Tailgating Tales

Gael Greene dishes on her favorites and disappointments from the tailgating challenge.

Speaking as a viewer of the current Top Chef Masters I stopped feeling sorry for Susur Lee when I heard him belittling Carmen for being female on the Wedding Challenge and watched him harassing good-natured Tony. These kitchen dramas are hidden from us at the critic's table.

This week the iron ninja seemed almost vulnerable as he fumbled with the challenge of feeding 100 football fans at a USC tailgating party. Clearly he was thrown off balance. Tailgating? Football? This kitchen master who spent most of his life in Hong Kong and Toronto toppled into the culture gap.

Not that he seemed to lose confidence. Indeed all the survivors at this stage of Top Chef Masters Round 2 are definitely getting more competitive. Even Jonathan in his sleepy laidback mode exudes an air of confidence – boldly baiting the USC fans by professing an allegiance to Stanford.

Do I just imagine that the camaraderie of the first few challenges has faded? Could it be linked to the fact that one by one, the women chefs have been packing their knifes and going home? Am I being too feminist? Do you agree with me?

Anyway tonight we see Rick leaping in with his typical macho guy enthusiasm for sports. Tony seems to think pizza will win the tailgating crowd. Marcus seems subdued. He did not grow up in America either. Jonathan is his usual seemingly laid back old timer, admitting he will probably be rooting for the other team.

Having won the Legs, Legs, Legs quick challenge with blasts of cumin and cilantro, Susan has won the exclusive right to wear the USC jersey and cap for the cookout. Uninhibited as always and decked out in bright red, she makes the most of her advantage. Susan looks tiny next to the guys clowns a bit but she is a restaurant pro, not just as the co-founder with Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill in LA in 1985 and later, Ciudad, and as the author of six cookbooks and the veteran of four hundred episodes of Two Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour on the Food Network. That’s a big advantage for her in feeling comfortable on camera. Street is her newest restaurant venture and that’s exactly what she cooked up for the tailgaters: marvelous street food.

Jonathan’s mastery of the Weber Grill and his juicy rib eye and guacamole weren’t good enough to offset serving stale tortillas. I liked Tony’s pizza but it seemed like a warmup before the main course that never came. Susur’s semolina dumplings were ridiculous. Maybe at a European fencing match, but not for the tailgate crowd. Marcus tried to do too much with burgers, his admittedly tasty slaw and chicken and shrimp soup too. Some of it was delicious. Rick’s Moroccan-flavored chicken with babaganoush and slaw stuffed into a pita was a fabulous few mouthfuls too. But in the end, we all agreed on the winner: Susan’s skirt steak tacos with corn and black bean salad, guacamole and a trio of spicy peppers plus two textbook perfect salsas, tomatillo and chipotle.

As judges, I think we critics want to be dazzled by these masters at their most sophisticated but wowing the fans was the challenge after all: And they responded. As a critic I think we should not hesitate to be candid about the flaws of a dish. That doesn’t make it any easier to send a master chef home. You could see Jonathan’s pain as he stood in the loser’s lineup expecting to get the cut that ultimately fell to Tony. Remembering some of Tony’s earlier triumphs and his easygoing sweetness in the midst of kitchen warfare, I was sad to see him go home. For sure, I’ll make a point to have dinner at Spaggia on my next visit to Chicago.

Gael Greene

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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.  

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