A Little of Your Time

The chefs rock, roll, to varying degrees while cooking for Maroon 5.

"Mary Sue has covered the bed with tostadas, which is not any fetish I've ever heard of." Oh, Hugh. And, hello my little spanikopitas. We'll return to Hugh's words of wisdom later, but first, a seven-minute Quickfire in which the chefs had to create "heavenly" food. The twist? The chefs would be judging each other's food. This group seems to have an enormous amount of respect for each other, so everyone was fairly constructive in their critiques. I got the biggest crack out of Mary Sue who looks like she is physically incapable of saying a harsh word about anyone or his/her food -- it's adorable. Hugh got saucy with Curtis, which I also enjoyed. In the end, Traci came out on top ... again. Based purely on looks, I probably would've enjoyed Traci's dish the most as well. But maybe I just have beef on the brain. A few colleagues and I did the Beef 7 Ways at ma peche last night, and well, I've still got the sweats. Everything was delicious -- and in my opinion the tendon salad was exceptional, and the brisket with marrow and shallots was maybe the best brisket I've ever had. (And I'm a Jew from Long Island, so that's saying a lot!)

Aaand that brings us to this week's Elimination Challenge featuring Maroon 5. I'm a fairly big Maroon 5 fan, so I just had to prove it by showing you all of my concert tickets.

They're one of the few bands I can honestly say (and do say) I was listening to before they hit the Billboard charts, as exhibited by my 2003 ticket. The Downtown venue has since closed, but I remember seeing them with my sister, having to leave early because she felt sick, but not before noticing the members of the boy band O-Town in the general admission audience! I also remember first hearing "Harder to Breather" on the now defunkt 92.7 WLIR (it may have been WDRE at the time), and just kind of falling in love with the group. And who could forget Kara's Flowers appearance on 90210 (the original). Sooo seeing Adam, Jesse, and the boys come out for Masters was a thrill. They all had very different requests of the chefs, ranging from a Thanksgiving meal to something with corn (Not only did MIckey have the best request with corn, but I also thought he had the most constructive comments.) Overall, the food offerings reminded me of the restaurant concept, Panaga in last week's episode of Happy Endings (look it up), and like what the chefs whipped up for the Food Fighters in Rochester during Season 5. I recall many lowlights and a few highlights, and here was much of the same thing. There were forgettable dishes like Floyd's salad, the one Adam Levine said he could make himself, and some moments of genius like Traci's steak. Like the chefs in Rochester, these chefs faced their own equipment challenges, rockig and rolling (literally), while cooking on moving buses. These poor chefs. But they rose to the challenge. Perhaps no one more than Alex, who got sent home. He just did way too much, and all of his dishes suffered for it. I liked Alex, so I was sad to see him go, but there were so many laugh-out-loud moments in this episode that made up for it.

1. First of all, I found it fascinating that the two teams came up with the exact same menus.

2. Adam Levine threatens to stab James Oseland with his fork. I don't know whose side to take, but I do know that that's a fight I'd like to see!

3. Drummer Matt Flynn called the grapes on tapioca "grape contacts." Hilarious.

4. Gail Simmons predicts that the mashed potatoes will be the band's Yoko Ono. Aw, we've missed you, Gail!

5. And finally coming full circle, Hugh comments on the tight plating quarters, saying "Mary Sue has covered the bed with tostadas, which is not any fetish I've ever heard of." It looks like in next week's episode he says something is so poignant, he's going to vomit in his mouth. I can't wait to hear the rest of it!

Sooo, wht did you think? Were you sad to see Alex go? And, what have you been eating? Until next week, Have a Nosh!

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.