It's All Relative

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?

It's All Relative

James Oseland explains that it’s up to us critics to identify the extremes of what they eat during the Elimination Challenge.

Being a critic on Top Chef Masters requires lots of things — among them, an informed palate, an occasionally dark sense of humor, and an abiding love for Curtis Stone’s dulcet voice. But as critics we’re also called on to adjust our expectations while seated at the judging table: the cheftestants each season are extraordinarily talented, but the challenges and constraints imposed on them mean that the food they produce can, at times, be below their usual level. (Of course, that’s not always the case — often the cheftestants make dishes that are absolutely magnificent regardless of any competition restrictions.) When facing a plate of pasta cooked in a dorm room shower, or a soup cooked in a kitchen without running water, it’s important that we be able to assess the dish on its own merits, judging its success within the context in which it was created.

In order to come up with the winner this week, an understanding of context was critical. The chefs had to make a multicourse meal using only a few (um, not very powerful) burners and a tiny oven, which would be a challenge for any chef. Add to that the fact that the kitchen they were working in had a tendency to take sharp turns at high speeds, and everyone was working with a serious handicap.

Of course, you’d hardly know it from the dishes served by the Black Team. The foursome of Traci, Mary Sue, Hugh, and Naomi turned out dishes that transcended their RV origins. The deep-fried avocado that topped Mary Sue’s tostada was revelatory; it was a completely commonplace food prepared in a way that was entirely new to me. Hugh’s corn soup wasn’t a favorite at the table, but I found his combination of corn and vanilla to be a sophisticated, intriguing pairing.

It was a pleasure to recognize Traci, who has won so many Quickfires, with her very first Elimination Challenge win. Steak is one of those deceptively simple dishes that’s easy enough to cook adequately, but it takes a real master to prepare something as flawless as Traci’s ribeye. Her sides were spectacular in themselves: immaculately carved pieces of daikon braised in miso and a stunning cucumber salad in an umeboshi vinaigrette that had a refined balance of faintly bitter and faintly sweet. Eating that food, you would never have known that it was cooked in what amounted to a glorified E-Z Bake oven.It’s up to us critics to identify the extremes of what we eat during the Elimination Challenge — good and bad. As the cheftestants themselves realized when they judged themselves during the Quickfire, someone has to win, and someone has to lose. Even allowing for the conditions in which the food was prepared, the Red Team had a poor showing. Each course had something working against it. Celina made the bizarre choice of pairing her spanakopita with couscous; Floyd served a salad that may as well have been pre-bagged, and a steak that was simply boring.

But it was Alex who, alas, took the fall this week: he made not one but four dishes, not a single one of which hit the mark. His decision to take responsibility for so much of the menu was a commendable act as a team player, but he spread himself so thin that his food suffered as a result: the tapioca pudding was al dente, the breading on the turkey cutlet was hard, the seitan enchilada was flavorless, and that plate of soggy pasta was just plain crummy. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Critics’ Table, it’s not about good sportsmanship, or picking up the slack; it’s about how the food tastes.

I know — and the other critics know — that Alex can do better than he did on this episode. He’s a terrific cook, with a vast repertoire of dishes and techniques up his sleeve, and a deep and varied knowledge of different types of cooking. We’ve seen his skill before on the show: his masterful fricassee on Episode 1 set a high bar for all the other chefs to meet. But this week, Alex prioritized the group over himself, and he suffered for that. If Alex had poured his all into just one or two dishes and thrown his teammates under the (tour) bus, he might have still been standing at the end of the day. I think I can safely speak for the other critics when I say that he will be deeply missed.

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.