Eating My Words

Ruth Reichl wonders whether the diners were eating in the same restaurants as the judges.

Think about this. Try to taste it in your mind. Canned corned beef and marshmallows. What a way to begin!

My first 10 minutes at Top Chef Masters, and I’m watching great chefs, chefs I really admire, trying to pull off the impossible. Only a magician could combine corned beef with marshmallows and come out with something worth eating. “This is absurd,” I said. Then I took a bite of the dish that Suvir had made –- and was forced to eat not only the dish, but also my words. Proof positive that a really great chef can make anything work.

And while not every chef faced an equally hard challenge, the best dishes all displayed true mastery. Licorice and peanut butter is pretty hard to pull off, but Traci not only did it beautifully, she managed to make a little duet of salads that were original, delicious, and lovely to look at. I’d happily eat them both again. As for Mary Sue, she gave me new insight into the character of cottage cheese; after eating her dish I’ll never again think of cottage cheese as the wimp of the dairy case.

The restaurant challenge offered an entirely different insight. We were all shocked to find out that the diners had voted for Leela; in the judges minds Mosaic won by a landslide. Were we eating in the same restaurants?

To me Leela felt like a nightmare of confusion, while over at Mosaic the service was relaxed, the pace easy. It was the perfect atmosphere to appreciate the impressively professional food. George’s silky salmon was surrounded by a symphony of textures, and Floyd’s short rib was cooked until it practically melted into that wonderfully herbed oat risotto. It’s true that Hugh’s dish scallops were shockingly salty, Mary Sue’s chocolate cake a bit too sweet, but those were minor problems compared to some of the dishes we were served over at Leela.

There was, for instance, that strange soup of John’s, a thick, spicy orange puddle of sweet potatoes with an extremely unattractive brown island melting in the middle (it was a liver mousse). John Sedlar’s lamb chops were so wiggly rare they were almost alive, and the apples in his salad were still wearing their stickers. I will say, however, that it felt fine to give the prize to Alex, whose classic fricassee was perfectly executed. It was chef’s food, done by a Master.

We sat there for a long time, wondering what it was that the diners had liked so much about the restaurant. The only answer I could come up with is that they enjoyed the sheer energy of the room. Naomi took a real chance on seating all the diners at the same time – but she did make it feel like a party. And in the end, I guess you can’t beat that.

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