Gail's Least Favorite Soap Opera Dish Was...

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's Least Favorite Soap Opera Dish Was...

The critic names her picks for top and bottom dish. First, was the "scraps" Quickfire.
Gail Simmons: I don't have much to say about the Quickfire. It seemed like a really smart idea, having to cook from scraps. It was impressive that the chefs were able to scrape meat off of bones to create dishes at all. TV: So, elimination. Are you a soap opera fan?
GS: I'm not, I'm the opposite of a soap opera fan. I'm a sci-fi girl. I never watched soap operas growing up. Star Trek was my soap opera. And Quantum Leap. But a lot of my girlfriends watched Days of Our Lives. They would tape it on VHS everyday when we were at school. And even my college roommates watched Days of Our Lives. I did watch Dallas. That kind of counts, right? Just learning the history of a show that's made 12,000 episodes over so many years was incredible. We've made I don't know how many episodes -- if you combine Top Chef, 'Top Chef Masters, and Top Chef Just Desserts -- well over 200, but nothing like 12,000. That's just enormous, it's extraordinary. The actors were just game for anything. I guess you have to be ready for twists and turns when you're a soap opera star; you come into work everyday and you never know what's going to happen to your job and to your character, that's what it's like in the kitchen. They told us all about the adventures of their characters -- they've had a baby-snatching, the marriages, coming back to life -- it was awesome. And I love that the challenge incorporated all of those things with the chefs -- the coma, going to jail, and murder. As well as dishes with them themes of murder, sex, and greed.... TV: It was hilarious. Let's start with Murder, which was Odette, Sang, and Jen. Jen won ultimately, and Odette actually found herself on the bottom which I think people were surprised by.
GS: Here's the tricky part: remember that the cast of Days of Our Lives picked the top and the bottom dishes that day. We, the judges, only voted off one of the bottom after they were chosen, which is quite unusual. As judges, we don't just judge on what our favorite is in a given day, like the cast might have. We judge on what we think was the best dish in all of its merits, including technical skill, doneness of the protein, proper knife skills, overall presentation, which is much more than if I personally liked the dish or not. I think everyone at Critics' Table understood the creation of Odette's dish takes more skill than the cast probably knew. There were some seasoning issues, for sure. It was a little bland. Also keep in mind, we were not judging it against all of the other dishes in the day, we were only judging it within a category of three dishes, and out of the three murder dishes, hers probably was the least successful. Jen's was really excellent, obviously, she won. TV: There was Sang's, and he didn't actually plate everything.
GS: Right, but we didn't know that, so it doesn't matter. TV: But it felt like a complete dish?
GS: Yeah, it tasted complete enough and we liked it. I might have chosen Sang's had I had a vote, but I didn't have the vote, so it didn't matter. But I did remember really liking what I ate in Sang's dish, the pieces that were there. And we didn't know at the time that there were some things left off his plate. Doug's dish was salty in the same way that Odette's dish was a little bland, so it's sort of a toss-up. TV: OK, so the Sex category.
GS: David Burke's dish was sort of bananas. Maybe that's how he likes sex? Ha! It was a classic David Burke dish in that it probably had 15 different ingredients, and I'm not totally sure how they all went together, but I didn't think it was very successful because there were too many textures, too many elements, too many flavors. To me it was quite off-balance. Lynn's dish was fine -- it did have a few elements that I think were a bit sloppy. The way that she plated it the carrots steamed the duck underneath it, which wasn't very appealing and detracted from the texture and the flavor of the duck. But it wasn't the worst. For Greed, we had Bryan's concept that people seemed to appreciate.
GS: Yes, greed, I thought, was an interesting category because it's harder to articulate. Greed is a little more intangible than sex or murder. Bryan's interpretation was really about sustainability and how we are being greedy as a human race. I thought his dish was actually really tasty -- quite lovely and refined. TV: You and Lesley said the green cardamom flavor was very strong in Doug's dish.
GS: We all got a very strong taste of green cardamom in Douglas' dish, which is the cardamom pod when it's still raw, and it tasted unripe so it had a bit of an aggressiveness to it. I thought it overpowered everything -- the crab and the shrimp being so delicate -- so that was an issue. I think that it was too aggressive, too strong for the diners. They really didn't enjoy it. I thought Bryan and Sue both did very good jobs. Out of the three, I would probably agree with our cast which one I liked the least. One person from each category has to be in the bottom, so they had to pick someone, right? TV: What would you have said your top and bottom were ?
GS: For the top it would be Bryan. For the bottom it would probably have to be David Burke. It was just so confusing and overwhelming. It was a real loss for all of us, letting Odette go. She not only is a fantastic cook who did really well in this competition, but I don't think she deserved to go home for this particular, beautiful dish, which is really too bad. We all felt that way but we needed to choose from what we were given, which came down to Doug or Odette. Between those two dishes, we thought that what Doug did held up better. The one thing I do remember about Odette's dish was that it's such a delicate dish and really relies on the egg yolk oozing out of the raviolo, and since it was sitting around for a long time, it just didn't feel as fresh as it should have. The pasta dough and the leeks and mushrooms that were in the dish all felt a little bit heavy. This dish is so rich, of course, and the pasta needs to be right on. There was a bit of greasiness to the dish with the fried leek too. We felt it was not as good as we know the dish could be and we know that she's capable of making it. Regardless, Odette is one of my favorite contestants ever. I adore her as a chef, I adore her as a person. I think she is so talented. We will really miss her. TV: Doug made a comment at Critics' Table questioning the guests' palates. Did that surprise you?
GS: Well, I think what he was referring to was that, part of the reason that they all didn't like Odette's dish was that they didn't "get" the egg yolk, and thought it wasn't appealing. But that's the whole point of the dish. That's where the subtlety and elegance of that dish really comes in. When he heard that was the reason she was on the bottom, I think Doug decided that they just didn't understand it. It's a very sophisticated dish, a very well-known dish at that level. But he probably thought she went home for if because they couldn't appreciate that. The issue is that, as a chef, you can't always cook cerebrally. You have to cook for an emotional response from people of all kinds, and if they're not responding, it could be because you don't think they understand it, but it's up to you to make it a good experience for them. It's not up to them to rise to your intellectual challenge.   

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.