish was done flawlessly, and I achieved every goal I set out for. What made you include an element from Michael's repertoire in your dish (the seaweed mashed potatoes)?
BV: I wanted to put out some sort of element that represented Michael because he's not only family, but I also respect him very much as a chef. As the judges critiqued your food at Critics' Table, what did you think?
BV: I thought that I had nothing but positive comments -- there wasn't anything glaring that made me feel like I misstepped. I felt really good after Critics' After the heavy comment about your beef dish? Did you think you won?
BV: Yes, I thought I won. I know I won. What went through your mind once the critics told Doug he won? How did it differ from when Michael won?
BV: I thought for sure they were going to call my name because I felt confident about my food. Maybe they saw something in Doug's dishes that put it over the top. Compared to when Michael won, it wasn't a proud moment for me because I wasn't playing and rooting for both myself and my brother. I really wanted to win the money for my charity and it was an opportunity for redemption. If anything, I owed it to Michael to win because I wanted to compete again and go for the win. You are on a roll in our Viewers' Choice. Anything you'd like to say to your fans?
BV: I appreciate all the support, and the fans need to know that their efforts will go to feed many hungry children across the country. I encourage everyone to continue to reach out and support Share Our Strength. How's your relationship now with the other contestants?
BV: My relationship with everyone is great. We all got along, and I felt respected amongst the group. At first, they were nervous when I came in because I had competed before. That just goes to show that it was a tough competition, and we're all good at what we do. I still communicate with everyone from the group -- mostly David Burke. What was your favorite overall challenge?
BV: Favorite challenge was the last one. It is always best to cook the food you want to cook- that's where I've always put my best food forward. What was the hardest part of the competition for you?
BV: Being away. There are always two sides to it -- one of the greatest things when you are in a competition, all your focus is on that and not on outside influences. It's a break from the day-to-day restaurant life, but the other reality is that you want to be back home with your family and at your restaurant. Did anything funny happen behind the scenes that you can share?
BV: I had a lot of fun with the Face Juggler app behind the scenes. We were acting like children a lot of the times behind the scenes which kept the grueling schedule and challenges bearable. Anything else you'd like to add?
BV: I want to thank Graeme for everything and helping me along this journey. He is a big player in how we got all the way to the end, and I appreciate all his hard work day in and day out at VOLT.