Cast Blog: #TCMASTERS

Everything Zen

Bravotv.com's Senior Editor highlights the gray areas of the teppanyaki challenge.

Hello my little triple axels! What an exciting week on Top Chef Masters. When I wrote at the beginning of the season about how good this season is, I had already watched this episode, and I truly think it is one of the most exciting episodes we've ever aired. Maybe I just get a little too excited about this show, but comment if you agree!

First, the chefs were issued a Quickfire where they had to cook seafood without heat. Well, they were presented with a giant ice block. I was nervous that they might have to chip through the ice like our Top Chef: Texas finalists, but alas, they were safe. I love this challenge. As I've only really started eating raw fish in my adult years, I've had some pretty fantastic cold fish dishes, and I would have been pretty happy with most of the chefs' offerings. Brian Boitano, who actually does have a show on the Cooking Channel, serves as guest judge and is very eloquent about what he's eating. I grew up watching Brian, so I was pretty thrilled to see this. I only wish Kurt Browning wuld have somehow stormed the kitchen, skating around Brian to "Brick House." Oh well -- a girl can dream.

Although Takashi seemed to have an advantage in this challenge as a sushi chef, I also think this could have hurt him. Well, I was wrong. He won the challenge. Frankly, i was relieved. i always like seeing chefs excel at their area of expertise. The only dish I found disappointing in this challenge -- visually at least -- was Art's, which Curtis pointed out to Brian, to which Art replied, "Shut up, Curtis!" I would have preferred a simple "Leading the witness!"

On to the Quickfire! And the teppanyaki! I am a sucker for a hibachi meal. I love fresh-made fried rice, and obviously having shrimp tails flipped at me. Also, punch served in a Buddha-shaped mug. Catching a rice ball in my mouth is one of my greatest achievements. But this week, the chefs had to not only cook on a teppanyaki in groups of three, but they had to cook for their peers. Luckily for them, it was some of their more jovial peers in the form of Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Jonathan Waxman, and Rick Moonen. We also welcomed Francis Lam to the Judges' Table. Did I mention Francis is blogging and his blog is highly entertaining? Read it HERE.

Before we get to the actual serving, let's pause for a moment for an inspirational message from Chris Cosentino at Whole Foods. "A lot of great things have happened in the world when people think outside the box." Agreed. Oh, let's also stop for a massage like Thierry did. Man, this competition is stressful -- who can blame him for needing a little rub-down? Apparently Chris can, calling him a "ding dong." Is that an acceptable insult these days? I hope so because it's definitely being worked into my vocabulary.The teppanyaki challenge is all about regulating heat, time management, and putting on a show. Let's see how the teams did, shall we?

First up are Mark, Kerry, and Lorena. Mark's food was simple, but bland. I'm still lost on why he didn't use his butter. Kerry went Korean and brought the drama, but his shrimp was overcooked. And Lorena's fried rice burned a bit. Also, they didn't taste their food. I'm on the fence about whether they were justified in thinking they shouldn't try their food in front of people because it was "indelicate" to do so, to put it in Kerry's terms. Personally, I found Lorena's use of the third person more offensive. I kid. I kid. 

Next up we have Clark, Patricia, and Takashi. Takashi had problems with the consistency of his pancakes, but he has immunity. Rick loves Patricia's lettuce wraps. He loves lettuce wraps. Oh, and they put on a dance routine. The judges and guests seemed ot enojoy this team' dishes much more than the first team's.

On to the final team who decide not to even try to cook Japanese-style. I think this was either incredibly smart or could have backfired on them. But this was't their bigest challenge -- their pesonalities were. Chris and Art always bicker, but it came to a head this week when Chris yelled at Art in front of his peers. A little part of me died inside for Art. Even if Chris was justified, that's just plain embarrassing. Thankfully, Thierry diffused the situation. Also, Chris called himself "daddy." Lorena is now forgiven for speaking in the third person. Despite some burnt crepes, all the dishes were received well, and in the end, they pulled out hte win. If this weren't a teppanyaki challenge, and the chefs bickered in the kitchen, we would never have known.

On a sidenote, I had the pleasure of eating at Kevin Sbraga's restaurant Sbraga in Philly this weekend, and not only was the food out of this world, but it's an open kitchen, and the vibe at the Chef's table was so calm, it was ridiculus. Obviously it's not like that ever night -- every chef has his/her "Damn it, Art!" moment, but I was very impressed nonetheless.On the other hand, although Mark and his teammates worked well together, their food was the weakest, and Mark was eliminated. I was sad to see Mark go home, not only for Clark, but I just loved watching them together. I hope to make it to Maine and eat at their restaurant soon.

Next week's episode takes our chefs to the Grand Canyon! You won't want to miss this one. Until then, 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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