Impossibly Glamorous

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?

Impossibly Glamorous

James Oseland shares his love for this week's 1960s classics.

I’d like to start by saying something that means a lot to me: Hugh is back! His departure was perhaps one of the most difficult things I’ve witnessed over the course of three seasons of Top Chef Masters. Sure, John Sedlar will be missed—John, we hardly knew ye!—but Ruth, Curtis, Danielle, and I were uniformly elated to welcome Hugh back to the fold. He’s a talented, intelligent chef, and sending him home last week didn’t feel like the right thing to do (in spite of that salty scallop). Lo and behold, he proved his skill this week by acing not one but two preparations of beef Wellington, perhaps one of the all-time most challenging dishes to make.

The gorgeous Christina Hendricks introduced this week’s Elimination Challenge by telling the cheftestants that she disliked the food of the 1960s. Christina obviously has great taste in all sorts of things—a charming husband among them—but on this particular matter, I must disagree. In the 1960s, when I was a kid, my dad was an office-products salesman (he traveled the country selling Bic pens and desktop blotters), and wherever he was, he would stop at restaurants that I imagined were impossibly glamorous, serving food that I considered to be the absolute pinnacle of sophistication. Whenever Dad returned from a trip, he’d go right into the kitchen and duplicate the dishes he’d had at these restaurants: beef Stroganoff, grasshopper pie—foods that, to this day, I absolutely love.

But there was one 1960s creation to which my dad exposed me that stood out above all the others: Duck à l’orange was to me the ideal food and the very definition of high-end dining. So it was a bit disappointing that it was that dish that wound up sending a chef home on this week’s episode. Neither of Sue Zemanick’s versions was outstanding. Still, I’m not sure that it was a plate of food bad enough to go home over. Could Sue’s food have been better? Could it have been more flavorful? Could there have been a better differentiation between the original and the updated rendition? Yes, yes, and yes. Sue’s duck wasn’t terrific, but it was tasty.

Suvir’s veal Oscar, on the other hand, was like shoe leather. At the Critics’ Table, we learned that the chef had made the decision to deep-fry the meat after not snagging enough space on the stovetop. Politeness is a virtue, but if Sue’s dish hadn’t been such a disappointment, Suvir’s policy of nonintervention could have been a fatal mistake—he needed to push someone out of the way and gently sauté that veal!  At least Suvir had the excuse that his dish was bizarre to begin with—veal Oscar is an oddball, timepiece recipe that was created more for its symbolic resonance than for its flavor. It was developed in 1905 to honor King Oscar II of Sweden, incorporating his royal colors and various symbols of his monarchy (the white asparagus spears that adorn its top, for instance, were meant to represent the “II” in his title). There are plenty of reasons pretty much no one makes the dish anymore. But Alex Stratta had no excuse for blowing bread pudding. Of all the dishes the cheftestants could have drawn, bread pudding—along with deviled eggs—was one of the softballs. Mary Sue took the opportunity of her easy draw to knock something out of the park (more on that later), but I was surprised by Alex’s lack of both skill and innovation. Even if, as he said, he’d never made bread pudding before, it’s a fundamental dish, and both his original and his updated version lacked the level of execution that I would expect from a Top Chef Master. Had Sue not run out of time with her plating, I suspect Alex might have gone home this week.

But the good food far outweighed the bad. I think this might have been the single most successful challenge I’ve ever judged. Those who were at the top of their game created not just inspired updates of retro recipes, but also pitch-perfect renditions of the original dishes—in a few instances, the best versions I’ve ever eaten. George’s chicken à la king didn’t get much airtime, but it deserves special mention: Both the original and the update (a roast chicken breast daintily wrapped in blanched chard) were clearly the work of a serious contender in this competition. Floyd’s ambrosia was also revelatory. Not just his masterfully deconstructed update—which, perhaps more than any other chef’s dish, was a faithful reinterpretation of its source material—but the original as well. Who knew that ambrosia made with fresh fruit and just-whipped cream could be a masterpiece in itself?

But even against exceptionally strong showings from so many of the chefs, Mary Sue’s deviled eggs and John’s versions of oysters Rockefeller were astronomical culinary achievements. I would have been happy to see either of them win, but Mary Sue did something that really touched me—something that made her win even sweeter. On last week’s episode, when we almost sent her home thanks to a snoozy chocolate cupcake, we asked her to challenge herself, to not just cook dishes that she already had in her professional Rolodex. And this week, she did just that: We could taste her willingness to push herself, as a chef, as an artist, as a competitor on the show. Her mastery was real. It was on the plate in front of us, and it tasted extraordinary.

James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine.

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.