Blind Love

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?

Blind Love

The chefs are challenged by creating a meaningful -- but still delicious -- meal for a soon-to-be-engaged couple.

Hello my little lovers. This week's episode started with one of my favorite Quickfire Challenges -- the blind taste test. The strength of a chef's palate is something that often comes up in judges' comments, so, for some reason, the outcome of this challenge means a lot to me as a viewer. This time, however, the producers mixed it up, tasting the chef's sense of taste, smell, and touch! After some spillage and some very impressive identifications, Hugh prevailed! Mary Sue won my heart, once again, though, with her comment "I wrote down papaya, and I changed it to tomato -- I dont know why." I mean, how adorable was that?!

On to the cooking! This week's Elimination Challenge, and challenges like it, always have me asking (myself), "Would you want to be proposed to on television?" I used to say no. I think I've changed my mind. If I had world-class chefs cooking a meal that actually meant something to my fiance and me, I'd love it. I've probably given this whole concept more thought than I should since I'm not even in a serious relationship, but I want to be proposed to at Le Bernardin, and I want to have my engagement party in one of the private rooms upstairs. And Bryan Voltaggio and Hung Huynh will cater my wedding (since Hung can do the Kosher thing) There, I've said it!

Question: Does food factor in to your dream proposal?

So, when this week's groom, Chris, commissioned the chefs to create a multi-course meal inspired by his relationship with his girlfriend, Victoria, I was all in. The chefs not only had to create dishes that captured the relationship moments Chris described, but also please the other diner couples, and, of course, the judges (Gail and Gael were back!) The twist? The couple's mothers would be watching from the kitchen, so they wouldn't miss the proposal, and Victoria's mother could congratulate her engaged daughter immediately.

Naomi, Mary Sue (down a fingertip), and Floyd earned top honors for their dishes. The producers really fooled with me with Naomi's comments about her dish being too rustic. I thought that might have sent her home, and if it had, I would've been disappointed. "Rustic" food is just as good as refined food. My only real concern about her dish was that it was very large, so going from that to Hugh's smaller-portioned strip steak seemed like an odd progression. Mary Sue's dish resulted in one of my favorite -- and most eduational -- moments of the episode where Curtis showed Gail how to make a spoon from mussel shells! Can't wait to try that. Curtis once again proved that he's probably the best date in the world. And Floyd just might be the best husband. Does he just seem like the most thoughtful man on the planet, or what?!

Unfortunately, Celina, Hugh, and Traci, all ended up on the bottom. They thought they best captured the challenge of creating meaningful dishes for Chris and Victoria. And you know what? They're probably right. In fact, when Victoria saw "Je t'aime" written on her dessert plate, still unsure of exactly what was happening, I started tearing up. And Traci was responsible for that. Too bad her gallette was too dry. It actually looked rustic and beautiful, but I didn't taste it. Not only were the judges not happy with the chewiness of Hugh's steak, but he then dropped somewhat of a bomb: When asked by Curtis if he cooked down to his diners. He admitted he had, and would again. Oof. There's a difference between creating audience-appropriate food and dumbing down your food. I was dispapointed in Hugh's response because I adore him so much. It'll be interesting to see if he's changed his view on this. Alas, though, Celina went home. Although her pretzels turned out great, they just made no sense with the salad alongside them.

Question: were you guys relieved to see Hugh/Traci stay, or were you more upset to see Celina go? I'm curious!

Until next week, let me know where you're eating, and 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.