Cast Blog: #TCMASTERS

Leave the Gun. Take the Cannoli.

Best of the Best

Francis Lam: What's on the Menu?

Curtis Stone's Lemon Creams with Poached Cherries

Bryan Voltaggio: "I Thought I Won. I Know I Won."

Jennifer Jasinski Was a "Great Miracle"

Lesley Suter's 'Ratatouille' Moment

What it Takes to Be Top Chef Master

The Finale Countdown

Doug and Sang: Bad Romance?

Sang is Back!

David Burke Has Titanium Balls

See Ya, Suckers!

Why Jennifer Jasinski Didn't Go Home

James Oseland's Teacher Tribute

Gail: "I Still Can't Believe Sang was Eliminated"

The Strangest Episode of 'Top Chef Masters' Yet?

Lesley Suter: On Tongue, Flautadillas, and Birthday Cake

What Has Curtis Stone "Spewing"?

A Series of Unfortunate Culinary Events Leaves Blood on the Mat

Gail: "We Couldn't Excuse Neal"

Lesley Suter: Hey, Chefs, Why So Raw?

Pull it Together, Sang!

Francis Lam: I liked Sang's Fish

Curtis Stone in Nacho Libre

Gail Simmons: "Neil Went for Our Bellies"

The Evolution of Sue Zemanick

Curtis Stone: Throwing Curveballs

Ruth Reichl: "I'd Rather Be Training a Nation of Food Warriors"

When Plex Met Toodee

'Top Chef Masters' ' Toughest Critics Yet

Gail Simmons: No "Chef" in Lynn's Dish

Restaurant Wars: 'Getting' Busy

Francis: A New Kind of Locavorism

What Being a Chef Really Means

Ruth Reichl's Perfect Los Angeles Restaurant

Restaurant Wars' Controlled Chaos

Franklin Just Did Too Much

Curtis and Lindsay: A Perfect Pairing

Curtis Stone: This Episode Sends Hearts Racing

Franklin, Can You Hear Me?

Leave the Gun. Take the Cannoli.

Hugh Acheson explains why the mentor challenge was so important.

The end is nigh for our three remaining competitors. Chris is the odds-on favorite, at least in this bookie’s opinion. He’s just been solid through the whole season and has a breadth of skill that suits the competition well. Lorena can prevail once in a while, but is limited in scope. Kerry is the dark horse here and could upset but he’s been a team-of-one for a long time and that not been a consistent prevailing wind, more like a gusty, brief storm mixed with stillness. 

Naomi Pomeroy was famous in the last season for screaming incessantly at her dad. This challenge brings that kind of frantic fun. The anonymous culinary  partners are our trio of judges, and I am giving Francis the up-front advantage on this one. He just seems a little more gastronomically able as opposed to merely gifted with words, but I could be wrong. It could be that Chris and Mr. Sweater have the edge here, or that Ruth and Kerry have made a chicken-winning extravaganza. It’s going to come down to who the better explainer is. 

Chris and James are judged first and kudos to them both because the dishes look pretty identical. Chris was smart to do a dish that had symmetry and simplicity in it’s heart; a dish that was easily explainable through a partitioned wall. Curtis can’t decide whose is whose and which is better. Good omen. Chris and James have created conjoined identical twins named Akbar & Jeff (to the Google!)Lorena and Francis have made similar dishes of swiss chard and chicken and cream that are deemed good, but both are inherently sauces more than dishes. When the pasta water don’t boil there will be no pasta. Though Curtis likes the duo of dishes, it’s not a concept that will end up as a Savory Mexican Smoothie© flavor at Taco Bell. Essentially, Lorena and Francis have created identical twins that wear different colored sweaters, like Ronde and Tiki Barber.

Let’s remember that Kerry is not the greatest communicator. And Ruth is a good talker but probably not the best listener (in her defense, I am also kind of like that… working on listening). Can I haz sautéed chicken with chard… again? The plates look very different, and though they taste pretty spot-on, they are not going to win this thing with the real variance. Curtis thinks that Ruth’s chicken is better. Kerry laughs his “I am so angry” laugh. This is about getting the plates as close to identical as possible, and Kerry and Ruth have created fraternal twins, one of whom is a professional chef while the other is a frustrated beat poet with a penchant for cookery.  

