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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Jennifer Jasinski Was a "Great Miracle"

James Oseland can't get enough of the chef's paella gnocchi.

And so we’ve come to the end. What a season! The talent on display blew me away when I experienced it firsthand as a critic, and again as I’ve been rewatching the episodes as they’ve aired. 

But I’ve also been moved—both as we filmed and upon viewing each episode—by the humanity of it all. For me as an observer, I hugely value how much this show is a fundamentally humanizing one for its contestants. Chefs, as pop culture figures, have taken on such iconic status that it can be hard at times to remember that under the pomp and posturing and embroidered-logo white jackets, they’re just real folks with quirks and foibles and dark sides and endearing weirdnesses. Over the course of 10 episodes, I—and we—have gotten to know them as people not just restaurant figureheads.

It’s been a particular pleasure to get to know the three finalists. On the surface, Douglas and Bryan have a lot of similarities as both people and cooks—they’re reserved, meticulous; they have a related culinary vernacular of precision and experimentation. But we now know that, in fact, they couldn’t be more different. Douglas can be so cerebral, so thoughtfully minimalist—his food is subtle in a visceral and alluring way, and it always feels rooted in tradition, be it French or Japanese. Bryan, on the other hand, is cooking new food, inventing his language as he goes, with only occasional (which is to say very infrequent) references. And then Jennifer is cooking in a different language entirely, an elevated cucina povera that is a form of emotional transmission, as opposed to Douglas and Bryan’s intellectual communication.

In retrospect, it’s clear that Jennifer was, for me, the great miracle of this season. After five rounds of being a critic, I generally feel confident in my ability to pick who the three finalists are going to be after a few episodes. Boy, was I wrong! But who can blame me? At the beginning of the season, Jennifer simply wasn’t cooking at the level she later demonstrated to us—maybe it was her close brush with elimination that brought out her fearlessness and elegance, because the food she served in the past few weeks was miles beyond what she’d started out cooking. 

I thought I had a handle on Jennifer’s excellence as a cook, and then during the finale meal, she served us her paella gnocchi. My God, it was the single best dish I ate all season—so perfectly balanced, so beautifully executed, so lovely to look at. Unfortunately for her chances at winning the season, her other three courses—while very, very good—didn’t come anywhere near the glory of that dish. Still, if we’re handing out prizes for individual plates of food, this one is the season five gold-medal winner.

Bryan’s food for the finale was almost all as revelatory as Jennifer’s gnocchi. His first two courses, in particular, were startlingly good: the elevated “chicken Chesapeake” was a gorgeously refined riff on the original, and his black cod may have been one of the finest presentations of that fish I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. And, wow, that strange and amazing dessert: an all-white confection with a harmonious combination of aromas and flavors, it was as stimulating visually as it was on the palate. Regrettably, Bryan was hamstrung by an overly heavy third course—meat upon meat upon meat—that for me, as well as some of my fellow critics, was just too much.

It’s no spoiler to mention that it was clear to me as soon as this meal was over that Douglas was going to win. Throughout the season, he did not once produce a dish that was anything less than very good: he’s an absolute master of technique, with an uncommon ability to coax exquisite flavors and textures out of his ingredients. In the finale, the trajectory of the dishes he served was perfection. The white wine and mussel soup Billi Bi was the epitome of his style, so minimal as to be almost a cerebral conceit rather than a physical one. His sea trout was sumptuous and startling, not even needing its unconventional presentation (though it was certainly fun). The Gray Kunz-inspired tamarind-glazed duck was perhaps the least successful of his four courses, though it was still wonderful… but it lacked an ineffable Douglasness, maybe because he was hewing too closely to the instruction to make a “borrowed” dish. 

And then there was his dessert, an utterly transcendent plate of food that brought together all the threads of his cooking and tied them together in a neat, fantastically delicious bow. This plate of food really didn’t visually translate well on your TV screen: it literally looked like a bowl of gray porridge with some bright confetti on top—a complete culinary cipher. But once you started eating it, you couldn’t stop. It was rich and light, sweet and savory—after Jennifer’s gnocchi, it was easily the second-best dish of the evening.

We had a lively dialogue around the Critics’ Table at the end of the meal about who should win, but ultimately it was an easy choice. I couldn’t be happier for Douglas -- he is a true Top Chef Master.


James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine and Saveur.com.

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