First Impressions'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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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

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