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Top Chef Masters – a mystery box of love

With only one spot left in the Champions Round, the competition could be said to be “hotting up”. Of course, that all depends on our contenders for this week, so let’s get straight into meeting them.

First up is Jonathan Waxman,Chef, Barbuto, NYC. He’s looking pretty good for someone who says “I was a musician for many years… but I’ve been a chef since 1971”. He should go back to the previous episode and give those ageist ramblers something to really talk about. Tom Collichio tells us that he’s “the Godfather”, having trained many “notable chefs, including Bobby Flay”. Gail pops in to tell us that his 80s joint was a “hangout” for “Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck, James Beard”. This man has form!

Roy Yamaguchi is Chef/Owner of Roy’s Restaurant, Honolulu. The signage in the background tells us that Roy’s is “Hawaiian fusion”. Would it be possible to see deep fried pineapple two weeks running? He’s being modest in his introduction – Gail elaborates, mentioning that he was the first ever James Beard award winner, is a cookbook author and has dozens of restaurants coast to coast. The fusion, Roy tells us, mixes his Hawaiian background with French sauces. I need to see this to understand. He’s ready to compete; as he sees it, the only question is “am I ready to deliver”? I know I note this every episode, but it’s amazing how humble the competitors in the Masters version are. Refreshing. Take note, regular Top Chef contestants.

Here comes Art Smith, chef/owner of Table 52 in Chicago and Art and Soul in Washington DC. Clearly, I don’t watch enough daytime TV as it’s news to me when Gael says “everybody thinks of Art Smith as Oprah’s chef”. That explains his ebullience, perhaps.

Michael Cimarusti is chef/owner of Providence and he has the home ground advantage this episode. Gail describes him as an “extraordinary seafood chef” and he uses the word “unique” twice in one sentence when talking about his approach to fish. He has two Michelin stars and has worked with some big French names.

Kelly comes in, wearing a wrapped’n’ruffled red dress. Art admits to being “scared to death” and Jonathan notes that “Art has a weight advantage”. If so, it’s only minor – Jonathan’s a pretty hefty bloke. As the banter subsides, Kelly instructs the chefs to draw knives for the Quickfire Challenge, which hasn’t yet been explained. Who will do what in this mystery challenge? Let’s find out, after the jump…

Quickfire Challenge – The Aisle Trial
After the chefs have selected their numbered knives, Kelly explains the challenge: they have to make something “delicious” using ingredients sourced from only one aisle of the grocery store. The knife number corresponds with the aisle number. Art does some serious namedropping, “I’ve cooked for Julia Child, Mikhail Baryshnikov… President Obama” as a way of showing contempt for the $20 budget.

The chefs hit Whole Foods. Jonathan has aisle three (canned fish, international, condiments, salad dressing), which is frustrating for him because he doesn’t like “stuff in cans. Or bottles”. Michael looks a tad perplexed by his options and I’m not surprised. His aisle contains “protein bars, sweeteners, baking”. Roy’s aisle – offering pasta, cooking oil, vinegar, tomato sauce – gives him something to work with, as he says he does cook some Italian food, but he’s disappointed that there’s no soy sauce. He’s fusion, remember? Art has aisle four, which has beans, crackers, soup and rice. He decides to do a risotto.

Back in the kitchen, Kelly tells the chefs that their judges are “Peter, Becky and Dave”. Apparently they have great “insight” into the chefs’ present predicament, because they all work at Whole Foods. The lame product placement judge panel for this challenge makes me cringe. As the chefs prepare their dishes, we get scenes of them struggling to adapt to a new environment, unfamiliar appliances and limited pantry options. And we get more name dropping from Art. He should take lessons from Jonathan, who allowed others to name-drop for him.

Roy: Pasta with fried egg and Asian flavours. This seems like an odd name for the dish, given that Roy was complaining that he wasn’t able to find any “Asian flavours” while he was making the dish. I wonder if the judges will pick up any hints of Asia when tasting. Two of the three judges use the words “strange” and “weird”, but Becky’s “really diggin’ it”.

