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:






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.