Gail Simmons, on Her New Head Critic Role

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?

Gail Simmons, on Her New Head Critic Role

Gail discusses Critics' Table and what it's like judging Bryan Voltaggio again. Welcome to Top Chef Masters Season 5!
Gail Simmons: I'm really excited to be part of the season. I've never been part of a full season before. I've made guest judging appearances over the years, and I've watched the show just get better and better. I was thrilled that I could be the head critic this year alongside Curtis Stone, who I love. How are you going to approach being a critic differently than being a judge on Top Chef?
GS: I don't approach it that differently. I'm not trying to be Tom Colicchio, that's for sure. On Masters, we are all journalists and we're all food critics. On Top Chef, a lot of guest judges are chefs themselves. We approach food as journalists differently than chefs, and that's what the show's about. But my goal is just to be as fair and honest as I can. At the same time, these chefs are all established in their own way, these are all chefs who I've admired from near and far for years. I know them all. We all know them all. We are already relatively familiar with what they do. That said, it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done in the past or how many awards and accolades you have; it's about the dish you put in front of us that day and whether it's good or not and why. As the head critic, I want to help the other critics -- who often have way more experience than I do -- get to that answer together. So do you want to dive right into the challenge?
GS: I am so impressed that more than one chef jumped! When I was 19, I went to Australia with one of my best friends for a summer, and we skydived. It was an incredible experience, and one I'll never forget. It really was quite life-affirming, when my feet hit the ground I wanted to do it again. That said, I was 19 years old and feeling pretty indestructible; I'm a little older now. Would you have done it?
GS: I would like to think I would have! But my legs are weak just thinking about it. I think it was an amazing way to start the season. It seemed at first disconnected and random, but the reason it worked in such a great way to kick off Season 5 is because it forced all of these chefs into the same scenario. It brought them together; it bonded them in a way we've never been able to do, and gave them this incredible adrenaline rush, not unlike working a great service in the kitchen, but multiplied by a thousand. They came down from that plane, and they were all soaring; they were so excited. I'll never forget it, and I think it really did influence the way they cooked from then on. It set the tone for the season on a great note. Douglas really lucked out since he had immunity.
GS: Exactly. It just happened that he had immunity because of his sous chef's success in Battle of the Sous Chefs. Total luck of the draw, but it also allowed him to not have to worry too much that he didn't jump, and he did a really great job. His scallops were quite complex and delicious, considering he made them in an We discover quickly that Herb Wilson didn't plate his oysters. Did you know he would be going home before he fell on his sword at Critics' Table?
GS: We did know. It's just one of those situations where we had no choice. Not only did he not present the main piece of his dish, but there was nothing else to the dish. So it really was a no-brainer, and not because he's not a reputable or impressive chef, but we just could not possibly judge on a quarter-sized amount of sauce on an empty oyster shell. Everyone else managed to not only get their food on the plate, but get enormous amounts of very sophisticated food on their plate. Looking at what everyone else was able to do in those two hours, you cannot judge any other way. He had the exact same circumstances, and in fact, several of the chefs didn't even have all their utensils. I get that he hadn't shucked oysters in a long time, but that's where the sous chefs become so instrumental in the season. Not only is it going to be about how good you are, but how good a leader you are. If you train your sous chef well, he should know you instinctively. The challenge for the sous chefs was to make a dish that represented their chef, and Herb's sous chef chose oysters. Herb might not be the one shucking the oysters each night, but his restaurant is seafood-based, so it's not so far off. Who would have gone home if Herb's dish was successful?
GS: It probably would have been Richard. He had no utensils, so we understand how this happened, but his beef was pretty sloppy in the way it was cut. It's not like he had to make the dish he did -- he could have done something different with the beef altogether once he realized that he wasn't going to be able to cut it as thinly as he wanted. And with the salmon, it was just not appealing to look at or taste. What was it like having Bryan Voltaggio in front of you again?
GS: When he got up to the Critics' Table, he said it was weird to be back and, trust me, it was just as weird for me too. It was like a time warp: all of a sudden I was back in Season 6, in Las Vegas. Maybe we've both aged a couple of years, but I think we both look more or less the same. Honestly, what was great about it was that right off the bat, he proved that he could play with the Masters, that he deserved to be a there. Being the first Top Chef to compete on Top Chef Masters, you kind of have an advantage and a disadvantage. On one hand, he's done this before, he knew how to act in the competition. So, he has an advantage in some way over the Masters. He's also probably been cooking in his own kitchens a little more recently. On the other hand, he doesn't have the experience necessarily that a lot of the other chefs have, and I'm sure that they looked at him as the young kid who was on our original show, so I'm sure that was intimidating for him. But the dish he made -- those carrots -- were beautiful. I love that he chose to do a vegetarian dish. I love that his sous chef gave him those ingredients, knowing him, and that he created the dish that didn't need a protein to shine, but that still really stood out because of its flavor and its composition. Could you tell a difference in his cooking?
GS: Yes! The longer you cook, the better you get, the more confident you become. Don't forget: he came very close to winning Top Chef. He was in second place, which is not too shabby. I would say he has expanded his training in so many ways. He has a small empire now. He's not just a chef who owns one tiny restaurant in a small town outside of Washington, D.C. What about the other well-received dishes?
GS: Every dish had so many components, and were a bit overwhelming. But Neil's was subtle. He gave us a dish that was really straightforward, but was just made well, and that's what we wanted. We want to taste the ingredients in your food, but we also don't want to feel like you're throwing a circus on our plate, like David did, like Richard did. So it was sort of a brilliant skill that Neil was able to make all his ingredients feel very edited, very carefully prepared.

And then there was Odette's. I can't help but love her. Her dish was by far the most interesting dish we ate, in many ways. I loved that she cooked the lamb but then served it cold, which is smart because there were so many uncontrollable variables that day, in the middle of that tumbleweed field. It was just so authentic to her, which made us so happy. It was classic Italian, the cauliflower was full of flavor and the anchovy that she added made everything sing. It was quite remarkable. I've never had lamb in that preparation. It told us so much about her, not just because it's Italian but because she was so thoughtful in preparing it. It was beautiful and absolutely delicious. What can we expect from the rest of the season?
GS: It's all uphill from here. The food just gets better and better. The Masters are totally fun and hilarious. And there's some pretty unbelievable curveballs for them coming up. I hope people also tune in to our Battle of the Sous Chefs and follow along. 

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.