Cast Blog: #TCMASTERS

What It's All About

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?

What It's All About

Krista Simmons recounts her own experience with teaching children.

You may find this hard to believe, but working as food editor isn't all about eating and boozing and shmoozing with chefs. The pressure of multiple daily deadlines sometimes has me feeling like I'm chasing scoops on a hamster wheel. Then there's the constant game of whack-a-mole with weight gain and the race to beat rush hour before 6 a.m. news segments. A career in the industry is rewarding, but boy, can it be exhausting. There's no doubt in my mind that at this point in the competition, the Masters were feeling that same sense of fatigue. But this week's elimination delivered just what they needed: a challenge to help them recalibrate and give them a sense of purpose.

top-chef-masters-kr%231127532.jpgEditor's Note: Stay tuned for more of Krista's photos at the end of this blog!

This summer I was presented with a similar opportunity, where I was tasked with running a culinary arts program for at-risk youth impacted by HIV/AIDs through a nonprofit called Hollywood HEART. The profound impact it had on my career was completely unexpected, and every time I get a case of “WTF KBBQ?”, I think about my experience instructing these young aspiring culinary professionals. Our students, many of whom come from low-income households, had never tried an heirloom tomato, let alone been to farmers market to select their own. Others had come from foster homes where their parents had told them they'd never amount to anything, but they shared that they'd found self worth through cooking. One even cried tears of joy because she finally could cook something besides burnt ramen noodles for her sous chef father.

The Hollywood HEART students were so proud of their work at camp, and I can only imagine how thrilled the participants in this episode must have been being able to work with such culinary legends. The Masters taught the blossoming young culinarians how to elevate basic home-cooked meals, and each had valuable lessons to share: Chris talked about minimizing ingredients, keeping things simple, clean, and fresh; Lorena taught them how a hearty, home-cooked meal served family-style could bring together a table of diners; and Kerry showed the students how focus, hustle, and a little tough love can pay off in the end.

Similar lessons came up at Camp Hollywood HEART. Our students learned everything from modernist technique and sushi making to knife skills and quick pickled salads, giving them the tools they need to embark on a culinary career. But the life lessons they took away were just as important as the practical ones.

During one of our guest teaching sessions, Adam Cole, who works at Top Chef alum Michael Voltaggio's restaurant Ink, came up to teach the kids kitchen science, and it was amazing to see the students, some of which have severe learning disabilities, zero in on something so complex as chemistry. If science were taught like that, I have no doubt our public school system wouldn't have such a high drop out rate. When Cole was attempting to spherify grape juice for a modern take on ants on a log, the little orbs kept busting in the sodium alginate. He calmly tweaked his ratios until finally he got it right. “Failure is part of success,” he said. “The important part is that you don't give up, and keep moving towards your goal.”That's an important theme to remember as we move into the finale. I'd hardly call Lorena's lasagne a failure, and from the smile on her face at elimination, it seemed like she didn't either (though Ruth apparently disagreed). Regardless of winners and losers, made a tangible (and delicious!) difference in those kids' lives. “This is what it's all about,” Lorena said. And she's right.  Nurturing a new generation of culinary artists is what this industry should be all about. If you give kids a chance, not only will they grow, but they'll thrive -- and make some really fabulous food in the process.Here are some more photos from my Camp Hollywood HEART experience:

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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.