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Top Chef Masters – what would you cook for Doogie Howser?

Three chefs are into the final so far: Rick Bayless, Suzanne Tracht and Hubert Keller. If the trend continues, the finale will be a love-fest of unprecedented proportions. Tonight, I am paying particular attention to the ingestions of Kelly Choi. As commenters have pointed out, she does not appear to allow any morsels to pass her lips, although I have heard her critiquing the food. Let’s see if we can catch her snacking!

Tonight’s contenders are:

Douglas Rodriguez, Chef Proprietor of Ola restaurant in Miami, and Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia (why is it that their caption – in this case, Philadelphia – is only part of how they introduce themselves and doesn’t even reflect the priority in which they structure their experiences?). His cuisine is “tortilla-free Latin American cooking”, which Tom Colicchio (hola, Tom!) reinterprets as “nuevo Latino cuisine”. Douglas is yet another recipient of the James Beard Rising Star award.

Anita Lo – Chef/Owner of Annisa and Chef/Partner of Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, both of New York City. She also has a Michelin star. If previous episodes are anything to go by, James Oseland will tell us a little bit more about her. Aaaand, here’s James! He tells us that she works the line a lot so “she’s a great COOK, in addition to being a great chef”. This should certainly hold her in good stead for this competition, as she could be up against people who do little day-to-day pressure cooking. The dumplings she’s plating up look lovely.

John Besh has many, many restaurants in New Orleans. I could Google them, but then I might miss Kelly eating. He’s honoured to be representing his city and culture – Gail steps in to give us a rundown on all his awards and we see him cooking up some delicious looking crawfish. I hope the challenges give him some scope to bring some Cajun in.

Mark Peel – Chef/Owner of Campanile in Los Angeles. I wonder if he has any sort of home town advantage? Whole Foods are probably set up the same all over. Tom tells us he started with Wolfgang Puck and James says he’s one of California’s “greatest chefs” – “Campanile is really one of Los Angeles’ best restaurants”.

Kelly is here, ready to introduce the challenge. What will it be? And will she taste the results? Let’s find out, after the jump…

Quickfire Challenge

The challenge is inspired by Escoffier – testing a chef’s skill cooking eggs, using only one hand. I think the “using only one hand” thing might not be from Escoffier.

The judges are: Gail Simmons (Food and Wine Magazine, yay), Terry Reish, of Chino Valley Egg Ranch, and Monica May, Executive Chef at The Nickel Diner.

The chefs have 25 minutes and the handicap of an oven glove on their non-dominant hand. Douglas is going to make arepa. He describes one-handed cooking as a circus act. In a neat piece of editing, we cut to Mark, telling us that his father only had one arm so he grew up seeing him coping with this every day. He doesn’t seem to be offended by Douglas’ comments – he’s planning something “out of the ordinary” as he respects the abilities of his competition. He’s making duck-egg pasta with an egg and olive oil cream sauce. At least, that’s what I think he says. It sounds… gluggy. He also says “I’m gonna nail this” and I still haven’t worked out whether the editors are as keen on the bomp-bomp of failure with the Masters version as they are with the normal, i.e. whether this hints at a spectacular stuff-up to come.

John is cooking eggs and topping them with… things (he says he does this every day “but with two hands” and it sounds a bit pedestrian). He notes that Anita’s having trouble as she needs to neatly slice of the tops of her eggs, and she needs two hands for that. He helps out by holding onto the egg, but surely choosing to do something that needs two hands is a rookie mistake on a one-handed challenge.

As time ticks down, we see one-handed kneading, oyster sauce being added to beaten eggs and unsuccessful attempts at judging unfamiliar ovens and their temperatures (in fact, John’s eggs are not cooking at all so he transfers them to the stove top).

Douglas: Open-faced corn cake with scrambled eggs and ham
“It’s delicious”, “nice and soft”, “nice and moist, fluffy”.