Jonathan: Mint, lentil and roasted pepper salad. The judges give mostly positive comments – Becky likes the “bite” and thinks there are some “Eastern European flavours”, to which Jonathan responds with “I am Hungarian, after all”. The only negative comment is that there is too much onion.

Art: Multigrain risotto with a crispy rice salad. That sounds bizarre. The men like it – the “crunch” is a big hit.

Michael: Chocolate parfait with ginger sauterne syrup and sesame crackers. The judges love it.

Jonathan – 3.5, Roy – 4, Art – 4.5 (he reacts to this news by sniggering “I’m gonna take the show”. Of course, if the precedent of previous episodes is anything to go by, Michael will no doubt win this round), Michael – 5 He self-deprecates that perhaps having chocolate gave him an unfair advantage.

Elimination Challenge – Mystery Box
Each chef draws a knife, under instructions not to reveal what’s on it to anyone else. Each chef is to create a “mystery box” for the person whose name is on the knife. The challenge is to create a dish, using seven ingredients from the box. They have 45 minutes and a budget of $200 to shop. They seem to be approaching the shopping with an eye to looking after the person they are buying for. As Jonathan says “sabotage is not an option” and Roy thinks you have to “give people opportunities – set them up for success”.

Back in the kitchen, it’s time for the chefs to reveal the box recipients. Roy is first and he passes his box over to Art, who is desperately hoping there isn’t some “unusual creature” in there that he’ll have to butcher. Apparently his skills are limited to chickens. He opens the box and gushes about how “perfect” it is. Art’s box is, coincidentally, for Roy and fortunately he has reciprocated with thoughtful choices.

Jonathan thinks he and Michael have forged a bond, and that this is reflected in the ingredients chosen. He has, amongst other things, pork chops to work with. Michael starts unpacking and reveals lamb, portobello, cumquats, purple cauliflower and jerusalem artichokes. He’s disappointed that there’s no fish, being the “seafood master” and all.

Two hours to cook! But first, let’s look at the wall of Glad and the GE Monogram one more time.

Plating up, and Jonathan is explaining his aesthetic. Basically, he knows his plates tend to look shit but it’s all about the flavour. Roy calls “20 seconds” and Michael looks as though he has a way to go. As time runs out, he hasn’t managed to sauce all his plates. Oops.

The panel today consists of some culinary school students, Gail Simmons and James Oseland, and Gael Greene (wearing a teal hat/suit combo).

Gael's a vision in teal

Gael's a vision in teal

Art is up first and he makes a rather nervy, sentimental speech that includes the line “who’ve sought to seek food”. The students look confused. He is serving fried chicken two ways and a mango pie. Gail thinks it “oozes Art”, which is a grim image, but James thinks it’s too much in his “comfort zone”. One of the students is just pleased to get a dessert.

Roy serves a short rib kalbi and mahi mahi. He explains that the idea behind it was to “do something simple”. He’s been calling it a variation on surf’n’turf, but it does just look like two bits of protein on a plate. The mahi mahi overcomes Gael’s “boring” prejudice but Gail finds the lemongrass “overpowering”. One of the students enjoyed the “sides” more than the proteins.

Michael’s offering loin of lamb with sunchoke puree, broccoli rabe and purple cauliflower. He explains that it’s a bit of a lucky dip as to who got the orange sauce; Gail did not, but she leans across the table and steals some from a student. Gael thought the sunchoke puree was “perfect with the lamb and all the vegetables”, but for James nothing really stood out. One of the students gives a mini-dissertation on the “flavour profile” and pronounces the dish “excellent”.

Jonathan starts off getting a laugh, introducing his dish as “a retro 80s dish”. It’s pork sausage and chop with cauliflower, celery root puree and black truffle. He interviews that the students looked excited to be there, which was “comical” in the way it contrasted with how the critics looked. Gael loves the “philosophy” behind making an 80s “home made” dish and thinks the puree was “sensational”. James echoes that it was a good “home-cooking” kind of dish. The students enjoy it , too, but don’t harp on too much about the hominess of it.

