Cast Blog: #TCMASTERS

First Impressions

Bravotv.com's Senior Editor breaks down the early competition.

Hello, my little Top Chef Masters, and welcome back to the 4th (can you believe it?!) season. I'm fresh off recapping the first season of Around the Worldin 80 Plates, but I'll try to switch gears, shake out the cobwebs, and not mix up people, as I'm sometimes prone to do.

So, we're in Vegas with 12 amazing chefs, Curtis, James, and Ruth, and two exciting new judges Krista Simmons, and Francis Lam (you'll meet soon.) I know every year we gather a great group of chefs, but when I saw the list of this year's cheftestants, I was blown away. 

I won't go through all of them, but here are few quick impressions I feel compelled to mention.

Art lost 120 pounds?! Way to go, Art!

Clark and Mark are partners, in every sense of the word. Art confuses them for brothers as they look so much alike. I don't blame him.I wasn't too familiar with Patricia Yeo before this season, but i already love her.

Lorena Garcia has more energy than anyone i've ever seen. I'll have what she's having.

Some of you might remember Takashi from the Top Chef Season 9 finale.

Chris and Patricia might be interesting allies since they worked together before already

Game time. OK, so Curtis -- as sweet as he is handsome -- enters the kitchen and gets a standing ovation. OK -- he was already standing, but I've never seen the cheftestants that excited before!

He issues the Quickfire which is to  first grab a partner, then create a dish from two randomly drawn ingredients blackjack-style. Yay, Vegas! The combos dealt seemed pretty traditional. I think the balogna was probably the hardest ingredient -- sorry, Kerry and Takashi! -- but no one pulled marshmallows or something like that.

World-class dealers will be judging the food and the pairs will earn $10K to split between their charities -- another aspect of Masters that i've always loved.The dealers seem to lean towards the dishes with heat, and so Chris and Patricia win with their "surf and turf" of steak and catfish. Each of their charities win $5K!

For the Eliintaion Challenge, the chefs split up into two fairly arbitrary teams, Red and Blue, and they start to plan their menus for this week's challenge… creating world-class buffets!

We see Chris and Art start to go at it a bit about what kind of food they should serve. I'm never for dumbing down one's food, but Art's point about making something that will appeal to a large group of people isn't a bad one. Ultimately, this is Top Chef Masters, and if we've learned anything it's that at the end of the day you're cooking for the judges (they are the ones making the decisions after all) and people's palates are more sophisticated than one might think. Good food is good food.

Finally, the chefs head to the supermarket. Watching the Masters shop is always so amusing to me, and i don't know why. I love the camaraderie between Thierry and Takashi -- yes, they're competing  but they're friends. Love Thierry's joke about eating at Jaleo because they are $800 under budget. While Thierry and Takashi are joking, Art is is being slow (something that will come up again later.)When the chefs arrive back to their kitchen, Curtis is there with scratch tickets. Some chefs get immunity -- Art and Debbie -- some lose 30 minutes cooking, some get $1000 extra bucks for their teams, and some have to switch teams! Not only that but the two teams get tickets revealing "Mexican " and "Indian," the two cuisines they'll be cooking. Since these cuisines have very distinct flavors, the chefs are allowed to send one team member back to shop for ingredients. While the Blue Team (Indian) doesn't what to lose the manpower, the Red Team sends Art. This decision baffles me as he was already the slowest person on the team before! But he goes. Don't worry -- I'll eat my words on this point later.

Almost immediately, Missy Robbins cuts herself on a mandoline and has no choice but to go to the hospital. We find out later she must get a skin graft and keep her finger immobilized for two weeks. Yikes. At the end of the episode Curtis offers her a spot on next season's show. I know this is nice and all and I wouldn't expect anything less, but this offer felt like when you complain to company about poor service and they just offer you coupons to come back. Liiike, why would I want that?! Hopefully Missy doesn't feel this way though and will come back for a next season!

Anyway, Red Team is now down a person, but has to make Missy's dish.

Although ultimately Patricia makes Missy's dish, Art and Chris once again go into it about sharing ingredients. Chris needs his ingredients but Art lays a guilt trip on him that it's for Missy! Chris eventually gives in, but not before making the excellent point that it's easy for Art to care more about someone else's dish because his arse has immunity! 

After prep, the chefs get ready head to Wicked Spoon. Their diners? The fabulous entertainers of Vegas. I love a Vegas buffet, so I would've loved to join, but alas I have no talent worthy of a Vegas stage.

The judges walk in. We meet new judge Krista Simmons. James Oseland is wearing plaid, my favorite. Curtis is giddy and says Patrica like "Patriciaaa." He also says "It's just de-licious" about Art's dessert. I love Curtis.

I won't go through each chef's dish, but basically the Mexican buffet was better received than the Indian. In fact, few if not none of the Indian Team chefs' dishes were Indian. Guess they should've sent someone to get more ingredients! (This is where I eat my words about sending Art back to the store for more ingredients.)MMChris Cosentino's play on pork and beans wins, so I'm sure he feels slightly vindicated in his argument with Art earlier about the level of food they should serve. Debbie Gold might have gone home if she didn't have immunity. I will say she should stay just for providing a dessert that caused such a great little exchange between Ruth Reichl and James Oseland. In the end, Sue Torres goes home for dry chicken.

Ruth asked a great question at Judges' Table: if you're a chef and you're asked to cook a cuisine you don't know, what do you do? I honestly have no idea. What do you guys think?

Well, I will admit that I've watched a few episodes ahead and I'm not exaggerating when i say this season is awesome. Let me know what you thogut of the premiere and who your early picks to win it all are.

Until next week, 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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