Top Chef Masters Recap
By Jason Lee
May 27, 2010

That's not the pose of a winner.

So, I initially had missed the first six minutes of this show due to the fact that I was watching America vote for the wrong American Idol. But after catching a repeat of the show afterwards, it seemed that Kelly opened the show with one of the less engaging Quickfires from recent seasons: Identify the Ingredient.

In this QF, cheftestants played a culinary version of Name that Tune, tasting a sauce and taking turns betting on how many ingredients they could identify in it. This was a little bit lame because A) most rounds didn’t require chefs to name more than four or five ingredients (lame) and B) cheftestants were able to use basic ingredients like sale and pepper in their list (even lamer).

In any case, the reactions of our Masters to this challenge were varied. Susur is definitely excited, claiming that he has a fantastic palate. Having watched the challenge when it took place in Season 5, Susan is a little freaked out because she hasn’t done classic sauces in over 27 years.

With five Masters remaining, one Master will get a bye through the first round. They each pick pots to determine the two pairs and the lucky one out. Susur is paired against Marcus, Susan is paired against Rick, and Jonathan gets to watch from afar.

Susur and Marcus are quick to get started. They have a Chasseur sauce to taste, which is comprised of 19 ingredients. Susur only samples the sauce twice, saying that to do more would overwhelm his palate. Marcus, of course, samples many more times. The two bet against each other on how many ingredients they can name and Susur ends up with the burden of naming six. Shouldn’t be too hard.

“Carrot, celery, onion, tomato, red wine vinegar . . . and oil,” he says.

“What type of oil?” Kelly presses him.

“…vegetable. Vegetable oil,” he says finally. And he’s right. Susur wins and advances to the next round.

Susan takes on Rick with the same sauce and is challenged to name the same number of ingredients as Susur.

“Onion, butter, salt . . . “ Susan trails off. Her mind is freezing up, unable to determine if the sauce is a berouge sauce or red wine sauce. “. . . red wine,” she completes as a buzzer goes off.

“There’s blended white wine and red wine vinegar, but no red wine in the sauce,” Kelly tells her. Too bad.

The three remaining Masters take on a Thai green curry sauce. This time, they’ll name ingredients one-by-one, “like a spelling bee,” Kelly describes. The Thai green curry sauce has 29 ingredients and frankly, not only should this sauce be easy to identify, there should be no problem naming what goes into it.

Susur names the most obvious one: coconut milk. Rick continues with garlic. Jonathan tries butter but is told that there’s no butter in it. He’s out.

We’re left with Rick and Susur for the final round of this Quickfire. Rick takes some time to blather on about his childhood, where he apparently went around his family’s home sniffing things like cigarette butts and trash. “So I have an amazing set of taste references,” he brags. Ummm, that’s disgusting, Rick. And pompous.

Rick and Susur take 15 seconds to taste a lobster sauce. Rick names tomato, Susur names lobster, Rick names red wine, Susur names garlic…and he’s wrong. There’s no garlic here. Susur is outraged. “How do you make lobster sauce without garlic?” he fumes.

Overall, I’m pleasantly surprised that the Masters stayed away from using stupid answers like salt and pepper in this challenge. Rick ends up on top and wins $5,000 for his charity.

The Elimination Challenge for this week is strangely simple: the Masters draw knives with the names of Greek Gods on them and must make a “divine” meal inspired by that god. We’ve got tons of very culinary-friendly gods like Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Poor, immigrant Susur draws Dionysus and not only does he not know who Dionysus is, he can’t even pronounce his name.

The challenge itself, though, is really open ended. War, love, wine, water, hell - those are great themes that could each be approached in a variety of ways, suitable for any number of styles of cuisine. There’ll be 50 diners and only four hours to cook, but I really don’t think any of the Masters should be too worried.

Once the Masters get to Whole Foods, there’s a mad rush for the seafood counter. Jonathan has drawn Poseidon and clearly he has to do seafood. Of course, Rick is known as a seafood chef and he wants to play to his strengths. Meanwhile, Marcus has decided to incorporate fish into his dish as well, so once the Masters are done here, I’m not sure there’ll be any seafood left for the regular customers.

The Masters finish up and we’re treated to a funny moment at the checkout counter when Jonathan, noting that Rick has bought swordfish, remarks that he should have purchased some sole. “You could have served ‘roasted soul-food,’” he says dryly. Wow, that would have been really, really clever.

The Masters get back to the kitchen and get down to work. Susur is trying to figure out how to integrate wine into his dish, Jonathan is using the likeness of Poseidon in The Little Mermaid as an inspiration, and Rick deliberately runs around the kitchen laughing maniacally to throw his competitors off their game. In his side interview, he takes pleasure in the fact that his character allows him to be diabolical. I think his character is just making him more annoying.

Meanwhile, beatific, smiley Susan is working on a “love custard” made of coconut jam. She’s trying to incorporate as many aphrodisiacs as ingredients as possible, saying that she wants her dish to be “orgasmic.” I love her. I hope she wins.

As the Masters finish up, we have two storylines to watch. First, Marcus has a lot of work left to do the next day, but says that his “youth” will help him get everything done that he needs to get done. Secondly, tomorrow is Jonathan’s birthday and he’s feeling depressed that he has to spend it without his family around. “I’ll be cooking by myself on my birthday,” he says disconsolately.

Well, crap, now I hope he doesn’t get sent home in this challenge.

