Thai Try

James Oseland was pretty disappointed in the chefs' rendition of Thai cuisine.

This week's episode of Top Chef Masters was the most intense, the saddest, the most gut-wrenching of any I've watched, through any season. What happened to the chefs this week is something something that happens to everyone: things don't do quite what you want them to do, people don't behave in the ways you expected them to, everything is just off. From start to finish of this episode — both filming it in Las Vegas a few months ago, and watching it here in New York last night — I could feel tension in the air, that sense that anything that could possibly go wrong would. 

But watching a room full of professionals dealing with as so many things went awry was, in a strange way, gratifying. For all the overloaded burners, the poorly-timed duck, the high tempers, it still all came together: the restaurant opened, the meal went on. The chefs composed themselves and faced the cameras. Still, the emotional tenor — then and now — left me speechless. Then, I could sense that the energy was amiss — now, having learned all the background details, I'm doubly impressed by the professionalism on display at the critics' table. No one sold anyone out. Patricia didn't get snarky on Kerry. Lorena didn't get snarky on Patricia (well, not reaaally snarky, anyway). It's a powerful lesson.Before filming even began on this episode, I was of two minds. Thai food is one of my areas of expertise — I know the country and its food intimately. I've traveled there more than 20 times. And I love Thai food; I could eat it for three meals a day for the rest of my life and be blissfully happy — the extraordinary coriander-root-and-garlic-spiced chicken of the northeast, the herb-crazed sladas of the south. And so facing the prospect of the contestants making a Thai feast filled me with both excitement and dread. It could go brilliantly — the bright, harmonious, gracefully aggressive flavors I know and love — or it could flop, the chefs turning in pale imitations more in tune with takeout pad thai than authentic Thai cuisine. It's not a style of food that you can spend two hours studying and pull off without a hitch; you can't substitute ingredients at will or by necessity. And while Las Vegas has many splendid Asian markets (Ranch 99, which the chefs visited, chief among them), by and large my suspicions were that the chefs would have a hard time finding the fresh galangal, pungent fish sauce, or kaffir lime leaves so essential to the Thai larder.

Sitting down to dinner with Saipin Chutima of Lotus of Siam was a great pleasure: I've been an admirer of her restaurant for years. But while the company was top-notch, the food was less so. When the first round of dishes arrived, I realized that I was right to have been worried. Lorena's tom kha gai, a classic soup frequently served in restaurants, had a delicious savor, but her decision to poach the chicken separately hurt both components: the chicken itself was bland, and the broth missed out on some of the savory richness that cooking the chicken would have imparted. (The dish's garnishes, a major concern for the other judges, didn't bother me — if anything, they were evidence that Lorena was having a little fun.)

Chris' winning dish was good, but truth be told, for me it wasn't the highlight of the meal — I was voted down by the other critics when it came time to pick a winner. Laab is one of my absolutely favorite foods, and I really love that Chris challenged himself by making it. But the joy of the dish for me isn't so much in the protein itself, but the flourish of fresh, delicate herbs, the bright citrus, the fiery chile, and the subtle smoothness of toasted rice powder that brings it all together. And in Chris' laab tartare, that essential harmony was missing.And then we came to the middle course. I've said before in these blogs that I have the utmost respect for Patricia's cooking, and perhaps that raises my expectations of her a little bit, well, unnaturally high. And even though I sent my undercooked duck breast back to the kitchen, that wasn't the aspect of her dish that I found disconcerting: for a chef who's spent so long cooking in Thailand, I was deeply disappointed in her rendition of Massaman curry, which I felt missed some of the most essential aspects of the dish. The word "massaman" means "muslim," and this curry comes from southern Thailand, where there's a large Muslim population and the culinary culture blurs a bit with that of neighboring Malaysia. Massaman is made with many of the same vibrant spices used in Indian curries: cumin, clove, coriander, warm and rich... but in Patricia's dish, the curry base was so weak as to be almost anemic. The reserved, muted flavors were a whisper where they should have been a shout. 

Alas, Art's losing dish just wasn't good. Not only was his nut-encrusted chicken not remotely Thai in flavor, but the cashews were awkwardly large, and the slaw was something of a strange afterthought. I love Art, and will miss him on the show, but in this round he was so far out of his comfort zone as to be entirely flummoxed. He's a master of soulful Southern American cooking — but sadly not a master of Southern Thai.

Takashi's dish of crispy noodles with yellow curry was beautiful, but sadly didn't taste quite as exquisite as it looked. That was doubly unfortunate because it shared the table with Kerry's marvelous pork belly with taro puree, a delicious plate of food that was my favorite of the evening. I could have eaten nothing but the mustard greens alone and been in heaven; having a buttery, perfect piece of pork and a beautifully flavored swoop of taro elevated it to the amazing. It had force, intelligence, and wit: the kind of intelligently sensitive approach to an unfamiliar cuisine I'd been expecting from all the chefs.


