Buggin' Out

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?

Buggin' Out

Curtis Stone didn't know what he was in for in the bug Quickfire Challenge.

Well, what can I say about our poor chefs’ Quickfire Challenge? Let me tell you, it’s hard enough being in an unfamiliar kitchen, cooking under extreme time restraints and against the best chefs in the country. But cooking with an ingredient that you have never cooked with before, that potentially grosses you out or, in Suvir’s case, simply goes against your beliefs — this had to be one of the toughest Quickfires in Top Chef Masters history.

I thought I was in for an easy ride with this job. Apparently not. I had to eat all of these dishes! Now it’s not the first time I had eaten an insect. I’ve tried crickets before in Thailand and actually quite enjoyed it. I’ve even eaten a large worm (10 inches in length) with an Aboriginal elder in the middle of the Australian outback, so I felt quite well-prepared. Trust me, I was not.

I take my hat off to the chefs as some of the dishes were actually quite tasty like Hugh’s tempura fried crickets with sunchoke and carrot puree. However I can still remember the horrible texture of the hornworm and coconut soup and the scratchy legs on the soy crickets. Now, understand: this not a criticism; I was really impressed that our talented chefs rose to the occasion and, in most cases, put something edible on the table.

The Elimination Challenge was something I was really excited for. There is nothing better than raising money for your charity and here we really gave our chefs the ability to turn on the magic. I have to tell you as a chef, the first thing you do when you have a dinner like this is make a timeline. Some chefs will be meticulous about it and write it all down and others will just do it mentally. Simply put, you work out what you need to do to create the food in time for service and divide that into individual jobs, including how long each should take. That way, you give each component the right amount of attention, and you know how long it’ll take to get the whole meal done. So, if you have 10 jobs to complete before service and they take on average 30 minutes each, it will take you five hours to prepare for service. Why am I boring you with all this chef-y information? Because I want you to understand the implication of those curveballs we threw and how they could easily wreack havoc on anyone’s timeline. The chefs had to think on their feet, adjust their prep lists, and change their dishes as we threw different challenges their way. Not having running water, for instance, is a major pain. And as if that’s not enough, not having servers is even harder to manage, because the chef is now responsible for cooking and serving the food. And let’s face it, most chefs prefer to be in the back of the house finessing their dishes. The real challenge was to see just how well our chefs could adapt to an unpredictable environment. The key to being great under pressure is keeping your cool and serving the food you planned to serve. I was not surprised to see our chefs getting a little touchy with each other as we put so much pressure on them. Hugh and Naomi almost lost it trying to make up for the missing waiters. I loved the way Suvir and Traci kept their cool and focused on serving their chaat salad and rib eye courses. The flavor of Naomi’s celery velouté was seriously unbelievable. I have to say, it was my favorite dish. But the fact that all of these chefs could pull together and serve one the best menus I have ever eaten at a charity dinner is proof that they all deserve first place.

Now for my least favorite time of the night: sending someone packing. This honestly bums me out as the chefs always work so hard to serve such great food. But what makes this competition a serious challenge is that it asks the chefs to show off their strengths and, at the same time, reach outside their comfort zones. John is such a creative and talented chef, but this week he played it a little too safe with the shitake and prosciutto risotto.

Everyone who attended the dinner had a great time. There was an amazing amount of charitable cheer in the room and lots of money was raised, so a big thank you to our generous donors. Also a big congratulations to our outstanding chefs. What an amazing job under the harshest of conditions. I can’t wait to see what gets served next week.

Bon Appétit!

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.