Tactical Hugs and Southern Jazz Hands

Hugh Acheson will not be showing this episode to his children.

Art had a dream about chocolate and thinks this a breakthrough to understanding his psyche. 

They have to turn on Dita Von Teese with food. I recommend some citrus and a six pack of beer, cause girl looks like she may have scurvy. Don’t get me wrong: she’s plenty sexy, but just a little pale. Couple of Flintstone vitamins will clear that right up. Then we can go shopping for vintage bondage outfits together. 

Lorena is making sexy tuna with alligator pears (avocados). If you are replicating Lorena’s dish think domestic: buy the California avocados. You know that avocadoes have a lot of potassium? This is all in my brain because last week the news was all a-buzz about potassium cutting rates of strokes and heart disease. It’s food trivia day at Hugh’s blog!

Chris is being kind of selective with whom he’s going to turn on with his food, and it’s not going to be Alicia Silverstone, the hottest vegan ever. 

So this is what they have made: 

Art has gone crazy and has dreamed that he is a turn-of-the-last-century French pastry chef with Ile Flottante. I wish Art had called it Islands in the Stream of Chocolate, as an ode to his Southern roots. He is still all strident from his speedo moment at the pool last week. Dita and Curtis enjoy their Islands but then Dita drops the, “I’m not really a chocolate person” line, and Art’s ego gets deflated. We need an ego fluffer, stat!

Lorena says, “I always bring sexy” with her tuna telitas. They look good, but the beauty shot comes up with that big pithy lemon next to it. Garnish is important, people. Dita loves cilantro but does not think this is sexy in the least. She likes it, but is just not turned on by it. Takashi has made oysters with yuzu, sea urchin, and truffle. Oysters confound me. I love them but often think about the brave soul who was like, “Hey look, a rock with snotty stuff inside! I’m gonna eat this!” Sorry, I just made oysters forever unsexy. Dita is not following my chain of thought and thinks this is one sexy dish. Takashi is ecstatic but nervously reading the warnings on his Viagra bottle because his erection has lasted for eight hours. 

Is Curtis the most dazed we have ever seen him? He is so buying 50 Shades of Grey after this Quickfire. 

Patricia is looking to get out of her slump with a Chawanmushi, a Japanese savory custard. The adornments include caviar, tempura asparagus, and apple salad. Dita says, “It’s like a soft caress followed by a crisp smack.” Curtis has gone to Australian jelly in her hands. 

Chris’s foie with figs is kicking it. Dita she likey. She talks about eating figs naked and Curtis is now hiding his Wallabee, a Outbackian term I just invented for a boner. This is getting awkward. Man, the Elves are frisky this season. 

Kerry’s Uni and Tuni is getting raves. Dita she likes that too and makes more comments that make me blush. This may be the first episode of Top Chef Masters that I keep hidden from my children, like a collection of 1971 Playboys. 

Art and Lorena are in the bottoms. Art’s ego has gone home to have a nap. Lorena has failed to make cilantro sexy. That’s a hard mountain to climb. 

Tops are the Uni & Tuni from Kerry and also Takashi’s oyster. Takashi wins with the oyster. The winnings are money for the Red Cross and immunity. I think immunity will be off the table after this episode. Takashi has raised $20,000 for the Red Cross. That’s not sexy, but it is awesome. 

Northern Thai flavors time. Saipin in the house! I love Lotus of Siam! Rieslings and Thai food for lunch have always been a tradition for me. Patricia has a definite advantage in this Restaurant Wars: Thailand. Everyone must be responsible for one dish. 

They go out to the strip mall that houses Lotus. Lotus is not a fancy place at all, but really you should go there if you get the chance. The food rocks. Saipin won a Beard award two years ago. Totally badass. The sextet eats it up and enjoys immensely. You see the gears working hard in some of their heads, but some are just eating and gabbing. This is a crucial point to the competition, as some chefs will revel in capturing these flavors in their dishes and some will just wing it. Art, I am talking to you. Art?

That crispy sausage rice rocks. We totally ripped off that dish at one of my restaurants cause we loved it so much. But we pay homage to the source when we serve it. 

Shopping is uneventful unless you like to watch Lorena say "kaffir" thirty times. 

Prep is very eventful though. They decide on Lorena and Art to be front of house and Lorena doesn’t like it at all. Patricia decides that the best way to make Lorena feel more comfortable is to yell at her with a very condescending tone. Lorena does not like this at all and gets really pissed. The Elves then subtitle Chris, like he’s suddenly speaking Esperanto. 

Service time! Kerry is not really exceling at the expeditor role. He’s confusing everyone. Art is walking around like a Southern John Cleese. Saipin and her daughter are in the house with James, Francis, and the pale guy from Grub Street. 

Lorena’s soup is up first. I love Thai soups. Spicy and sour and limey. Yum. Chris has made a lamb larb. 21-day dry aged lamb. I’d eat both of those things with gusto. Alan doesn’t like the soup’s garnish, but he’s always a bit pesky and picky. The larb is not getting rave reviews from Saipin, but Francis loves the idea. Francis has had the best judge's comments so far this season, with really heartful and informative reactions. Good pick, Elves. 

Art is giving us cashew crusted chicken with crispy rice salad and a lemongrass vinaigrette. Takashi has made a curry with shrimp and crispy noodles. Art’s food looks like a weird all-you-can-eat mountain. Kind of Ponderosa in Bangkok. Takashi’s yellow curry is enjoyed, but Saipin doesn’t like anything. She is so tired of these white people ripping off Thai flavors and wants to go home. Chris, Alpha dog of expediting, jumps in to the captain’s chair. Kerry rebuffs him by taking his sweet ass time putting up his food. This is causing a disaster for Patricia, whose duck is now overcooked and she has to get more breasts on the barbie.

Kerry has done a pork belly with greens and taro root puree. Patricia has a duck with Massaman curry and pineapple. The duck is so rare that James asks for a recook, which is a royal pain in the ass to Patricia. Saipin says something in Thai that equates to, “These people have no idea what they are doing.” Patricia is battling Kerry in the back, but Kerry is not really into the fighting thing. He’s a lover, not a fighter. Patricia decides this war should go all emotional and offers a hug. Is it a real hug or a tactical hug? 

Everyone gets called to the firing squad. Chris and Kerry are tops and Chris wins, some solace for his defeat last week where he made a great dish that was very misunderstood by the Bunny. 

Bottoms are Art, Patricia, and Lorena. Art’s positives contain the terms “plain” and “simple," and that is never a good omen if those are the laudings. James is glad he threw the Southern jazz hands on the dish but has problems with it. James. if you ever say “Southern jazz hands” again I will come at you like a Spider monkey. 

Lorena’s soup garnishes were an issue. I have a rule that soup garnishes have to fit in a spoon. If the spoon was a giant soup maybe this would have worked. 

Patriceo’s duck was underdone and she throws Kerry under the bus for this. Kerry don’t care, cause he was on top. Actually he feels really bad and apologizes profusely. Yeo is tired, and it’s showing. The past three episodes have put the stress on her. I know that feeling. You are all into the competition for a while, and then you start stumbling and it just isn’t fun anymore. Then you start getting a little homesick, and then you just want to get out of dodge. It’s a whole lot easier if you're winning.  

Art packs his knives and his Speedo and goes back to bake cakes for Obama, Gaga, and many others whose names end in "a." Lorena is a Venezuelan version of verklempt. She’ll get over it when the Taco Bell money comes in. 

Follow me on Twitter, people, @hughacheson

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.