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Curtis Stone's Lemon Creams with Poached Cherries

Curtis describes cooking for the finalists. Recipe included!

Well done, Doug! He put in a cracking effort this season. Were you happy to see him go all the way to being crowned the Top Chef Masters Season 5 winner? It’s great that he won 100K for his charity, Green Dog Rescue, Inc. Congrats, mate. 

The finale is the most exciting time in the entire competition, and it was a seriously great night for the critics and me. Each dish that was served up to us was absolutely bloody delicious. Jen, Bryan, and Doug should be so proud of themselves. 

These chefs are truly at the top of their culinary game, which makes it even more exciting and daunting for me to cook for them. Chefs love cooking for other chefs, but it’s also pretty nerve-wracking. We cook for critics, customers, and celebrities all the time, and that’s par for the course, but no one can break your food down like another chef. We only got to see the spot prawns and lemon cream on tonight’s episode, but I also got busy in the kitchen and hand-made some beautiful ravioli and chilled soup too. (My lemon cream recipe can be found below). I’ve put these three chefs through the ringer for 10 weeks, thrown a bunch of crazy challenges at them, and have said some not-so-great things once or twice while critiquing their meals, so it’s safe to say I was a little nervous awaiting their reactions. They seemed to enjoy the dishes a lot, and it was great to just sit down, reflect, and celebrate their accomplishments.  

Bryan is a total superstar and has elevated his career more than anyone could have imagined going from Top Chef finalist to Top Chef Masters finalist. It’s just unbelievable. It’s kind of like going from playing local football to suddenly being in the premier league. 

It was also amazing to watch Jen come back fighting like a champion in this competition. She really fought hard and deserved a place in the final after going from being eliminated to winning her way back in, and then winning a handful of challenges. 

I think Doug had that winning edge in the end due to a number of key factors. He’s an accomplished chef with years of experience and has a vast amount of knowledge to draw on from his travels and training. Doug’s spent a lot of time behind the stoves and has never turned his back on them (well, only when he is working and playing with his beloved dogs). He’s got an admirable roll-up-the-sleeves, resilient attitude and gave each challenge a good crack. And we can talk about him facing his fears of skydiving? A lot can change in 10 weeks, huh? I had a ball filming this season, and it was a pleasure to work with such a talented group of chefs, critics, celebrities and the crew. I’m already thinking about next year and the chefs on my wish list to lure into the Top Chef Masters kitchen. I’d love to see April Bloomfield from NYC’s The Spotted Pig, husband and wife team Karen and Quinn Hatfield from Hatfield’s Restaurant and The Sycamore Kitchen, Josef Centeno from Bäco Mercat, Christopher Elbow from Kansas City (his chocolates look insane), and I’d also love to see Missy Robbins come back to us. 

Thanks for a great season, everyone!



Lemon Creams with Poached Cherries

This dessert is a bit of a calorie killer, but hey, what the hell. It’s dead easy, but you’ll need a thermometer. Use two lemons if you like a subtle lemon flavor, or three for more of a zing. I like using frozen sour cherries to cook with -- fresh cherries should be eaten fresh. 

Serves: 6
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes


Lemon creams:

3 1/2 cups 35% whipping cream
Finely grated rind and juice of 2-3 lemons
6 oz instant dissolving sugar

Poached cherries:

Finely grated rind of 1/2 orange

7 fl oz red wine (Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon)

1/2 cinnamon stick

1 whole clove

1 tsp instant dissolving sugar plus extra, if needed

7 oz frozen sour black cherries, defrosted 



To prepare the lemon creams: 

In a saucepan, heat the cream to 160°F. Remove from the heat and cool to 150°F.

Add the lemon rind, juice and sugar to the cream mixture, and mix well. Allow to cool, then pour into six 6-inch dariole moulds (cups, ramekins, or glasses will do if you don’t have molds*). Place on a tray and put in the refrigerator to set, about fur hours.

To poach the cherries:

Place the rind, wine, cinnamon, clove and sugar in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer. Add the cherries, bring to the boil, and taste for sweetness. If necessary, add a little more sugar to neutralize the tannin of the wine, while retaining some zing. Simmer for five minutes, then cool.

When ready to serve, carefully up-end the moulds over serving plates and give them a shake; the creams should just slip out. If this proves difficult, run a small knife around the edge of the mould to release the cream and try again. 

Serve each lemon cream accompanied by 5-6 cherries. Drizzle a little of the syrup over each one. 

*You can also make molds from 3-inch diameter PVC pipe from a hardware store cut to depths of 1 1/4-inches. Sand the edges and then seal the bottoms with plastic wrap.   




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