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This week's episode of Top Chef Masters was the most intense, the saddest, the most gut-wrenching of any I've watched, through any season. What happened to the chefs this week is something something that happens to everyone: things don't do quite what you want them to do, people don't behave in the ways you expected them to, everything is just off. From start to finish of this episode — both filming it in Las Vegas a few months ago, and watching it here in New York last night — I could feel tension in the air, that sense that anything that could possibly go wrong would.
But watching a room full of professionals dealing with as so many things went awry was, in a strange way, gratifying. For all the overloaded burners, the poorly-timed duck, the high tempers, it still all came together: the restaurant opened, the meal went on. The chefs composed themselves and faced the cameras. Still, the emotional tenor — then and now — left me speechless. Then, I could sense that the energy was amiss — now, having learned all the background details, I'm doubly impressed by the professionalism on display at the critics' table. No one sold anyone out. Patricia didn't get snarky on Kerry. Lorena didn't get snarky on Patricia (well, not reaaally snarky, anyway). It's a powerful lesson.Before filming even began on this episode, I was of two minds. Thai food is one of my areas of expertise — I know the country and its food intimately. I've traveled there more than 20 times. And I love Thai food; I could eat it for three meals a day for the rest of my life and be blissfully happy — the extraordinary coriander-root-and-garlic-spiced chicken of the northeast, the herb-crazed sladas of the south. And so facing the prospect of the contestants making a Thai feast filled me with both excitement and dread. It could go brilliantly — the bright, harmonious, gracefully aggressive flavors I know and love — or it could flop, the chefs turning in pale imitations more in tune with takeout pad thai than authentic Thai cuisine. It's not a style of food that you can spend two hours studying and pull off without a hitch; you can't substitute ingredients at will or by necessity. And while Las Vegas has many splendid Asian markets (Ranch 99, which the chefs visited, chief among them), by and large my suspicions were that the chefs would have a hard time finding the fresh galangal, pungent fish sauce, or kaffir lime leaves so essential to the Thai larder.
Sitting down to dinner with Saipin Chutima of Lotus of Siam was a great pleasure: I've been an admirer of her restaurant for years. But while the company was top-notch, the food was less so. When the first round of dishes arrived, I realized that I was right to have been worried. Lorena's tom kha gai, a classic soup frequently served in restaurants, had a delicious savor, but her decision to poach the chicken separately hurt both components: the chicken itself was bland, and the broth missed out on some of the savory richness that cooking the chicken would have imparted. (The dish's garnishes, a major concern for the other judges, didn't bother me — if anything, they were evidence that Lorena was having a little fun.)
Chris' winning dish was good, but truth be told, for me it wasn't the highlight of the meal — I was voted down by the other critics when it came time to pick a winner. Laab is one of my absolutely favorite foods, and I really love that Chris challenged himself by making it. But the joy of the dish for me isn't so much in the protein itself, but the flourish of fresh, delicate herbs, the bright citrus, the fiery chile, and the subtle smoothness of toasted rice powder that brings it all together. And in Chris' laab tartare, that essential harmony was missing.And then we came to the middle course. I've said before in these blogs that I have the utmost respect for Patricia's cooking, and perhaps that raises my expectations of her a little bit, well, unnaturally high. And even though I sent my undercooked duck breast back to the kitchen, that wasn't the aspect of her dish that I found disconcerting: for a chef who's spent so long cooking in Thailand, I was deeply disappointed in her rendition of Massaman curry, which I felt missed some of the most essential aspects of the dish. The word "massaman" means "muslim," and this curry comes from southern Thailand, where there's a large Muslim population and the culinary culture blurs a bit with that of neighboring Malaysia. Massaman is made with many of the same vibrant spices used in Indian curries: cumin, clove, coriander, warm and rich... but in Patricia's dish, the curry base was so weak as to be almost anemic. The reserved, muted flavors were a whisper where they should have been a shout.
Alas, Art's losing dish just wasn't good. Not only was his nut-encrusted chicken not remotely Thai in flavor, but the cashews were awkwardly large, and the slaw was something of a strange afterthought. I love Art, and will miss him on the show, but in this round he was so far out of his comfort zone as to be entirely flummoxed. He's a master of soulful Southern American cooking — but sadly not a master of Southern Thai.
Takashi's dish of crispy noodles with yellow curry was beautiful, but sadly didn't taste quite as exquisite as it looked. That was doubly unfortunate because it shared the table with Kerry's marvelous pork belly with taro puree, a delicious plate of food that was my favorite of the evening. I could have eaten nothing but the mustard greens alone and been in heaven; having a buttery, perfect piece of pork and a beautifully flavored swoop of taro elevated it to the amazing. It had force, intelligence, and wit: the kind of intelligently sensitive approach to an unfamiliar cuisine I'd been expecting from all the chefs.