Cast Blog: #TCMASTERS

We've Got a Screamer

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?

We've Got a Screamer

Krista Simmons comments on Chris Cosentino's behavior towards Art Smith.

Talk about a polar episode of Masters. The day was more varied than Ramona Singer's mood swings! The scene started out with a cold, stove-free Quickfire, then the pendulum swayed all the way over to a heated teppanyaki battle, where the chefs were meant to master a theatrical Japanese style of flat top cooking that takes months, if not years, to learn. 

The Masters were metaphorically hog tied by the challenge, which eliminated crucial details they have control over in their own kitchens: steady heat sources, the ability to taste and season, and a level of anonymity lent by the shroud of a single swinging silver door.  

Not only were the Masters expected to cook in front of their diners, but there was an added anxiety of showmanship and style points. And quite frankly, it seemed like some cracked under pressure. 

Just watching Chris' outburst over Art moving his mandolin made me uncomfortable. There is nothing more awkward than dining in a restaurant with an open kitchen that's run by a chef that's a “screamer,” as they're called in the industry. Customers don't want to see your beef unless it's medium rare and served with a side of mashed potatoes. We all deal with enough of that drama in our daily lives, and there's no need to put it on display in such closed quarters like Chris did. Dining out is supposed to be an indulgent, relaxing experience. And trust me, being on the receiving end of a chef's rant is no fun. I've been there. So whenever I'm in a restaurant with one of these “screamer” chefs that tee off on their line, my instinct is to run over and  give them all a big hug.

I was so impressed by Art, who showed the utmost grace under fire. Even while his grit cakes fell apart under the flame and he was being barked at by Chris, he stayed cool as a julep. And he managed to bring that Southern belle flare to the teppan, which was just plain fun to watch. I wish I could have been on this episode to see and taste it in real time, and without actually trying the dishes it's impossible to comment on the flavors. What I can say is this: seasoning is everything. You could have the most fabulous dish on the planet, but without salt to coax out the subtle flavors, it could simply fall flat. Conversely, if something is grossly over seasoned, all you can taste is a mouthful of seawater. The only way to definitively balance between those two is to taste. Always taste. It's one of the fundamentals really, and one of the first things you learn in culinary training. 

Now, as a modern etiquette columnist for New York mag, I agree with Kerry. The chefs  shouldn't have just shoved a bunch of food in their mouth in front of the guests. That would indeed be indelicate. But in a competition like this, they could have easily dished up a small portion, turned away from their diners -- heck, even used each other as a block in a discreet way -- and taken a taste for seasoning. 

Would that have saved Mark? I can't say. Again, I wasn't there. But from what the judges said, it seemed the real issue was that the simplicity of the dish fell flat. There's a trend in the culinary world right now to get really heady with food, deconstructing dishes, waving a magic wand, and turning them into a billowing cloud of wizard smoke, but the fact of the matter is that the simplest of dishes are the easiest to screw up. A Neapolitan pizza or a carne asada taco are so deceivingly straight forward, but if just one element is askew or a singular ingredient isn't perfect, you're done-zo. Sadly that's where Mark screwed up. But he was honest to himself as chef throughout the whole process, and I'm sure he will be Clark's number one fan moving on. I can't wait to get out to Arrows to see what the dynamic duo does on their home turf.

 

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.