James Oseland: "It Doesn't Hurt to Try"

James make a case for stepping out of one's comfort zone.

The big moral takeaway from this episode for me -- one in which at least two of us faced down foods we'd rather not eat only to discover that we loved them -- is the great value to be found in plunging headfirst into the unknown. Life is short, try it all—you never know what's going to surprise you with its wonderfulness. To paraphrase Kathie Lee: you never know what's going to be your personal deep-fried shrimp head.

The less we box ourselves in, the less we stick to what we know and what we're comfortable with, the more we have access to what's out there. Try the fried shrimp head, or the chicken heart: you'll have a new thing to add to the list of things you love. (Or, if you don't, you've nevertheless got a good story about chicken hearts to tell at your next cocktail party.)

I may try to live (and eat) by the principle of Try It All, but it's not always easy—especially on the Top Chef Masters set. I'm not big on raw meat, for example, but tartares aren't always easy to avoid. Still, I find myself delighted far more often than I'm disappointed: last year, on Season 4, chef Chris Cosentino presented the judges with a heart tartare that was one of the more difficult things I've had to bring myself to eat, but once I had that first bite of the exquisitely prepared, earthy, savory dish, I was instantly converted. It had been worth overcoming my qualms. I'm still not sure I'd seek it out and order it in a restaurant, but it made me a better person (and a better eater) for having experienced it—and the same goes for a number of the foods I tried on this week's episode.

Chief among those was Douglas Keane's exceptionally wonderful riff on cookies and cream, which you may have noticed I was pretty skeptical about. I have a cynicism about savory desserts: I like my desserts to be sweet and honest, and more often than not, I find the incorporation of savory flavors to be indicative of what I think of as "dessert shame," an unwillingness to capitulate to the simple joy of a sweet ending to a meal. But what Douglas created was great, even with its complexity of flavors—green tea, herbs, and spices-- it hit a bull’s-eye on my target of what a dessert should be. Sure, it may have looked like a Dixie cup full of foam, but from the moment it hit my palate, it was clear that this was a marvelous invention, a perfect balance of flavors and textures.

His companions in the top three also produced exceptional dishes. Bryan Voltaggio's take on chicken and dumplings had marvelous components: wonderful dumplings, lovely pieces of crisped chicken skin. But what blew me away (and the other judges, particularly Francis) was the broth. Chinese-style chicken broth involves cooking it for eight or nine hours, simmering it away with aromatics and herbs to produce a slightly bitter, slightly sour, slightly sweet flavor that's in perfect balance. And somehow, miraculously, Bryan produced this depth of flavor in just two hours, thanks to some ingenuity and some pretty spectacular pressure cookers. 

The winning dish, Sang's rendition of fried shrimp and coleslaw, was inspired by a classic Burmese salad made with fermented tea leaves, one of my all-time favorite dishes. And my God, was this a joy to eat: the riot of flavors and textures, peanuts and fried garlic and cabbage and a spot-on, sweet-tart dressing, all melded in a beautiful way. The shrimp, its body poached and its head crisp-fried, brought it all together; the head in particular was revelatory, an ideal counterpoint in both flavor and texture to everything else on the plate. (Even Kathie Lee thought so, once we convinced her to take a bite.)

As for the dishes in the bottom three—well, they were the sorts of dishes I'm happy to have tried, but more for the story behind them than the actual experience. Odette, Jenn, and Sue's dishes all had certain components that were wonderful — Odette's strangely lovely pasta, Jenn's exquisite meatballs, Sue's well-balanced lobster roll and clever workaround with the subpar bread—but they all also faced serious issues in execution. Ultimately, despite Odette's almost inedible gummy fish balls and Sue's inconveniently sharp pieces of lobster shell, it was Jen's ungainly, inelegant (though, minus its bread, quite delicious) banh mi that wound up sending its creator home.

Jenn mentioned on the episode how much she dislikes having to deviate from classic recipes, which explains why she wouldn't ditch her terrible bread or try to create a more finessed take on the banh mi. But if this elimination proves anything, it's that (like Kathie Lee and the shrimp head, or me and that heart tartare) Jenn should have fought her way out of her comfort zone and at least given something new a try. It may not have saved her, but then again, maybe it could have. It doesn't hurt to try.

James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur.

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.