'Top Chef Masters' Reaches Such Great Heights

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?

'Top Chef Masters' Reaches Such Great Heights

Ep 1: ...Literally. In the season premiere, the Masters jump out of planes!

I wouldn't have jumped. Ever. I can't think of a sum high enough that would get me to jump. (OK -- maybe if it were for charity, I would consider it.)

But, I'm getting a little ahead of myself. 

Welcome back, my little skydivers! My name is Monica Reyhani. I'm Senior Producer of Bravo Digital, and I'll be your recapper for Top Chef Masters Season 5, as I have been for more seasons than I care to count. I've been saying this all week (to myself, to others), but I'm serious when I say this is the best season of Top Chef Masters ever, and you can tell from the first episode.

First, before the episode even started, the Internets were treated to the biggest change this season -- Battle of the Sous Chefs. Battle of the Sous Chefs is a prequel to each on-air episode, hosted by Hugh Acheson. In it, the Masters' sous chefs will compete to earn their Masters advantages in the next episode, or, unfortunately, disadvantages. These sous chefs are at a very high level, and it shows. Full disclosure: the only sous chef's food I'm aware I've eaten is Vinson Petrillo's -- Franklin Becker's sous -- at Prospect in Brooklyn. It is imaginative and delicious, so I can't wait to see what he and his competitors come up with. 

So, simultaneously, our 13 accomplished Masters enter their kitchen. This is one of my favorite parts of the whole season. Unlike our Top Chefs, these guys know each other, and might be very close friends, so seeing their initial reactions to their competitors is always priceless. When I heard who was competing, I was pretty shocked. I mean, David Burke? The guy's a legend. Douglas Keane? I've heard many a chef wax poetic about Douglas and his former restaurant, Cyrus. Richard Sandoval? I may be biased because I live quite close to one of his NYC restaurants, Maya, but try his Maya Margarita with tamarind, and tell me you aren't rooting for him too. The list of amazing chefs competing goes on and on. But now, in the Top Chef Masters kitchen, they're equals. And Curtis brings them down to earth (well, actually the opposite) with their first challenge: to prepare a family-style meal for the Skyhawks parachute team. But wait, there's more! The chefs will be given two hours to cook... if they jump out of a plane. Only one hour for the wusses. Say what?! And, kind of surprisingly, all of the chefs decide to jump‚ except Douglas Keane. I'm with you, Douglas. Luckily for him, Hugh enters the kitchen with some exciting news: Douglas' sous chef, Drew, has won the first Battle of the Sous Chefs, so Douglas has immunity -- only having one hour to cook now doesn't seem so bad because he can't go home. 

In probably one of the funniest sequences ever shown on Top Chef, we watch our 12 daredevil Masters jump out of a plane. But honestly, all I care about is watching David Burke jump out of a plane. And it seems our lone Canadian Lynn Crawford -- already emerging as our most outspoken chef -- is pretty psyched too. One by one they go. Where they stop, only their tandem riders know. Immediately after landing, they have to cook! Can you imagine?! And now‚ even more twists. All the chefs can only use the ingredients used by their sous chefs. And that's not even a disadvantage? What is the disavantage you ask? The chefs whose sous chefs were on the bottom in Battle of the Sous Chefs don't have basic kitchen utensils. Eeek! Taking away a chef's knife is, well, not recommended. But the chefs rise to the challenge and don't seem too mad at their sous. Honestly, Sang Yoon is the only chef I truly believe would maybe fire his sous chef over a loss. Ha!

The chefs are cooking for a while when Douglas Keane arrives, cool as a cucumber from his leisurely drive over to the grounds. The critics -- including new head critic Gail Simmons! And the lovely Ms. Lesley Suter! -- arrive with their fellow diners, the Skyhawks. Some walk in, some skydive in. This whole skydiving thing is making me very anxious. The first group of chefs -- Franklin, David, Herb, and Lynn present their dishes. David and Lynn created their dishes with no utensils, but it's Herb with the obvious worst dish: he didn't get his oysters in their shells. While I -- and the critics -- commend him for waiting to fry, all the critics were left to judge was a shell of sauce. A delicious sauce by itself is still just sauce. Herb seemed pretty dead in the water at this point, but we still have two more groups!

Next up is Jenn Louis, not to be confused with Jenny Lewis of Troop Beverly hills, Rilo Kiley, and Postal service fame (and the inspiration for this recap title.) But guess what? If there's a dessert challenge and Jenn doesn't start singing "It's cookie time!" I'll be pretty disappointed. There's Sue Zemanick, who has competed before. Did we mention Top Chef is in Sue's city of New Orleans next season? We did? OK. Sang Yoon, who's burger at Father's Office in L.A. is supposed to be awesome. (I'm ashamed to say I've never tried it.) And Mr. Bryan Voltaggio. Now, I'm not going to say Bryan is my favorite cheftestant of all time, because that would be like ranking your children, but I have admitted in this space before that Volt is probably my favorite restaurant. And I may or may not be doing Table 21 (yes, that's 21 courses) at Volt for my birthday in August. I'll share photos here -- don't worry. A few years ago, Bryan told me he wanted to be the first Top Chef to compete on Masters, and well, he did it. It will be interesting to see if his experience competing is an advantage or not, but either way, he's an exciting chef to watch, and an even more entertaining one to listen to laugh, or giggle in this case.

The critics -- especially James -- aren't happy Jenn's clams aren't all open. Sue's escabeche is meh and Sang's pork is undercooked in places. Bryan's dish -- the only vegetarian one in the lot -- is well-received. Bryan is comfortable cooking vegetables -- he actually has an entire "Tasting of Fruits and Vegetables" menu at Volt.Finally, we have our last group of the challenge -- the largest group of Odette, who I realy hope to hear yell in Italian, Jennifer, Douglas, Neal, who looks like someone I just haven't put my finger on yet, and Richard. Although Doug wanted to impress, despite his immunity, his many and varied Japanese ingredients got lost. It was a visually stunning dish. Richard admits his beef isn't cut thinly enough, but that may be the least of the dish's problems. Jennifer's meat causes James and Gail to flail their arms about in, well, um... watch:


Aw, Curtis. Don't be shy. (And Gail and James don't kill me for having this .gif created! It's too good!)

Anywaaay, (seriously, don't kill me Gail and James!), Neal incorporated his many sous chef-provided ingredients well and lands on top. As does Odette with her chilled lamb. 

So, Odette, Bryan, and Neal face the critics... on top! Odette wins $10K for her charity!

It's Herb, Richard, and David's turn to face the critics, and while all the dishes had their faults, Herb was the only one who didn't present a complete dish. He did go out with a lot of class, though, falling on his sword. I spoke with Herb at the premiere party, and he said he'd like to compete again. I echo James' sentiment in saying that I'd love to see what he can do!

It's time to watch the next ep of Battle of the Sous Chefs to see who will get advantages or disadvantages in the next challenge. So, watch HERE.

Next week, Kathy Lee Gifford is guest-judging. And, no, it's not a wine challenge.

See you all then!

Let me know in the Comments below who you're rooting for!

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.