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Transformation and Reinvention: Chefs Pay Homage to Each Other on "Top Chef Masters"

Imitation isn't the sincerest form of flattery; homage is.

This week's episode of Top Chef Masters ("Champions Round Begins") had the six champion chefs trading signature dishes and reinventing them in their own inimitable style while still paying homage to the original dish.

But before that, the chefs were put through their paces with a mise-en-place relay race. I have to say that I was impressed by their performances. After all, these are master chefs who leave the prep work to their sous chefs and commis and aren't chopping mounts of onions, shucking oysters, or whisking egg whites in their kitchens on a regular basis.

But for all of that, these masters will know their stuff; their mastery of basic kitchen techniques shouldn't be underestimated and I wonder if even the series' producers were astonished to see how neck-and-neck the two teams were in the Quickfire Challenge. Well done, all.

But there were three "rounds" this week on Top Chef Masters, with the six champions tasked with preparing a signature dish for their comperes, after which they sat down to eat one another's dishes. But this being Top Chef, there was a twist to follow, of course.

So what did the chefs prepare for the "Dinner" Round?
  • Keller: lobster and truffle cappuccino with, leeks, fingerling potatoes, and a corn madeleine.
  • Tracht: chopped sirloin steak with green peppercorn sauce and fried egg
  • Smith: Seared grouper with hearts of palm, trumpet potatoes, and Meyer lemon zest
  • Lo: seared sea scallop with potato puree, bacon, mustard greens, and sea urchin
  • Chiarello: Balsamic and wild fennel pollen quail with mosto cotto mostarda, sauteed vineyard greens, and roasted apples
  • Bayless: roast rack of lamb with black pasilla chile, mission figs, and red wine

And then there was the rub: they'd now have to prepare one of the other chefs' signature dishes and make it their own. They'd have $300 to shop for ingredients and try to show up their competitors by cooking someone else's style of cuisine and respect their original vision. No easy feat, that.

And their guest judges would be none other than competitors cut along the way from Top Chef Masters... which meant that likely their knives were sharpened.

Keller was tasked with reinventing Lo's scallop dish. He prepared a seared scallop with cream of sea urchin over fingerling mashed potatoes with bacon and haricot verts. Everyone praised Keller's masterful cooking of the scallops, which were adroitly cooked, and the sea urchin cream, which was an amazing payoff, though the critics then complained that the sea urchin cream was lacking in flavor. Confusing.

Lo consequently had to recreate Keller's lobster cappuccino with corn madeleine. She radically elevated the French master's dish even more, creating a trio of elements on the plate: a chilled corn chawanmushi, champagne gelee, and a lobster knuckle biscuit sandwich. Lo once again proved herself the chef to beat, with the judges raving about the elements on her plate. I'm wowed by Lo each week as are the critics.

Smith landed Tracht's chopped serloin, which he transformed into a bacon-topped ground-lamb Scotch egg with sweet potato fries and a tomato tart. I do agree with Elizabeth Faulkner that cooking the egg less than hard-boiled would have helped to bring the dish together (and take it away from Scotch egg territory), though Gael Greene loved the tomato tart and the biscuit. Still, overcooked egg, undercooked meat, which Greene said that she was "terrified" by. Hmmm...

Tracht reinterpreted Smith's grouper by transforming it into roast grouper with gnocchi, English peas, bacon, and roasted parsnips. But sadly the fish--very difficult to cook--was definitely overcooked and the gnocchi was stone cold. She did finish WAY too early and let the fish sit too long, rendering it over-cooked. Sad as I love Suzanne and was disappointed to see her struggle here with timings.

Chiarello took Bayless' dish and recreated it with more Italian than Mexican flavors, offering a rack of lamb stuffed with fig mostarda served with chick pea puree and fried rosemary. The judges felt that Michael's dish missed the mark slightly in terms of seasoning, with some complaining that the lamb was slightly too rare. "This to me is the beginning of a great dish," said Mark Peel. "Maybe it's 70 percent there." Did he care more what Rick thought about his dish that the judges? Sure, but even Chiarello admitted this at critics' table.

Bayless then reinvented Chiarello's dish of quail and transformed it into quail stuffed with parsnip, grilled red onion, and prosciutto served over wild greens. Bayless definitely moved away from his Mexican heat and offered up a dish that was very well balanced and deceptively simple. Hell, even Ludo praised it, which Bayless was extremely nervous about. (Love that both Bayless and Lo expressed their fears about cooking for their peers, which was honest and touching.)

Ultimately, Lo and Bayless ended up with the top marks and Lo walked off with the top spot after beating Bayless out by a single star (the closest it's come so far in this competition). Hubert Keller followed closely behind, trailed by Michael Chiarello. Landing in the bottom slots: Suzanne Tracht and Art Smith. But it was Tracht who sadly had to pack her knives and go, landing a half-star short of tying with Smith.

To say that this week's installment was stressful was an understatement and offered the closest challenge yet. I'm sad to see Tracht go but happy to see that things are heating up in the kitchen. I can't wait to see what next week brings...

Next week on Top Chef Masters ("Dietary Restrictions"), the five remaining chefs get ready to rumble in a battle of burgers. Guest diners this week include actress Zooey Deschanel and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock.

Top Chef Masters Preview: It's All About Burgers:

Top Chef Masters Preview: A Few Dietary Restrictions:


I was rooting for Keller to win but, after last night's episode, I would also be very happy if Anita Lo took home the top prize. I appreciate her humility in the kitchen and her brilliance on the plate. Very inspired!
Hammond said…
I was nervous about the relay race, wondering if these master chefs would be rusty with their prepping skills, but they impressed me! I think it was the best, most intense Top Chef relay ever!
Unknown said…
Not only was this a great battle (I was rooting for Bayliss), it was announced that we have only a short time before Top Chef Las Vegas debuts! I'm looking forward to the guest judge appearances of the many fine chefs who now call Lost Wages their home.
Anonymous said…
It ws obvious these chefs enjoyed each other - the high point of the nght for me was when Art Smith was whipping the eggs and one of the other contestants yelled "Get that limp wrist working!"

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