HLike my fellow Top Chef Masters critics, I have a job aside from evaluating the work of master-level chefs on television. Simultaneously while filming this season, I was also working on a particularly large article for Los Angeles magazine dedicated to L.A.’s sushi scene, which had me feeling very in tune with all things seafood. I visited local wholesale fish markets, chatted with marine biologists about sustainability issues, interviewed local fishermen, including a guy who free dives off the coats of Santa Barbara for fresh sea urchin—I even took Ruth Reichl, Francis Lam, and Gail Simmons to dinner at Kiwami by Katsuya a few nights before the chefs visited. (A complete coincidence, by the way!) So, I was thrilled to see that this week’s episode was giving a nod to the region’s underwater bounty.
Of course, if having the finest ingredients at your fingertips were all it took to be a master chef, every toque in town would be competing this season. As this episode showed, just having access to pristine seafood isn’t always enough to make a winning dish. What struck me most while watching the chefs struggle with their chilled presentations was that every one of the contestants interpreted “not hot” as “crudo.” As anyone who has enjoyed a slab of poached salmon on their salad knows, there is more than one way to serve cold fish. Some tougher seafood can even be braised and then chilled to miraculous effect. If only Neal and Sang had thought of that while struggling with the texture of their raw fish, we might have seen a very different bottom three—and perhaps a different chef going home.