Top Chef Masters Recap
By Jason Lee
June 4, 2010

I get sent home for 'burnt sienna, depressed and avocado'. How much BS is that?

We’re at penultimate episode of Top Chef Masters and I gotta wonder, “Is it sad that the commercials for Top Chef DC are exciting me more than the actual episodes of Top Chef Masters?" Frankly, I think this is due more to the fact that the only Masters I was rooting for have been eliminated than any perceived lack of quality on the part of the producers. The show is still well-done; it’s just a pity that the most likable chefs have packed their knives.

With Susan gone, I have no one else to root for. I feel a lack of vested interest in the outcome of this competition. Wait, I take that back. There is one thing I’m rooting for: the elimination of Rick Moonen. With every new episode, he says something pompous or egotistical that makes me hate him more. While I can’t deny that he has culinary chops, I’m hoping that he falls on his face.

The Quickfire for today is a challenge that you could never do on Top Chef. Cookbooks written by each of the four remaining Masters are lined up on a table in ominous fashion, and the Masters are told to pair themselves up. Rick goes with Susur, while Jonathan goes with Marcus. The producers have chosen one recipe from each cookbook; each pair will have to cook the other person’s recipe.

Seems like a pretty straightforward challenge: execute against a written recipe in a cookbook. The Masters get to work, each adding their own little panache to the recipe they’re given. As I watch, I’m a little stunned that the final Quickfire before the finale could be so easy.

As a longtime viewer, I can’t believe I let myself get duped. After an hour of cooking, Kelly re-enters the kitchen and announces a twist: working off of a great challenge in Season 5, the Masters will have to show off their improvisation skills by transforming the dish they’ve been working on into a soup that maintains the integrity of the original recipe. This is a GREAT twist. I love it. Now the challenge begins.

Most of the Masters roll with this punch, immediately switching gears. There isn’t too much trouble with the actual cooking; most seem focused on trying to channel the spirit of the original recipe (and of course, the culinary style of the Master who wrote it) into their new soup.

Jonathan has a chicken Thai curry soup with Thai basil based off of a recipe by Marcus. It is presented to critic James Oselander who will judge this competition. Incidentally, I find it incredibly appropriate in this challenge to use a judge who can compare the new soups against the original recipes. James likes Jonathan’s soup, saying that it’s thick like porridge. His only complaint is that for a Thai curry, it’s remarkably mild.

Marcus has a chicken soup with tortilla chips and an avocado goat cheese guacamole based off of a recipe by Jonathan. James loves the taste, and especially the lime. He’s impressed by the re-working of the original recipe, noting that the soup isn’t too far off.

Susur has a Tunisian fish soup with olives, capers, white wine and cumin. James likes the broth but feels that the whole dish is “holding back” a bit.

Rick presents a scallop, mussel and pancetta fisherman stew. It looks great but James is put off by the fact that there’s very little broth – an error that Rick was very aware of. He does compliment the scallops, however, saying that they’re cooked beautifully.

I guess that Marcus wins this and I’m right. Jonathan gets 3 stars, Rick gets 3 1/2 , Susur gets 4 and Marcus gets 4 ½. This is actually Marcus’ firs time winning anything and I’m glad that his charity won’t go home empty handed.

Kelly tells the Masters that they’ll get the night off to enjoy themselves before the Elimination Round. The Masters are relieved; they feel exhausted. Kelly gives them tickets to a special improv show by the famed LA troupe, The Groundlings. At this point, the Elimination challenge seems totally obvious to any fan of the show. We saw this challenge in Season 4; near the end of the show, the Groundlings will solicit adjectives and ingredients from the audience and the chefs will have to “improvise” dishes off of those suggestions.

And yep, that’s exactly how things pan out. The Masters seem surprised, but frankly, they really shouldn’t be. I sort of wonder what would have happened if Susan or Jody were still on the show – they both have professed to having watched past seasons of Top Chef and I know they would have seen this challenge coming from a mile away.

The Masters are each given four “improv” options, each with a color, feeling and ingredient. Marcus, as the winner of the QF, chooses first and he goes for violet, pleasure and salmon (I smile because I KNOW that Rick wanted the salmon option). Susur chooses next and gets chocolate, lust and peanut. Stupid Rick goes next with red, anger, and bacon. Finally, Jonathan gets stuck with the worst choice: burnt sienna, depressed and avocado.

