The Kids are Alright

Curtis Stone deciphers the chefs' differing teaching styles.

It’s been said that those who can’t do, teach. I say rubbish. Take this week’s Quickfire and Elimination Challenges, which asked our three remaining chefs, all unbelievably talented in their own right, to guide, instruct and educate. The result was beautiful food and students who were inspired and proud of their accomplishments.

The Quickfire was vintage Top Chef Masters. Instructing someone you can’t see (and can barely hear) to cook and plate a dish is intensely frustrating for the chef, but so fun to watch. Particularly when the students are the show’s judges. I expected Ruth to be amazing at this as she was famously a master of disguise as food critic for The New York Times, but James and Francis managed to hide their identities pretty well too. It was here that we saw the first hints of our chefs’ teaching styles. Lorena was patient and encouraging, Chris was methodical, and Kerry was demanding. What was interesting is how that style translated into the mystery partners' dishes. Lorena’s patience produced a deeply rich sauce, but cost her time to finish the pasta. Kerry coached Ruth to make a perfectly sautéed chicken, but it was remarkable to see how close Chris and James’ Prawns with Sautéed Celery, Thyme, Pine Nuts and Chili Threads turned out, in both taste and appearance.

This week’s Elimination Challenge was unbelievably rewarding. Walking into the kitchen you could feel this intense blend of nervousness and excitement from our six students. While they were all star pupils in the culinary arts program at the Southwest Career & Technical Academy, you couldn’t help but notice that the chance to cook with our talented chefs at this incredibly high level was blowing their minds. It was fantastic. It was equally great to see Lorena, Chris, and Kerry work with their kids. It’s worth noting that it had to be nerve-wracking to hand over your chance to make it to the finale to inexperienced teenagers just starting to learn to cook. But each of the chefs put that aside and focused on how to get the best dish out of the students, as much for the kids’ benefit as theirs.The chef’s teaching styles stayed the same as in the Quickfire, but the ultimate goal was different in this challenge. Chris seemed to want the kids to gain a deeper appreciation of food, where it comes from, how it tastes and how it contributes to a wider range of flavors. Lorena wanted her kids to understand what it feels like to love what you do, to have a passion and give it all you’ve got. Kerry, who interestingly also went to vocational school, had his sights set on success. He thought of his students as chefs, not kids, and consequently pushed them to perform to a level they didn’t even know they could achieve.

As for the dishes, they were all delicious, impressive, and reflected the spirit of our chefs. Chris’ Pork Loin with Hazelnut Brown Butter, Apples & Watercress was so elegant and simple; every element of the dish reflected the beauty of the other ingredients on the plate. That’s extremely difficult to achieve. While Ruth didn’t see Lorena’s Three Meat Lasagna and Arugula Salad as restaurant-worthy, I thought the family-style presentation showed how Lorena sees food as a way to connect people. But it was Kerry’s Florentine-Inspired Chicken with Orzo and Asparagus Ragout that blew us all away. Kerry’s exacting standards resulted in his students creating a dish so flavorful and professionally crafted that it could easily have been served in a fine restaurant. 

At this stage, it’s ridiculously difficult to send anyone home. Saying goodbye to Lorena and her scrappy, never-say-die spirit was sad for all of us. All the best, Lorena! It was such a joy to have you on this season. Next up, the finale! With Chris and Kerry in the mix, it’s going to be quite a showdown.

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.