Mark: Fresh duck egg pasta with egg and olive oil cream sauce (so I did hear right the first time)
Terry wants to know how he made the noodles with one hand, a question that’s echoed by Anita back in the kitchen (he demonstrates with his hand on the table). Monica likes the texture of the noodle, but Gail wishes there was “a little more of the ‘erb” and Terry thinks it’s bland. Mark realises he’s forgotten the olive oil. Eek! So I guess that’s just “with egg and cream sauce” (and I thought it sounded gluggy the first time).

Anita: Soft scrambled egg and shiitake mushrooms with truffle oil and oyster sauce (served in an egg shell)
Gail thinks it’s “beautiful” and Monica finds it “lovely” (Kelly gives her a confirmatory nod, but the table in front of her is clear of any food). Terry says it’s a “big taste”.

John: Slow-cooked egg
Kelly explains that John didn’t finish, so there’s only one dish for the judges to share. It looks as though the much vaunted “you can top it with anything” has turned out to mean “you can top it with anything, but I haven’t”. Just a tip: if you have a 25 minute time limit and a physical restriction, maybe choose a dish that doesn’t need “slow” cooking. Gail and Monica paw at it, and notice that one side is still raw. To Terry, it “tastes like a fried egg, nothing more”. But wait! Gail’s getting something else: “There’s a taste, right at the end, that tastes like… burnt grease”. I’m sure that’s exactly what he was going for.


Mark: 2.5; John: 0.5; Douglas: 3; Anita: 5

Elimination Challenge

Create a delicious dinner for the Emmy nominated actor Neil Patrick Harris and some of his friends. I’m expecting that the twist will be that they have to use only food bought from White Castle. Kelly reminds the chefs that NPH is starring in How I Met Your Mother, but Douglas is thrilled to be cooking for Doogie Howser. Dinner will be at the Magic Castle (so I was half right) and one of NPH’s magician friends comes in to demonstrate his skills. Max Maven is a “magician and mentalist” which… really? Mentalist is a thing? He looks like what Ricky Gervais would call a Mental. The circus music starts up and Max starts listing the similarities between magic and cooking. They both follow a recipe. They have four elements: mystery, surprise, illusion and spectacle. The results can be delicious.

Max performs a card trick. I’m a total sucker for these things. Even when people explain how they work, I can’t ever replicate them. He’s using a deck of cards, where the face of each card is blank. This should be interesting. Each chef selects a card and is told not to look at it. What would be the point, anyway? The deck is blank. Or is it? They turn over their cards: Mark’s reads “mystery”, John’s “surprise”; Douglas’ “spectacle” and Anita’s “illusion”.<

The challenge? Create a dish inspired by their word. Max has his arms crossed and is posing theatrically to show off his unusual pants. He looks like a black fabric triangle with a ponytail.

“En papillote” can be a mystery, muses Mark. Josh’s surprise is going to involve liquid nitrogen. Douglas’ spectacle will also be a surprise because he’s not telling us what it will be. Anita will create the illusion of a scallop and seems to be using oysters, potatoes and daikon radish for that.

Mark says that the boys have decided that Anita’s the one to beat, and that he was considering over-salting all of her dishes. But this is Top Chef Masters and they are all too nice for sabotage.

Slicing, dicing, prepping and reflecting on their youth. John was in the Marine corps, Douglas grew up watching Julia Child, Anita’s family was multicultural. Mark remains a mystery.

Here’s Tom! He’s not here to judge, but to offer “moral support”. Is he playing the Tim Gunn role today? He wants to know if John’s used liquid nitrogen before and appears to be sceptical about Anita’s faux scallop. He accepts that Douglas and “spectacle” are well matched and quickly checks in with Mark to make sure he’s seen the show before. He wishes he could eat what they are creating.

Magic Castle – they need to say a magic word to get into the room. Cheesy, much? They try “abracadabra” but it’s “open sesame” that works. Is that because “sesame” is food related?

Mark is happy that he’s presenting first, to avoid tastebud fatigue. He’s ready with more than five minutes to go and wants to serve up straight away.

Here come the judges. Gael’s hat is a wine-coloured, semi-pleated bucket that looks like some sort of accordion or primitive breathing apparatus. It doesn’t quite match her jacket, which is a brighter red. James Oseland is there and Gail is taking Jay’s seat on the panel. Gael and Gail. Jeez.