As the Masters arrive the next day, Marcus’ back is really hurting him. He could barely get out of bed this morning (yeah, so how about that youth advantage, huh?). Rick is gleeful at the sight of Marcus in pain; this is nothing but good news for him.

When the Masters enter the kitchen, Kelly is standing there waiting for them. UH OH, we all knew that this challenge was simple, and it’s obvious that there’s gonna be a twist. We see suspicion in the eyes of each Master as they size Kelly up. What crazy curveball with be thrown at them?

“We have some business to take care of,” Kelly says to them.

The doors to the kitchen open and the Masters all start laughing. Two stage hands wheel in a gigantic birthday cake for Jonathan in the shape of the French Alps (Jonathan explains that he traditionally spends his birthday with his family in the French Alps each year). This was a wonderful gesture on the part of the show’s producers and really brings a warm atmosphere to this episode. I loved it.

Before we know it, the Masters are setting up their serving stations, ready to feed a group of hungry diners. Susan adorns her hair with a flower and some leaves to give her table an Aphrodite-feel. Likewise, Rick does nothing to keep his ego in check, an obvious attempt to make his diners feel like they’ve been sent to hell after being hit with his narcissism.

The judges arrive and start with Susur. His Dionysus dish is made up of roasted pork marinated in Chinese wine, plus a croquette with feta, and santorini olives. It looks absolutely beautiful. Jay calls it, “very Susur, very precise,” Gail likes the fact that Susur stayed true to himself by using Chinese wine, and Jay finishes by questioning the use of a warm olive.

Marcus is next with an Ares-inspired dish. He has cured beef with salmon, plus an apple broth and oyster foam. He drew the God of War, and notes that in Ethiopia, when they make war, they are not allowed to cook food for fear of creating smoke and thereby give away their position. Hence his abstinence from heat during his cooking process. Gael loves the texture of his salmon, Jay finds the flavors compelling, though Gail says that they’re “muddy.”

Susan is next, with a line 20-30 people long. Gael compliments her flowers/twigs, and Susan makes a point to mention that her goddess rules over love and sex. Thus, she has toast with coconut jam and sweet butter, plus a fried egg with white pepper and a soy glaze. “It’s good for the hormones,” Susan notes. Gail wishes the dish were hotter, though she LOVES the coconut jam. She even mentions that she wouldn’t mind spreading it over a loved one…

Rick is next with a hellfire-inspired dish for Hades. He has a spice-crusted swordfish plus crimson potatoes, daikon, radishes and parsnips. Since Hades rules the underworld, he deliberately used vegetables that grow underground – clever, I’ll give him that. As he serves up his food, he tells the judges, “If you don’t like it, you can go to hell.” Oh, but I thought we were already there?

Incidentally, the judges like his food. Gael says that everything is wonderful, noting that the wild elements to his dish add to its complexity. Gail calls it delicious and earthy, though noting that his fish is dry.

Jonathan is last with his Poseidon dish. He has seared scallops with romesco sauce, cherry tomatoes, string beans and a celery puree. I understand that there are scallops in the dish, thereby making it “seafood,” but in looking at the plate, I could have hardly identified his god as Poseidon. To me, this dish did the least to live up to the spirit of the challenge.

Gail likes the fire in the romesco sauce, Jay says that food is big and bold, though criticizes the scallops for being over seasoned. Gail agrees.

The judges didn’t reveal too much during these tastings, though I have to say that it sounds like birthday-boy Jonathan and my beloved Susan are in trouble. And it seems pretty clear that Rick has won this challenge.

The judges briefly confer with the Masters and amongst themselves before doling out scores. Susur prepared his food extremely well, and while his food tasted good, Gael thinks that he missed the mark by putting down an elegant dish for a raucous god. Jonathan’s dish was messy and the scallops were not seared properly. Marcus had tons of bold flavors that tasted good, but that weren’t balanced on the plate. Rick’s dish was simple and beautiful, and if his swordfish hadn’t been overcooked, it would have been perfection. By all accounts, Susan’s jam was delicious, but the judges were underwhelmed by the fact that she basically delivered a sandwich.

Marcus and Rick turn out to be the highest score Masters (no surprise). Marcus gets 4 stars from Gael, 3 ½ from Gail, 4 from Jay and 4 from the diners. His total of 15 ½ will be easily beaten by Rick.

And indeed, Rick gets 4 ½ from all three critics, plus the diners for an outstanding total of 18. I hate that man.

Meanwhile, the heat is on for our bottom three contestants. Susur gets 4 stars from all three critics, plus 3 from the diners, for a total of 15. His total is far higher than I thought he would receive, but nonetheless, he is totally safe.

Susan gets 2 ½ stars from Gael, 2 from Jay and 2 ½ from Gail. The diners gave her 3 ½ stars for a total of 10 ½. Sigh. This looks really, really, really bad.

Jonathan gets 3 stars from Gail, 2 ½ from Jay, 3 stars from Gael . . . ARGH! He only needs 2 ½ to stay in the competition . . . and DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT. He gets 4 stars from the diners.

Susan is eliminated but still smiling. That’s why I love her.

“We have to ask you to pack your knives,” Kelly says, “but we’ll miss you very much.” It’s really sweet of her to say, and frankly, I share her sentiment. Susan was a wonderful, uplifting, joyous presence on the show, and future sans-Susan episodes will simply not be the same. I won’t have anyone to root for.

Oh wait, I do. I’m rooting for Rick to go home. This is the second time in the Finals that the winner of the previous episode has been eliminated in the subsequent one. If this holds true next week, then my prayers will have been answered.