Choose Your Own Adventure

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?

Choose Your Own Adventure

Had James Oseland had his way, the season premiere would have ended very differently.

Oh, television. No matter how many seasons I’ve appeared on Top Chef Masters (this is my third go-around), I confess that I’m always slightly less than thrilled to watch myself on the small screen. All my nitpicky internal voices go into overdrive when I watch the show: Was that really a good choice, that gray sweater vest? Why, why, why can’t I keep my hands still in front of me like a normal human being?

Nevertheless, I was completely beside myself to check in this season, to revisit time spent with the Top Chef Masters family, and to marvel yet again at the producers’ ability to edit long hours of shooting into one tight, nail-biter of an episode. This season the show is significantly different than seasons past, and I was dying to see how the final product turned out. There’s the incredible new cast, of course -- hugely talented chefs, really perhaps the strongest group we’ve ever seen on this series. Traci Des Jardins! George Mendes! Hugh Acheson! And on and on. These are some heavy hitters, chefs who are at the forefront of high-end dining. And there are newcomers on the other side of the table, as well: the formidable Ruth Reichl as my co-judge, and Curtis Stone, a man who truly knows how to keep his shirt unbuttoned, as the show’s host.

But the biggest change this season is the format. The show dropped the tournament-style setup of Seasons 1 and 2, where chefs progressed through brackets, in favor of an everybody-in-at-once style cribbed from Top Chef (non-Masters), in which all the chefs compete together and a contestant is eliminated each week. The new style means that participating in the show is a radically different experience for the cheftestants than it has been in previous seasons: They’re getting the opportunity to cook more, to familiarize us judges with their strengths, and to grow and learn both as a collective and as individuals.Take the unfortunate case of Hugh Acheson, who was eliminated from this week’s episode thanks to his tragically oversalted scallop: Hugh used the salt that was available in the Top Chef Masters kitchen, which just happened to be Maldon, a salt known for its hefty-size flakes; just a few extra grains can push a dish from perfectly seasoned to inedible. Because all the other cheftestants were witness to the error, they now know that this is the salt found in the kitchen, and they’re likely to season their dishes accordingly. The kitchen on the show is state of the art, but it’s also unfamiliar to this new lineup of chefs -- they have a huge task in learning how to navigate their way through it, from the heat of the stove to the hot spots in the oven, not to mention the 10-person camera crew leaning in over their about-to-break hollandaise.

Of course, the downside of the new format is that the chefs are going to have to pull off some consistently strenuous feats of cooking. On previous seasons of Top Chef Masters, the winning chef cooked for the judges an average of six times. This year, the winner will have to go up in front of us a whole lot more, including both Quickfires and weekly Elimination Challenges. They’re going to need to pace themselves, and really ration their energy and creativity.

But back to Hugh’s salty scallop. Curtis mentioned this on the show, but I really want to drive it home: while the diners in our premiere episode voted otherwise, the judges overwhelmingly preferred Team Red’s Mosaic restaurant to Team Blue’s Leela. It was heartbreaking to have to send a chef home from what we considered to be the better team; I was genuinely surprised when Leela won the popular vote, having experienced what I thought was a very unremarkable meal. What appeared in the episode to be a brief delay on our entrees was in reality well over a half an hour; additionally, many of the dishes were truly underwhelming, including John Sedlar’s nearly raw rack of lamb and John Currence’s bizarre sweet potato and peanut soup, garnished with a gooey glob of chicken liver “mousse.”All that said, my dinner at Leela was a great reminder about one of the wonderful things about this show, and one of the reasons I was so happy to be back: the unexpected events that can occur when you take chefs out of their comfort zones. The contestants on Top Chef Masters have, in their professional lives, huge teams working for them; as chef-owners, they oversee not just sous-chefs and line cooks but maitre d’s, servers, and general managers. In the Restaurant Wars challenge we asked them to take on all those roles themselves: they had to conceive and execute a fully functional pop-up restaurant in a single day.

Sometimes a decision that makes sense outside the Top Chef Masters universe (like seating your entire restaurant all at once, which is what the folks at Leela decided to do) winds up being a crummy choice once you’re facing the judges -- and the cameras. Team Blue got lucky that the Restaurant Wars diners voted Leela the winning restaurant. If we judges had gotten our say, the episode would have ended with a very different chef going home.

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.