Down for the Count

Curtis Stone steps out of the ring to assess the competition.

After two seasons hosting Top Chef Masters, I recognize this moment in the competition. The chefs are tired. They still have their competitive edge—that’s hard-wired into them, after all—but the strain starts to bubble up to the surface. The stress can look different for different chefs. Some start making bad choices. Others just get crabby. 

It’s pretty easy to see how this is playing out for Patricia, who has grown increasingly frustrated (and vocal) about Lorena. For Chris, it probably contributed to his loss in the Quickfire Challenge. It’s not easy to portion meat to an exact weight, in this case between 7.5 and 8.5 ounces. But with a little extra time and a bit more caution, I suspect Chris would have nailed it. It was great to see Kerry win a challenge. He’s been due for sure and what a great week for immunity. 

It was fantastic having Sugar Ray Leonard as our guest judge this week. An amazing fighter in the ring, he was super insightful about what it means to be a competitor in any profession. 

In the first round of the Elimination Challenge, we had two very different match-ups. Chris and Takashi, both amazing chefs, were still able to approach the battle with mutual respect. Chris needed an egg? Takashi gave him his. Takashi misfired the bacon count -- Chris handed over his extra piece. Anyone who thinks nice guys finish last should take note. Chris’ generosity didn’t handicap him. He won, purely on the merit of his beautifully rustic Cal-Mex Bacon and Eggs.Watching Patricia and Lorena was an entirely different show. First, the two work so differently. Lorena’s flare and flourish was so markedly different than Patricia’s cool-headed precision. Both ended up creating amazing food that reflected their style so clearly. Lorena’s winning Potato and Bacon Soup with Corn and Bacon Sofrito was luscious and sensual while Patricia’s Bacon, Leek and Tomato Salad was balanced and restrained. 

In the Championship Round, Lorena’s fire, speed, and risk-taking proved that she’s the dark horse in this competition. It took serious guts to bake a flourless chocolate cake in 20 minutes and even more never-say-die passion to make Caramelized Pineapple and Dulce de Leche Sauce as a backup. Chris’ Zabaione and Summer Fruit was exactly what a zabaione should be, a light and frothy custard that played perfectly with the sweetness of ripe fruit. But Lorena’s two beautifully rich desserts won out.

The Elimination Round was heartbreaking. However the votes fell, a truly talented chef was leaving the competition. Best of luck Takashi! I can’t wait to eat more of your Michelin-starred food the next time I’m in Chicago. 

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.