The first time I shared a conversation with Chef Susur Lee was when I booked him to appear on my restaurant show, Eat Out NY.
He’d opened his premiere New York restaurant, Shang, just a few months earlier amidst a lot of industry buzz, and I was eager to spotlight his ingenius food but also to get to know what made this Master tick (the restaurant has closed since then). I was excited, for sure, not just because he has such a stellar reputation, but also because I had fallen in love with his cookbook, Susur: a Culinary Life, and, well, he’s just friggin’ hot (his wife is just as gorgeous).
We prepared mouth-watering chicken thighs during my shoot, but Susur’s outstanding talent and ease with which he cooked in front of the cameras and had so much fun doing it really stuck out in my mind. Even my crew noticed how lively and animated he was. Here was a man who lived, breathed, and embodied the love of food and wanted to share it with the world. Right after the shoot, I promptly rattled off an e-mail to the producers of Top Chef Masters recommending Susur for the show. In the end, I’m sure it didn’t matter, because they would’ve booked him on their own. Susur is internationally acclaimed, and the TCM producers are really that good.
When I saw that he, along with the other extraordinary chefs: Rick, Jody, Debbie, and Maria, were among the final group of master cooks to come to the Masters kitchen, it wasn’t a huge surprise. What did become a shock, however, was how the jovial Susur turned fiercely dark, almost tormented before my eyes when I announced the Quickfire results: Susur received just two-and-a-half stars and was in last place. He was embarrassed. And pissed! Viewers only saw a snippet of the humiliation Susur must have felt, for his angry mood lasted minutes. I could almost feel the heat from his anger emanating through his pores.
Well, whatever mind trick he told himself to bust ass and go all out for the Elimination Challenge obviously worked.
Susur’s menu of slow roasted curry chicken roulade stuffed with rich sausage, his creamy polenta and grits paired with sweet, chunky tomato jam was utter ambrosia. I loved his side sauces of searing hot mint chutney, too, and I vaguely remember a raita-like cucumber sauce that cooled the palate. Susur’s interplay of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy was a culinary symphony of deliciousness. It was hard to believe, as we all ate on the set of Modern Family, that one person hade made all of this food alone. Susur had roared back from dead last to a definitive first. He wholeheartedly deserved the second spot, along with Jody, to move into the Champions Round.
That said, I was really sad to see this class of wizard chefs go.
Rick Tramonto’s spirit is so celebratory and honest, and his food reflects his joy for life so enthusiastically. From his vibrant, playful fruit plate presentation in the QuickFire to his cozy, from-the-heart truffled white bean stew with succulent escarole and grilled sausage, Rick cooks from his soul. And his soul rocks.
Maria’s spunky, fun personality lit up our set. I loved how she called herself the Organic Girl Scout — hilarious. And her use of almond milk and sumac in her Elimination Challenge meal added a surprise taste that our Modern Family cast members really enjoyed.
Jody and Debbie’s menus were created from their childhood taste memories. Jody’s semolina gnocchi were toothsome and tasty, and her chicken with mushrooms and tomatoes spoke of family dinners on Sunday nights. Debbie’s pork loin with apple butter and squash slaw had a similar effect. I don’t know if most mothers typically cook like this, but my mom sure didn’t, so it was great fun for me to imagine an American family meal shared with such an eclectic group of people. This was a modernized interpretation of dinner, indeed!
It’s hard each and every time for me to see any of the Master chefs leave the competition, and of course, this was no different. Maybe if I learned a ninja-like mental game or two like Susur, it’ll help me miss the chefs less when I ask them to leave. Saying “Please, pack your knives” never gets easier.
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