The First Time

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?

The First Time

Jay Rayner describes his first experiences eating some "exotic" foods.

Marcus made a very good point in last night’s show: that the odd is only odd the first time you eat it. After that it just becomes dinner. How right he is. A similar point could be made about the use of the word "exotic" when attached to certain food stuffs. What may be exotic to us, is part of the staple diet to others. For example, both Jody and Tony cooked with goat, which happens to be the most commonly consumed red meat in the world. It’s just not the U.S. and Europe that’s doing all the consuming. Goats are sturdy animals which can survive in arid conditions and that’s why they are so popular in Africa and the Middle East. Jody might not have much call for it in her corner of New England, but that doesn’t make it particularly outré. The same is true of black chickens, monkfish livers, and the rest.

All that said, it doesn’t stop certain ingredients still being challenging, though it’s a challenge which people who eat for a living can’t resist. Were it not for the fact that there are lots of women in the food writing business who are prone to the syndrome, I would describe it as a kind of machismo; an attempt to prove that you are harder, more fearless, more open to the world than anybody else. No matter that the thing you are proud of eating is just another ingredient in the local store cupboard and eaten regularly by millions.

Even so, it’s very easy to come a cropper. Just before flying to Tokyo to research the Japanese chapter of my most recent book, about my search for the perfect meal, I was telephoned by my mother who told me that in no circumstances was I allowed to eat fugu, the fish whose organs release a deadly toxin if not properly prepared. I promised her I wouldn’t. Sometimes, though, promises, even the ones you make to your mother, are not that easy to keep. I found  myself in a high-end Japanese restaurant, the sort gaijin – westerners – are not usually allowed access to. And I was faced by a menu of Japanese delicacies which thoroughly challenged the western palate: it was a whole bunch of squidgy, tentacled, slippery things. At one point, proving I’d wasted too much time watching Star Trek as a kid, I heard myself thinking "This is Klingon food." And then immediately I hated myself for thinking something so banal, crass, and culturally introverted.

It was an awful lot of sperm for a straight guy.

Even so it still wasn’t a great eating experience. Among the low points were some lightly-grilled sacks of fugu milt – fugu sperm – which were just too heavy, too rich, too much. It was an awful lot of sperm for a straight guy. And yet, regardless of what my mother had said, I felt duty bound to eat it. As I did the very lowest point of the meal: the salt-fermented sea cucumber. It tasted like fishy snot. It tasted as I imagine the slime on a week old fish would taste. It stuck in my throat. It made me retch. But somehow I swallowed.

And so I must confess that when I learned that Susan Feniger had cooked a dish involving sea cucumber I was not a happy man. We all have our dream foods, the ones we could eat till the cows come home. Sea cucumber is my nightmare food. I wanted to shout "Call my agent" or, more likely "Mommyyyyyy!!!!"

And yet... and yet... what she did with it was remarkable. She didn’t just make it edible. She made it pleasurable. Her deep-fried sea cucumber was frankly a revelation and for that alone I will always give thanks. I couldn’t resist eating it. Though Susur won and by a country mile – his stuffed chicken leg and tourchon of monks fish liver were truly delicious – if I’m honest I think he had it easiest. Those two ingredients were pretty easy to play with, especially for a Chinese guy who had met them before.

What Susan did with her ingredients was impressive in a very different way. And thank god for that.


Jay Rayner is the author of The Man Who Ate The World, 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.