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.

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Curtis Stone's Lemon Creams with Poached Cherries

Curtis describes cooking for the finalists. Recipe included!

Well done, Doug! He put in a cracking effort this season. Were you happy to see him go all the way to being crowned the Top Chef Masters Season 5 winner? It’s great that he won 100K for his charity, Green Dog Rescue, Inc. Congrats, mate. 

The finale is the most exciting time in the entire competition, and it was a seriously great night for the critics and me. Each dish that was served up to us was absolutely bloody delicious. Jen, Bryan, and Doug should be so proud of themselves. 

These chefs are truly at the top of their culinary game, which makes it even more exciting and daunting for me to cook for them. Chefs love cooking for other chefs, but it’s also pretty nerve-wracking. We cook for critics, customers, and celebrities all the time, and that’s par for the course, but no one can break your food down like another chef. We only got to see the spot prawns and lemon cream on tonight’s episode, but I also got busy in the kitchen and hand-made some beautiful ravioli and chilled soup too. (My lemon cream recipe can be found below). I’ve put these three chefs through the ringer for 10 weeks, thrown a bunch of crazy challenges at them, and have said some not-so-great things once or twice while critiquing their meals, so it’s safe to say I was a little nervous awaiting their reactions. They seemed to enjoy the dishes a lot, and it was great to just sit down, reflect, and celebrate their accomplishments.  

Bryan is a total superstar and has elevated his career more than anyone could have imagined going from Top Chef finalist to Top Chef Masters finalist. It’s just unbelievable. It’s kind of like going from playing local football to suddenly being in the premier league. 

It was also amazing to watch Jen come back fighting like a champion in this competition. She really fought hard and deserved a place in the final after going from being eliminated to winning her way back in, and then winning a handful of challenges. 

I think Doug had that winning edge in the end due to a number of key factors. He’s an accomplished chef with years of experience and has a vast amount of knowledge to draw on from his travels and training. Doug’s spent a lot of time behind the stoves and has never turned his back on them (well, only when he is working and playing with his beloved dogs). He’s got an admirable roll-up-the-sleeves, resilient attitude and gave each challenge a good crack. And we can talk about him facing his fears of skydiving? A lot can change in 10 weeks, huh? I had a ball filming this season, and it was a pleasure to work with such a talented group of chefs, critics, celebrities and the crew. I’m already thinking about next year and the chefs on my wish list to lure into the Top Chef Masters kitchen. I’d love to see April Bloomfield from NYC’s The Spotted Pig, husband and wife team Karen and Quinn Hatfield from Hatfield’s Restaurant and The Sycamore Kitchen, Josef Centeno from Bäco Mercat, Christopher Elbow from Kansas City (his chocolates look insane), and I’d also love to see Missy Robbins come back to us. 

Thanks for a great season, everyone!



Lemon Creams with Poached Cherries

This dessert is a bit of a calorie killer, but hey, what the hell. It’s dead easy, but you’ll need a thermometer. Use two lemons if you like a subtle lemon flavor, or three for more of a zing. I like using frozen sour cherries to cook with -- fresh cherries should be eaten fresh. 

Serves: 6
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes


Lemon creams:

3 1/2 cups 35% whipping cream
Finely grated rind and juice of 2-3 lemons
6 oz instant dissolving sugar

Poached cherries:

Finely grated rind of 1/2 orange

7 fl oz red wine (Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon)

1/2 cinnamon stick

1 whole clove

1 tsp instant dissolving sugar plus extra, if needed

7 oz frozen sour black cherries, defrosted 



To prepare the lemon creams: 

In a saucepan, heat the cream to 160°F. Remove from the heat and cool to 150°F.

Add the lemon rind, juice and sugar to the cream mixture, and mix well. Allow to cool, then pour into six 6-inch dariole moulds (cups, ramekins, or glasses will do if you don’t have molds*). Place on a tray and put in the refrigerator to set, about fur hours.

To poach the cherries:

Place the rind, wine, cinnamon, clove and sugar in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer. Add the cherries, bring to the boil, and taste for sweetness. If necessary, add a little more sugar to neutralize the tannin of the wine, while retaining some zing. Simmer for five minutes, then cool.

When ready to serve, carefully up-end the moulds over serving plates and give them a shake; the creams should just slip out. If this proves difficult, run a small knife around the edge of the mould to release the cream and try again. 

Serve each lemon cream accompanied by 5-6 cherries. Drizzle a little of the syrup over each one. 

*You can also make molds from 3-inch diameter PVC pipe from a hardware store cut to depths of 1 1/4-inches. Sand the edges and then seal the bottoms with plastic wrap.   




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