Feather-Boa Envy

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?

Feather-Boa Envy

James Oseland admits that the boxing challenge is his favorite episode... ever.

As a Top Chef Masters judge, I'm not supposed to play favorites. But of the nearly 40 episodes I've been involved in over four seasons of the show, this last one may well be my favorite. I loved the energy throughout, the laser-like focus the chefs brought to the, um, stadium (and the Quickfire Challenge). But above all I loved that the episode was entirely, start to finish, about the chefs' skills at the stove. Sometimes, on Top Chef Masters, the challenges thrown at the chefs can border on being Fellini-esque. This episode, for me, was simply about who could cook and who couldn’t. It was a pleasure and an honor to be exposed to this pure expression of skill — so intimate, so rewarding. 

First up: this week's Quickfire, which I hadn't seen until watching the episode myself. The structure was a terrific bit of foreshadowing for what the chefs would be facing in their elimination: it was all about mise en place, about thoughtful prep, and about working accurately at a breakneck speed. How fascinating it was to focus a macro lens on truly essential skills. It was also, entertainingly, a nice confirmation of my own dime store analyses of the chefs' personalities: Chris, for example, has an eagerness (or, OK, maybe cockiness) that's sometimes unbeatable but can occasionally do him in, as it did here — he may have finished the fastest, but quick work meant under-portioned filets… and disqualification. I wasn't surprised to see that the last two chefs standing were the (slightly) older Kerry and Takashi, with their calm dispositions and clear-headedness. It was a delight to see Kerry finally win something: he's an extraordinary chef. It's about time! His parmesan-encrusted steak looked like a total knockout.

Speaking of, er, knockouts, what a treat it was to spend an evening with the amazing Sugar Ray Leonard, a true icon. And what a great set-up for an elimination challenge! The whole deal — from the Jubilee girls (so gorgeous—I had feather-boa envy) to the boxing ring to getting to ring the bell before each bout (I gotta confess: I was more than a little nervous performing this task next to Mr. Leonard) — was a blast. The first round was fascinating: bacon is an easy ingredient, one with which both Chris and Takashi have great facility. But Takashi's plate of bacon steak with fruits and a fennel salad was a little too complex…it was overwhelming, particularly measured against the clean, confident, delicious Mexican-inspired bacon and eggs that Chris presented.When Patricia and Lorena took to the ring, I was fascinated. We didn't know then, at the Critics' Table, about the animosity between the two that had developed while shooting the previous week's episode; Lorena was giving off a palpable sense of nervousness and insecurity. But when the cooking began, she was in her element, and that was rewarded in her win. Both of the final dishes were excellent, and despite the differences between the two chefs, Lorena and Patricia wound up having a surprising amount in common: Patricia's exquisite leek reduction and Lorena's rich chowder echoed one another in texture and flavor. A surprising synchronicity, given the circumstances! 

The battle for victory between Lorena and Chris was fraught from the get-go. My heart sank when I saw that the secret ingredient was sugar: for Chris, the king of all things cured, smoked, and fried, an ingredient that was outside his obvious skill set. I wasn't optimistic that he could pull it off, but he proved me wrong with an expert zabaglione, delicately flavored and beautiful in its simplicity. Unfortunately, the one-two punch of Lorena's flourless chocolate cake (phenomenal) and a dulce de leche-drizzled grilled pineapple was a hard one to beat. She gambled on a highly ambitious play, and won.

The final elimination round was tough -- both to watch, and to judge. I felt a certain level of insecurity from both Patricia and Takashi, who were put in the difficult position of, as Patricia put it, cooking for their lives. What undid Takashi here was quite similar to his downfall against Chris: his dish was so complex that it lost some of its coherence, the various elements fighting for dominance and canceling each other out. It was sad to see him go. Patricia won in spite of her inconsistently cooked chicken liver (I glanced at Jane's plate and saw that, in fact, hers was less rare than mine had been — I seem to keep getting the raw deal this season). Patricia’s dish told a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It looked beautiful, and it tasted even better.


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.