Cast Blog: #TCMASTERS

'Mad' About Christina

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?

'Mad' About Christina

What makes Ruth Reichl nervous? Apparently meeting Christina Hendricks!

On an ordinary day Jar is one of the most comfortable restaurants in Los Angeles, and when I’m on my own, a seat at the counter is where I want to be. (And now that I’ve seen how tiny the kitchen is, I’m even more in awe of the wonderful food that Suzanne Tracht turns out on a daily basis.)

But this was no ordinary day. It turned out that Jar was the setting for the next Top Chef challenge –- and the guest of honor was going to be Christina Hendricks, one of my favorite actresses. When I was introduced, my hands were actually shaking. In person, she’s much smaller than she seems on the screen, and much more beautiful. Kind of scary beautiful, in fact. But what you can’t see on camera is what a truly romantic couple she and Geoffrey Arend are; she is constantly touching him and gazing into his eyes while he manages to say the words “my wife” in every other sentence.

They call themselves foodies, but they’re much more than that. They are serious cooks. They can talk for hours about the meals they’ve made, and Geoffrey apparently thinks nothing of getting up early on a Sunday morning to bake a few bialys for his bride. Watching them eat, and listening to them talk about food, is enormous fun.

But I was also intrigued by this challenge. This wasn’t just a test to find out which chef was the best cook or had the fastest knife; this was a conceptual contest, and with each dish we gained a bit of insight into how each of these chefs think. It also turned out to be a challenge in which experience really counted.

As we ate each dish, I was considering more than taste. I was also asking how well each chef had reinterpreted his/her '60s dish in a contemporary style. That was what made Mary Sue’s dish so impressive; she was able to look at something as simple, satisfying, and old-fashioned as a deviled egg, take it apart and reassemble the ingredients into something surprising, a dish to mirror modern tastes. (Her dish also happened to be delicious.)
And as far as I was concerned, Sue lost more points for failing to create a contrast between her dishes than for her inability to finish in time. She was offered a fine opportunity to contrast an old warhorse of a dish with an entirely modern one. The beloved duck a l’orange is traditionally cooked for a long time until its skin is crisp and the meat well-cooked beneath its sweetly sour sauce. That would have really stood apart from a rare slice of sautéed breast; she blew it.

Suvir’s veal Oscar was truly awful, but even at its best, veal Oscar is not a dish any sensible person would want to eat. Floyd had a similar challenge; ambrosia is a fine reminder that food could be really awful back in the '60s. But both of them, very intelligently, concentrated on the elements of the dish, and each came up with an exciting reinterpretation.

Too bad nobody was asked to recreate a cocktail. Just think what these chefs might have come up with if they’d had the opportunity to recreate a Rusty Nail or a White Spider!

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.