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Mystery Box: The Master Chefs Make Secret Ingredients Sing on "Top Chef Masters"

One thing that has separated Top Chef Masters from its predecessor is that these master chefs--for the most part, anyway--really do seem to love and support one another in a way that the hungry chefs on Top Chef really don't seem to do.

This week's episode of Top Chef Masters ("Trick In A Box") could have been a prime opportunity for the chefs to stab each other in the back but the elimination challenge--in which Art Smith, Jonathan Waxman, Roy Yamaguchi, and Michael Cimarusti all had to shop for one another and prepare a mystery box of ingredients--resulted not in sabotage and subterfuge, but rather a celebration of both ingredients and one another.

Aw.

I thought that this week's gathering of master chefs was one of the toughest groups yet and each of them had some major strengths they were playing for, plus they each had such different, individual styles of cooking. Cimarusti of Los Angeles' Providence excels at seafood; Yamaguchi is the creator of Hawaiian fusion; Smith is the epitome of Southern cooking; Waxman was one of the forerunners of today's ingredient-obsessed culinary attitude. Each of them brought something different to the table.

So how did they do? Let's discuss.

For their Quickfire Challenge, the four master chefs had to prepare dishes constructed entirely of ingredients found in a specific supermarket aisle (a flashback to Season Three of Top Chef) and in the Top Chef kitchen. But they wouldn't know what they got stuck with until they arrived at Whole Foods.

Given the time constraints and the ingredient specifications, I was curious to see just what these four guys would come up with in the time they had. I was especially worried right off the bat by how Roy Yamaguchi would do as he was the first to admit that he doesn't think very well on his feet and usually takes more time to construct a menu.

Smith prepared a multi-grain risotto with a crispy rice salad. I wasn't sure how the combination of rices would present itself but the judges--a group of Whole Foods employees--seemed to be extremely pleased by his dish. I think the difference in textures played a large role in keeping the two elements unique but complimentary. Meanwhile, Waxman offered a mint, lentil, and roasted pepper salad that looked extremely messy on the plate (he admits that he cares more about the taste than presentation) but sounded incredibly tasty.

Yamaguchi cooked up pasta with vegetables, a fried egg, and Asian flavors. I was concerned by the construction of this dish; I can see doing a strand pasta--rather than penne--with egg but I probably would have made the dish a little lighter and more focused on spring, introducing some asparagus and parmesan to the mix, and poaching the egg rather than frying it. Not sure how the fried egg really related to the rigidness of the penne.

And finally, Cimarusti tempted the judges with a chocolate parfait with ginger syrup, Sauternes, and sesame crackers. This to me was the perfect dessert effort for a chef who doesn't focus on pastry. It was innovative, delicious, and beautifully presented and executed. Dessert doesn't need to be pastry or poached fruit; there's a number of alternatives that make sense and are easy to prepare. Cimarusti was extremely clever about this and walked away with a full five stars for his dessert course. Top Chef contestants: let Cimarusti's performance be a lesson for you when "stuck" with a dessert course. (Well done, Michael!)

If the Quickfire was tricky, the Elimination Challenge this week would really test the chefs and see just how truly supportive they are of one other. Each of them drew knives to determine who they would be shopping for and then would then prepare a dish using ingredients from their mystery boxes.

Art Smith prepared fried chicken two ways: a classically crisp fried drumstick and smothered fried chicken, which he served with a teeny-tiny mango pie with a flaky crust. I think he was smart to include that sweet offering on the plate and then entire dish just screamed down-home comfort food. Did he need to do two chicken dishes? Not really but I do think it elevated the offering from home dining to fine dining with the inclusion of three distinct yet interconnected elements on the plate. He would be the one to beat here.

Joanthan Waxman created a monster of a plate with pork sausage and pork chop with cauliflower and celery root puree studded with black truffles. While again the presentation was a little spotty--too huge of a plate, too much saucing all over the place--the taste was incredible, earning raves from the culinary students and judges alike. (Save the uber-picky James Oseland, who seemed not all that pleased about the truffles being microplaned rather than shaved.)

Michael Cimarusti created a gorgeous dish of lamb loin with sunchoke puree, broccoli rabe, purple cauliflower, roasted mushrooms, and mandarin orange sauce... the latter of which didn't end up on all of the plates. Some of the judges liked the inclusion of the sauce, which tied everything together, while Gael Greene thought she liked it better without the sauce. Never a good move not to get everything plated in time but Gail Simmons raved about the roasted mushrooms, which sparkled with the acidity and sweetness of the mandarin orange juice Cimarusti added at the very end.

Roy Yamaguchi paired a short rib kalbi and mahi mahi fillet with noodles, a plate that seemed almost schizophrenic. I'm not sure how the two elements on the plate were supposed to relate to one another and they seemed almost in competition, with one judge exclaiming that it seemed like two separate courses on the plate. We know Yamaguchi isn't one for improvisation but this seemed like a major misstep, especially as some of the mahi-mahi was overcooked. I think he was out of the mix right away.

Ultimately, it was Art Smith who moved on to the next round for his exquisitely prepared fried chicken. I was really pulling for Waxman or Cimarusti to make it to the champion round; both seemed like such passionate chefs in their own right and Smith's constant name-dropping rubbed me the wrong way throughout this episode.

Do you agree with the judges that Art Smith should have been the one to move on to the champions round? If not, who do you think should have won this round and why? How do you think the master chefs fared overall? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef Masters ("Champions Round Begins"), the six heat-winning chefs prepare to cook their signature dishes, with a surprising twist as they must then recreate one of their competitors' offerings for the critics to sample.

Top Chef Masters Preview: Rick vs. Michael



Top Chef Masters Preview: Mise En Place Relay Race



Top Chef Masters Preview: Elimination Spin

Comments

AskRachel said…
Art Smith is obviously a tremendously talented chef which is why I don't understand the name-dropping. He should flaunt his skills, not his connections. Hearing (for the fourth time) that he'd cooked for Oprah just made me like him less.
Melissa said…
I agree with AskRachel.

Also, if there was real love between them all, Waxman would have given Cimarusti some fish in his box
Amy Beth said…
I completely agree with the previous comments. I will have to say that I enjoyed the idea of this quickfire and elimination challenge. I loved the chefs putting together a box for another chef. And, yeah, come on Waxman!

Thanks for posting those previews here. I'm looking forward to it. I'm not sure who I'm rooting for just to tell you the truth. I've read spoilers but who knows if they are true.

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