Diners: NPH, David Burtka (actor), Ed Alonzo (magician) and Max Maven.

Mark: Tai snapper en papillote with garlic mashed potatoes and leeks. He serves it with a scallion oil and some sake. There are oohs and ahs as the diners open the package. Gail completely buys his line that it’s even a mystery to Mark.

Kelly eating? Unsighted.

John asks Neil to assist with the sorbet. He is presenting salmon tartare, cauliflower blini, and salmon roe salad with horseradish and creme fraiche sorbet, and tempua fried lobster wrapped in freshly smoked salmon. It’s definitely theatrical, but NPH thinks the sorbet ended up just more like a cream.

Kelly? Talking, not eating.

Anita Lo misses an opportunity to use “Final Countdown” as the soundtrack for her Illusion, which is braised daikon with kombu caviar and steak tartare. Wow! says everyone. It reminds Ed of the sawing-the-lady-in-half trick. It’s NPH’s favourite dish so far, and he even works in “accoutrements” in his critique.

Still no food passes the lips of Kelly.

Douglas’ spectacle is duck four ways. Oyster ceviche with duck broth, empanada with foie gras and figs (and if that pate he bought earlier is what he’s calling foie gras, I’m not very impressed), duck breast with butternut squash puree, and duck soup with young coconut. James wants to know who has the cellphone with the 911. Gael thinks the spectacle is there, Max loves it, Ed uses a duck in his act, so finds this shocking. NPH sees where Douglas was going, but doesn’t think it was executed well.

Did Kelly eat? Not that I saw.

Critics Table

Kelly tells the chefs that their meal was fantastic. How does she know?

    John: Gail loved the blini, Gael thought it was more of a shock than a surprise. Gael judges the lobster to have been perfect.
    Anita: Funny and shocking and surprising (in a positive way). James liked the way the broth brought everything together.
    Douglas: Cooked dishes he knew, but didn’t feel that the spectacle really worked as he’d intended. Gael thought it was a classic ceviche.
    Mark: was stumped by his word. Gael liked his approach. James didn’t get the “Mediterranean hit” he expects from Mark’s work, but “in a good way”. Does that mean he doesn’t usually like Mark’s work? Gail loved the sake.


    Gail loved the way John embraced surprise. Gael thought he “did magic”.
    Anita’s approach was intellectual. The flavours were great.
    Douglas knew that his dish didn’t come together.
    Mark’s dish looked simple, but when it was opened, it all came together and was wonderful.


John: 12; Mark: 18.5

I’m sure Kelly tells John to “pack your knife“. The chefs have clearly been taking some of the theatricality on board as they gather ’round and imitate the Top Secret parody of the Wizard of Oz farewells.

Douglas: 13

“Pack your knife” Kelly’s just being lazy now!

Anita: 22.5

She will go into the champions round! She’s pleased to win the donation to her charity, but “part of me is mortified that I have to do this again” she says. “Anita! I wanna be her!” serenades Douglas as the chefs depart.


1 Reality Raver { 08.29.09 at 11:45 pm }

I hope this is the last we see of Kelly she is really spoiling the series for me.

I will welcome Padma with open arms, when she is back on Top Chef Las Vegas at least she really enjoys the tasting and is very articulate in describing it.

Here is a link to a NY Mag article which is a diary of what she ate in one week. I have a hard time believing it.

2 Injera { 08.30.09 at 5:13 pm }

God, that article annoyed me. I mean “I’ll eat whatever I see “” I’m a lunatic. I had a glass of warm water with lemon juice, then I had two tall glasses of Crystal Lite Ruby Red.” WTF? Who talks about the drinks they have, and are so oddly specific about “three chunks of leftover chicken yakitori”. I can’t wait to see Padma again!

I loved that the chefs in this episode were all “wow, isn’t the kitchen quiet when we don’t have anyone to yell at”!

3 More Reality Ravings… « …blah blog blah… { 08.30.09 at 5:31 pm }

[…] (!) – failed to go through. Despite the lack of drama and sabotage between the contestants, Top Chef Masters is an entertaining way to pass an […]