Critics Table
Michael Gael thinks it was better without the sauce. James wants to know whether Michael thought the ingredients were “synchronous” on the plate and he tries to answer but his answer doesn’t help me understand the question. Gael presses him to reveal his secret ingredient for the mushrooms, which turns out to be a bit of mandarin juice. James’ summation is “job well done” but it didn’t work as a whole.

Art Gail says that his “personality was all over that dessert” and James calls the cobbler a “knockout”. Art confesses that Jonathan’s advice made the cobbler what it was, but the judges are all focussed on the fact that, in Art’s telling, Jonathan called him “honey”. James questions that, but Jonathan confirms it. Gail is swept up in the love and says it makes her “want to stay”. Awww. Back to the food: James thinks the two chicken dishes were competing, and Gael praises the “extraordinary” fried chicken crust.

Roy Kelly tells him that her mahi mahi was overcooked. Why does he need to care? She’s not judging. This seems to be a contractual obligation “Kelly eats – no really, she does” inclusion. Gael says hers was “perfect”, so shut up, Kelly. She does, however, mention that she couldn’t really connect the two proteins as one dish. Gail loved the marinade on the beef but she must have said something else as well, because Roy’s response – that he usually spends more time on menus and can’t really “think on his feet” – seems out of kilter with the comment.

Jonathon Gael wants to know why he chose such a big plate. As he explains that there wasn’t a great range of plates to choose from, but that – anyway – it’s all about taste, Gail fixes him with a rather frightening stare.

What's that look supposed to mean?

What's that look supposed to mean?

James asks why he shredded rather than shaved the truffle, which is a bit of a nothing question (“it goes further” explains Jonathan) and Gail gushes over the earthiness of the truffled puree.


  • Art – wonderful southern cook, rave, rave.
  • Roy – conflicted, and it showed on the plate.
  • Michael – great elements, but didn’t really come together.
  • Jonathan – the critics are divided over the use of truffle, but agree that it was a complete dish.

Jonathan – 20
Roy – 15

Pack your knives, Roy.

Michael – 17.5

Pack your knives, Michael.

Art – 22

I’m a little bit disappointed that there was no fairytale, come-from-behind victory for Jonathan. Art takes up the last remaining spot in the champions round.


1 Reality Raver { 09.15.09 at 10:13 pm }

What I loved about this episode was that the two old fellows came one and two. When I eventually do my Top Chef tour of the USA (yes right after I win lotto) I will not be going to any of Roy’s venues, his food looked revolting – his idea of fusion egg on top of pasta, if there had been soy sauce that would have been chucked in as well.

I really like Art, he was so effusive and wept when he won.

Injera I agree these top chefs (and they are top chefs) are quite happy to compete and be judged and not worrying about what it may do to their culinary reputation. I am not sure if a Top Chef Masters would work in Australia.

I don’t think Australians are used to competing as much as American’s are, they do spelling bees are not afraid to give and/ or receive constructive criticism. Whereas some of the chefs on MasterChef were not happy when they were being criticised by the judges.

Top Chef Masters has definitely warmed up into a good show, with the Chef’s being the stars with their banter. Oh by the way love the english food critic has a great way of giving criticism without being offensive.

2 Laura { 09.16.09 at 12:54 am }

Well I think the expert chefs in Masterchef objected to being compared to amateurs (and not always coming out on top) rather than being judged in general. All chefs are constantly under scrutiny for their cooking so if they do not like being judged then they should find a new profession!
I think that a Top Chef Masters would work here. We have a lot of chefs who like to be on tv and I think if the producers stuck to reputable chefs then they wouldn’t mind competing against each other.

3 Injera { 09.16.09 at 7:35 pm }

I’d skip Roy’s place on a Grand Masters Tour of the USA, too, although it might be hard. I think Gail said he has three dozen of them. I love a nasi goreng topped with a fried egg, and I’m sure I’ve had egg on top of some noodle dishes, but on pasta? That looked unappetising.

Laura, I agree that the chefs in Masterchef were probably pissed off at being judged against amateurs, particularly since they did a mentoring bit, had a time handicap, but if they were beaten it was all “You beat the chef!”. But maybe we should start with a Top Chef before heading into the Masters!

I don’t know who I want to win!