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This week’s episode didn't have fireworks or surreal plot twists or grand, operatic scope, nevertheless, it was one of my favorites so far. There was something about the intimacy of the challenge and the authenticity of the cooking that really got to me. At this point in the arc of the season, all the fat has been stripped away, and we’re down to that most basic question: how well do you, dear remaining cheftestant, cook?
I’m engaged as a viewer by that clarity, plus I have the great and very privileged benefit of being able to eat that damn delicious food. And what food there was! Two of this week’s dishes—Douglas’ and Bryan’s—were just remarkable, possibly two of the most accomplished plates of food in the entirety of Top Chef Masters. Douglas’s gorgeously composed plate was the pinnacle of richness, in the most genuinely celebratory, happy-making way. If you heard someone list out loud those main components—smoked salmon, caviar, uni—you might think to yourself, My God, no, that’s far too much. But in Douglas’s capable hands, it was lovely, even a bit restrained. Even without the moving back story that inspired it (more on that soon), it was a knockout of a dish.
But Bryan’s squid bolognese? It was more than a knockout. It was a winner. I don’t know if I could have imagined any way to better a classic bolognese, but the moment I had a bite of this dish, I knew he'd accomplished just that. It was intensely conceptualized, nevertheless having all the homey, hearty, comforting soul that we associate with the dish. It hit a trifecta of flawlessness, familiarity, and surprise—and it was amazing.
The other two dishes we were presented with were also good, though clearly not quite in the same league as what Douglas and Bryan presented to us. Jennifer’s lamb chop was woefully undercooked—not just rare, but raw—but it had the benefit of beautiful accoutrements, like her exquisite porridge. But poor David. Douglas was right when he said a guy would have to have balls of titanium to attempt 60 soufflés.
No one doubted Burke’s bravado. But these soufflés fell—a failure of timing—and they also just didn’t taste very good. Chocolate desserts are, to me, the gateway to heaven, and consequently there’s nothing more disappointing than chocolate that doesn’t live up to its promise. And against dishes of such conceptual solidity as Bryan’s, Douglas’s, and yes, even Jennifer’s, there was no choice but to send David home.
The food this week was only half the story, though. One of the things that most moved me about the episode was the context within which the food was prepared. In five years of doing this show, it’s perhaps one of the sweetest and most endearing challenges that I’ve encountered—the idea of honoring teachers through beautiful plates of food feels so good to me. Something that may not be apparent to the viewer is that what looks in the episode like a few minutes of tasting various plates of food was, in reality, hours on the Top Chef Masters set. This week, something that didn’t make it into the final cut was the conversation around the table. John Deasy, the superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District, led us in a wonderful, fascinating, spirited discussion about teachers and their value, and every one of us wound up sharing memories of the ways our educations shaped us into who we are.For me, it was one teacher in particular: Mrs. O’Hagan. I’m a high school dropout, and the year before I left school, she and I became very close. (She retired the year that I dropped out, which may not be a coincidence.) I’d heard she was a wonderful teacher, so despite not having any classes with her I just knocked on her classroom door one day after school was out. In short order we became the best of friends—14-year-old me, Mrs. O’Hagan in her late 60s. We'd go to movies and the symphony; she would bring me essays to read that analyzed the works of Chekhov. She had a deep effect on me. We remained friends for decades until her death not too long ago.
Everyone has their own story of the teacher that made an indelible impact on their life. I feel that all of the remaining contestants this week, all four of them, drew on that in their own way, and produced dishes that were—for the most part—as beautiful as those stories. The basic concept of the challenge had the benefit of allowing the chefs to conceive and create foods that were going to function as strong dishes for the critics, but also genuinely move the diners—not to mention the individual teachers the dishes were designed to celebrate. It was wonderful. It was great that there weren't a lot of banana peels and pratfalls, just a very pure challenge that I think really allowed the chefs to shine and do their best, to be their best, exactly the way a good teacher would want them to.