It's great to be back on Top Chef Masters! And so great to have Gail join us this year. She and I didn't know one another, but within seconds of our first tasting, I knew I was her brother from another mother. The way she tasted and observed the food was so spot-on (by which I mean, "was so like me," which I guess makes me a narcissist), it was like she was saying exactly what I wanted to say before I even thought it. (I guess I shouldn't basically be telling the producers that she's made me redundant.)
OK, let's forget that paragraph ever happened.
Anyway, it was great to see Curtis again, who was even sharper and smoother than I remembered, and James, who is always that hilarious/craycray. Yes, he actually told Kathy Lee Gifford to come inside his body and taste with his mouth. And Kathy Lee... man. You know what I learned this episode? I learned that you don’t get to be Kathy Lee Gifford unless you have morning talk-show energy and wit 24 hours a day. That woman's dynamism is unreal! And when you give this bunch that many opportunities to joke about eating hearts and heads, you better hide the kids. Or have careful editors.
(Oh, and yes, shrimp heads -- and shells -- are delicious! Imagine packing all the flavor of shrimp into a thin crackle. The key is that they have to be really well-cooked with dry heat, meaning grilling, roasting, or frying, so they actually crisp and break up when you chew them. Try it!)
Another thing I love about being back on the show is how the food surprises me and forces me to think about cooking and technique in a unique way. I went home after the shoot so happy to have my culinary brain exercised, trying to figure out how these chefs conceive, create, and improvise under such tough conditions.
For instance, the soup for Bryan's chicken and dumplings was, honestly, astounding. It had crazy depth of flavor, with an aged, high-tone funk, like from country ham. It actually didn't taste unusual, in that it tasted a lot like the very best Chinese "superior" broths, which you make by simmering piles and piles of bones, aged ham, and dried aromatics very slowly -- in a double boiler, in fact -- for 16 hours or more.
How did he get such flavor in two hours? One thing was that he made several different broths at once and combined them all. One of these was a Japanese dashi, with kombu seaweed and smoked bonito flakes, which gave a clean umami depth and a bit of smokiness. And the chicken broth he did in a pressure cooker, which is an awesome technique -- the pressure cooker basically presses all the flavor out of your ingredients in a fraction of the time of regular simmering. And, because it's done in a sealed pot, none of it escapes into the air, so you lock all the aromatic compounds in the liquid itself. All you need is something so low-tech it was invented about 100 years before we declared independence from the British.
My first sip of that soup was familiar, exciting, and mystifying all at once. It was great to be back.