It's Flamethrower Time

Was Patricia's duck problem really Kerry's fault?'s Senior Editor doesn't seem to think so.

Thank you to Francis Lam for providing me with the perfect title for this week's recap.

Welcome back my little Pad See Ew. In case you were wondering, that's my go-to Thai food order. But before we get to the spicy (in more ways than one) Elmination Challenge, let's start with the Quickfire Challenge with guest judge Dita Von Teese. How appropriate for Dita to judge a challenge all about aphrodisiacs. While there isn't a whole lot of proof that aphrodisiacs do what we think they do -- besides, you know, Love Potion No. 9 -- it's inevitable that if you're eating an oyster, you're wondering what it might, um, help with. While doing some research for this week's interactive episode (hope you guys are watching those!) i discovered that oysters are a good source of zinc, which apparently does help control progesterone levels, so there's that. This may be blasphemous to say but I only starting enjoying oysters recently, and I would have been all over Takashi's winning Quickfire dish. Truffle and yuzu? I'm there. For the challenge, the chefs were provided with the "aphrodisiac" ingredients, but that doesn't mean their dishes stiil didn't have to bring the sexy. I really can't think of a "sexy" dish off the top of my head, but I would say there's something sexy about a dish with a lot of technique in it. Y'know, something that requires micro this or that to be placed gently on top of it with tweezers. Just knowing that a lot of thought went into a dish is sexy to me. But, y'know, I'm a dork. This same theory applies to cocktails for me, by the way. And without my odd predilections for over-thought food in their minds, the chefs put their best erotic feet forward, but Takashi came out victorious with his oysters and uni. Uni is probably one of the most luscious and luxurious ingredients out there, so it all makes sense. Meanwhile, just tried the spaghetti at Marea with uni -- wow. Before I wrap up this TMI recap of the Quickfire Challenge, can we just talk a moment about Curtis' fumbling around Dita? He got so flustered! I mean, he gets like that around me too, but I'm me! Hope Lindsay wasn't watching!

On to the real beef -- again, in more ways than one -- of this episode, the Elimination Challenge. The chefs had to put together a Thai restaurant in a day. They were hauled to Lotus of Siam to see how it should be done. I've heard of Lotus of Siam and Curtis teased it when he visited Bravo HQ earlier this season, but i have to say, looking at all that Thaui food was making me drool. Unfortunately, I don't love the Thai food offerings in my area and my favorite place doesn't deliver to me! I will take this opportunity to make a small plug for a small restaurant owned by one of my best friends -- White Orchids in the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. Tell them Monica sent you! Or don't because they might say, "Monica who?!" Also, be sure to order the money bags. They're not only my favorite, but they're fun to say. But I digress.

Anyway, some of the chefs were really worried because Thai food was so far out of their comfort zones, but they all rose to the challenge. Whlie Art and Lorena were sent to front of house, which honestly, was a good decision -- they are the most personable -- the other chefs were "line cooks." But before the guests even got there, the drama started. Although the tension between Lorena and Patricia had been brewing for awhile, it came to a head when Patricia yelled at Lorena for taking up too much stove space. "Please, Patricia, chill!" I've literally been saying that to everyone that will listen. "Please, Charlie, chill!" "Please, Stacy, chill!" Aren't you glad you don't work with me?! I have to say I could see this argument happening in any kitchen, but Patricia did seem kind of condescending. She's obviously just reached the end of her rope. But Lorena put on a happy face and greeted her guests with a smile, including the judges who were not only joined by Lotus of Siam chef, Saipin, but also her daughter/interpreter, and Alan Sytsma of Grub Street.   First, Lorena's dish. I honestly thought it looked ilke chicken/matzah ball soup before the fat's been skinned off the top. Too harsh? But, it was Pisco chicken! And honestly it just made me want a Pisco Punch from Pegu Club, one of my favorite drinks. So for that alone, Lorena gets my kudos. Chris attempted a larb tartare and won! Way to go, Chris! He was truly inspired by Saipin's food and you could tell... unless he calls everything he eats "intoxicting," which is entirely possible. I don't know him. Takashi was safe with curry and crispy noodles. Kerry made a a braised pork belly which was praised by Saipin for seemingly being the most authentic of all the dishes. And although Patricia's dish apparently would have been great had she cooked her duck long enough, she didn't. In fact, her duck was sent back by James. There are actually few things grosser than duck fat that hasn't been rendered correctly. Yuck. But it was Kerry's fault -- according to Patricia. I don't totaly buy that. Communication is a two-way street, or something less cliche. Then there was Art, who just didn't step outside his comfort zone enough to provide a truly Thai dish, and so he went home. We'll miss you, Art! And your Speedo! I hope you're serious about opening a restaurant with Lorena because I can't imagine a restaurant with bolder flavors or personalities!

Next week, Sugar Ray (the boxer not the band!) visits Top Chef Masters. Until then, Have a Nosh, and Learn to Fly.


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.