Joanie Loves 'Top Chef Masters'

Hugh Acheson returns, Kelis judges a Quickfire, and Mad Men's Christina Hendricks presents a '60s-era challenge to the chefs.

Oh my little Sterlings, Coopers, Drapers, and Prices, welcome back to one of my most highly-anticipated episodes of the season.

Let's start with the Quickfire Challenge where the one-and-only Kelis served as guest judge. I had no idea she was a trained chef, or, frankly, that she ever wore buttoned-down shirts with cardigans, but, man, did she piss off some of the chefs. As the chefs created their take on the meatball, many didn't agree with Kelis' comments. I'm obviously going to choose to because she was the one eating the food. The adorable John Currence won Kelis over with his Vietnamese meatballs. I have to say I didn't really "notice" John in the first episode, but I think he's becoming a new favorite of mine -- he just seems like such a sweetheart!

And, I love a good meatball. The meatball has/is becoming one of those trendy items in NYC, like the cupcake. I have in the past and will continue to recommend heading to Meatball Shop if you get a chance. Specifically, I recommend the pork meatball smash... with a side of mashed potatoes or something... and a root beer. Mmm. Also, obviously, I can't think of meatballs without thinking of Harold Dietere's signature duck meatballs at Perilla, which I still order every single time I eat there (which is more often than I care to divulge.) That broth! The gnocchi! Sigh. Tell me: where are your favorite meatballs?
For the Elimination Challenge the glorious Christina Hendricks and her husband Geoffrey Arend, a fine actor in his own right, issued the chefs with a challenge. Now before I get to the challnege I have to disclose that i am an obsessive Mad Men fan. Not only have i had food-themed premiere parties the past two seasons, but I actually dressed as Joan two Halloweens ago. Look!


This obviously would be me as Joan as a Top Chef Masters judge:

OK, now we can talk about things you actually care about, like the challenge. The chefs had to modernize classic '60s dishes, dishes that Hendricks and her husband are somewhat over. Everyone seemed to be familiar with the dishes they were given except for Floyd, who got "ambrosia," which literally means "food of the gods." Anyone taking one look at the sample we provided would know that the gods apparently had horrible palates. (Oh, hubris!) But, Floyd made it work, creating a dish inspired by his wife. The other chef that seemed to be at the greatest handicap was Suvir, who doesn't eat meat, sooo he couldn't taste his dish. I was actually surprised at how seemingly unconcerned by the fact that he never tastes his meat dishes. Maybe I'm ignorant -- perhaps this is normal for a vegetarian chef? I'm assuming any chef with a dietary restriction has had to make something they couldn't taste before. School me, people! Floyd actually almost went home for his veal, though, as it was described by the judges as "mystery meat." But, alas, it was Sue Zemanick's time to fall with her duck a l'orange. She spent so much time helping her fellow contestants in the cramped kitchen that she didn't get all the components on her plates. I'd venture to say though that the judges weren't too pleased with what they did get. Even Christina Hendricks asked what kind of difference the missing cracklin would have made had it been on the plate. At first I thought she meant the dish was so good on its own, but quickly realized that made no sense. I'm sure Sue Zemanick picked up quite a few fans in her shore time on the show, though.

As for the top dishes, Mary Sue Miliken on the other hand redeemed her "meh" premiere cupcake offering with an apparently transformative take on a deviled egg. I really want to try this recipe, so maybe I'll make it! P.S. If you want a good deviled egg, I recommend lowcountry. Their pork chop is amazing too. I can't remember if James was referring to Mary's dish when he said, "It's delightfully unctious in the mouth," but he said that about something and I haven't stopped saying it since! So, mazel to Sue! Also mazel to Hugh Acheson on his return! Although I was sad to see John Rivera Sedlar go, I really enjoyed Hugh in the first episode and was happy to see him back. Meanwhile, if you do miss John, watch him reflect on his time on the show.

Before I bid you adieu this week, I wanted to tell you I'll be covering an event some fabulous Top Chefs put together called Eat, Pray, Heal Japan tomorrow night. You can get all the info (including the secret menu) RIGHT HERE, and maybe I'll see you there!

As always, Have a Nosh

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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.  

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