Winner winner prawn dinner. Cash to the Fox Foundation. My inner bookie is thinking that unless Chris falls down on his head, he will emerge victorious in this whole season.

Cooking school challenge? I like it. Being a chef is so much more than just cooking. I put it like this: our job is to inspire people to love the work, love the repetition, love the menial task, love the endless learning. Cooking is rarely about the limelight and the accolades; you need to love to cook to be in this business. Inspiring, teaching, demanding, lauding and challenging people is the hallmark of a great chef. Hey Elves: I love this challenge. It’s awesome. It shows truly what Masters should be able to do. More of this. 

In the car we learn that Kerry is old and the kids know it. Godfather 1 is not on their radar. Shopping has also tired him and he slurs the words, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli,” before nodding off. Kids these days -- whadda they know?

Shop is what it is and we see the difference in leadership styles. 

Cook time is more dramatic. Kerry is a squadron leader of the dark side. Chris is a teacher of a different mold, kind of like that math teacher who made you love math until you learned to hate it again the following year. He is careful and caring. Lorena is a little frantic with her peeps, JoJo and Jhane, but is showing some good traits in her syllabus. JoJo is diabetic and is fighting to eat well in life. Hear that, America? Wake up and learn from JoJo. We should not fight the malaise of diabetes with meds, rather we need to strike back with truly nourishing our communities.

Emilio from Chris’ team can come and work for me when he’s ready. I love kids who refuse to give in to the limitations of their upbringing and just strive to advance all the time. Those are the chefs of the future. 

Ruth, Jimmy, and Francis are the judges with some of the culinary staff from the local college. Tasting time is off to the races. First up Chris’ team, Lacey and Emilio. The pork is a loin which is a challenging cut because it is so lean. Though the pork may be perfectly cooked we are shown James Oseland chewing a lot. Emilio’s mother is verklempt with pride. So sweet. This is like a feel good after-four special, but even I can’t seem to make much fun of it. 

Second up is Lorena’s lasagna team of Jhane and JoJo. Three meat lasagna with a nice salad. The tasting panel really seems to like it. Love the proud parents really behind those kids. Kerry is up next and the plate looks good. Maybe the Kerry’s School of Hard Knocks will pan out. This chicken and spinach rocks… much better than the chicken and chard from this morning. 

One taster says it best: “They’re (all) winners.” True. Now let’s viciously let one of these three chefs pack their knives and go. 

It’s interesting to see whether the judges will have any harsh words for the chefs. Curtis is wondering whether Lorena would serve the lasagna in a high-end restaurant… sometimes I wonder what Curtis means when he says high-end restaurant. For most of America, Olive Garden is a special occasion. There are many different types of high-end restaurants. I think that lasagna would be great to serve in a fancy little place, shared with three friends and a great bottle of Riserva Chianti. Nothing wrong with that. 

Kerry is in with a win. Evidently leadership can take many forms. Somebody has been taking notes while reading Who Moved my Cheese? He pushed those kids to the limits and maybe that anti-coddling was good for them. They are crying in the corner right now after being yelled out for hours by Kerry, but hell Kerry won so who cares. JUST KIDDING… Good job, Kerry! 

This is a hard one. Though Chris’ dish looks pretty good and his team had great chemistry, it was plated too soon and was not his best showing. Francis loved it and James did not. Lorena on the other hand led her team pretty well and the dish was just maybe too simple, yet her salad gets described as a “quilt of flavor” by James. James quits because he likes both chefs. But he’s kidding, he ain’t quitting this gig! He loves this job!Lorena is packing those knives. She really rocked it out this season, made a friend in Art, and somehow managed to sign a contract in fast food that would make most people very jealous. She leaves having raised a great amount of money for a great charity and she also leaves with a big smile and a ton of class. No matter my banter, that chef is a Venezuelan tornado of goodness. May she continue to succeed.

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.