Cast Blog: #TCMASTERS

Love Bugs

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?

Love Bugs

James Oseland shares his own experiences with eating bugs.

Pity the competing chefs on Episode 3. It wasn’t as if they could just flip open their copy of Larousse Gastronomique for instructions on how to skin a green worm! While I wasn’t present for the, um, buggy Quickfire Challenge, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have minded it a bit. (And in an interview I did a few weeks ago with the always wonderful Ruth Reichl—oh, how I missed her this week—she confessed a similar sentiment.) I’ve eaten bugs in lots of different parts of the world, from Mexico and other regions of Central America to Southeast Asia. Weird? Yes, sure, especially for someone like me, who was raised largely on pot roast (and, of course, the occasional duck à l’orange). But gross? No way.

You see, it’s all about context. When you’re in the Isan region of Thailand—a place in the northeast part of that country that I’ve been a few times—and a local cook offers you a salad of lemongrass, lime juice, chiles, and stir-fried queen ants gathered that morning from the grove of trees behind her home, there’s nothing remotely yucky about it. The experience is no less appealing than, say, being served a plate of pan-fried shrimp at a seaside osteria in Italy—shrimp are, after all, little more than the roaches of the ocean.

Happily, the chefs stood up admirably to this week’s next challenge: working as a team to make a 10-course meal under some seriously harsh circumstances. No running water? Their prep time being cut by 30 minutes? The last-minute revelation that they would be sans waitstaff? Any one of these curveballs would have devastated the average chef. (I would have thrown in the towel after curveball No. 2.) But they weren’t devastated, and they didn’t throw in the towel. And in fact, most of them excelled spectacularly.

As the meal progressed, Danielle, Curtis, Alan, and I were (largely) blissfully unaware of all the backstage handicapping. The meal we ate was truly satisfying. We weren’t left waiting or wanting, as we had been during challenges past; the dishes came out in a seamless, steady flow. What a testament to the cheftestants’ genuine professionalism!

Plus, something else: I think these guys are at last getting accustomed to the strange and unnatural parameters of being contestants on Top Chef Masters. Not only do they now clearly understand the on-hand ingredients better (no more oversalted scallops!), but I sense they’re also beginning to comprehend which dishes function best in the competition. Even under conditions as adverse as the ones they were given tonight, they’re figuring out how to execute makeable foods with a high level of complexity—practical dishes that show off their skill sets. Take Naomi’s celery velouté with Meyer lemon oil. I’ve only ever known velouté as a sauce, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It came in a small, square bowl, with a spare garnish of fresh herbs. Had the soup been anything less than extraordinary, this Spartan presentation would have backfired. But Naomi’s dish was immaculately prepared, with layers of flavor that astonished. Her ability to harness such pure, raw celery flavor in a cooked soup was a master stroke. It was warm and smooth and rich but tasted as though you were crunching into a piece of just-picked celery. Wow.

Naomi deserved to win. Her “velouté” was a bold choice. Would I pay $100 a plate for what was essentially cream of celery soup? After having eaten it, yes, emphatically. It was the high point in a really fine lineup of dishes. (I also loved—loved—Suvir’s well-balanced but safe chaat salad and Floyd’s puffed rice–flaked sole in its bright and sour rasam, a South Indian soup made from tamarind and asafetida.) Naomi’s dish gave us a glimpse into her capabilities as a chef. Until now, she’d cooked only desserts—we critics hadn’t gotten a real sense of what she could deliver.

John’s risotto, on the other hand, while as simple and unassuming at first glance as Naomi’s soup, failed to showcase technique and depth of flavor the same way. I adore John. He’s a seriously smart, talented, and hilarious chef. But you can’t play it safe and make risotto on a challenge like this one; you have to bring some showbiz to every dish you send out.

More about another standout dish: Traci’s. She served three things tonight: a grilled beef rib eye (total perfection); a frizzle of fried shallots; and a braise of broccoli, chard, garlic, and anchovies.

Traci’s vegetable braise was, she told us, based on a dish her dad used to cook for her when she was a kid—he’d cover greens or whatever late-summer vegetables he had on hand with a good dousing of olive oil, pepper, and mashed anchovies and cook it all, in a big, covered pot, over a low flame for an hour or two. Look, I’m Mr. Stir-Fry—I generally like just a wisp of heat to touch my vegetables. But there’s something to be said for really cooked vegetables. Many of the world’s great cuisines—from Italian to French to Indian—boast a roster of dishes that transform raw vegetables into something profound. Slow-stewed Southern-style collards? Bring them on! That amazing braise of wild greens I ate last summer in northern Greece? The memory of its richness haunts me to this day. Long, slow cooking can, ironically, make vegetables taste more like vegetables, bringing out their deep, dark, mysterious, soulful, umami-packed qualities.

Nowadays, the trend in luxe dining is to dis vegetables that aren’t quickly cooked. Frankly, it upsets me to hear people say things like, “Ew, long-cooked vegetables remind me of cafeteria food!” Nothing could be further from the truth. Slow-braised vegetables can be delicious, and they deserve a place in our culinary lexicon. They aren’t swampy.


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

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!

Cheers,

Curtis

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

Ingredients

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 

 

Method

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.