I feel bad for Jonathan. I have NO idea what the hell I would do with those words. I’m also glad that Susur didn’t get the burnt sienna color because I’m pretty sure he would have no idea what that color looked like.

The Masters head over to Whole Foods and nothing much happens, except that Rick grosses me out by reaching over the plastic barrier to fondle the seafood. He’s trying to show the Whole Foods attendant which pieces of seafood he wants, but still…that’s gross.

The Masters head back to the kitchen where they will have a mere two and a half hours to cook. Again, the only drama comes from Rick who is trying to cook pork loin via sous vide, but loses 20 minutes of cooking time when his Ziploc bags of pork start to float to the surface. He swears, unappetizingly calling them “little turds,” and shoves heavy pans on top of the bags so that they’ll cook.

Before we know it, it’s time to eat. A team of critics made up of Gail, James, and Jay arrive, along with the cast of The Groundlings. Rick goes first, serving up a pork loin with oysters, bacon and a spicy kimchi cream. Gail loves the oysters, though one of the improve actresses cannot finish her pork due to the fact that it’s severely underdone. Jay comments that if you have the word “angry,” you really need to have some strong spice, and that he wishes this dish had more “slap.”

Marcus is next with a dish based off of “salmon, pleasure and violet.” He presents a confit of salmon with caviar shrimp and sake. I think the dish looks like a hot mess on a plate, but Marcus says his inspiration was Jackson Pollack. Kelly calls the salmon “perfect,” James loves the caviar and Gail ate the entire thing really fast. Seems like it was a hit.

Jonathan’s attempt to do something with the words “burnt sienna, depressed and avocado,” is next, with a mesquite-grilled chicken with French fries, yams, avocado and grapefruit. He explains that this is the kind of dish he would cook to pull himself out of a depression. It looks beautiful and very homey. James says that there’s no great epiphany of flavor, but one of the actors loves that it’s just meat and potatoes.

Susur goes last with a dessert based off of chocolate, lust and peanut. He serves a chocolate mousse with coriander along with a peanut butter mousse with chocolate crumble. It looks absolutely amazing. There are tons of “mmmms” going around. Jay notes that the comedian troupe has been silenced by the dessert. James loves the emphatic flavor and back in the kitchen, Rick tries it and proclaims it to be, “killer…like really, really good.”

I think Susur won this. I also think that Rick made the biggest mistake by undercooking his pork loin.

The Masters go in front of the critics for judgment. Gail loved the layers of spice and flavor with Rick, calling the oysters “beautiful.” James criticizes the pork roulade, saying that it was “to the point of being raw.” Rick maintains that while the texture of the pork may have made it feel raw, temperature-wise, it was cooked.

Marcus loved the challenge, but Jay and James knock his dish for not having been edited enough. They do, however, like his tuna and found his sauce to be fantastic. “Thank you for those two things,” James says.

Jonathan jokes that he “won the lottery” with his word choices. Jay loved his chicken skin, but wonders whether the dish was complex enough for this stage in the competition? Jonathan argues back that the skits by The Groundlings were not overly complex. Thus, having used them as an inspiration, he just wanted to make his dish “entertaining.”

“Fair enough,” Jay replies.

Susur believes that sex and food goes hand-in-hand (hopefully not in the same hand in the same time, I write to myself). Gail thought that regardless of whether his dish was “immature” or not (with his mousse being plated in the shape of a “bikini” as described by Susur and “a vagina” by a Groundling), Susur delivered interesting, sophisticated, adult flavors. Jay asks whether or not his raspberry puree was “overkill,” but Susur replies that he wanted to bring a more feminine flavor into the dish.

I think Susur won this thing. I think Rick is going home.

In the end, Susur and Marcus end up on top. Susur gets 4 ½ stars from Jay, 4 from Gail and 4 from James. With 4 ½ from the diners, he has 17 total. High scores but not unbeatable.

Marcus gets 4 ½ stars from all three critics, plus 4 from the diners. Before this episode, Marcus hadn’t won a damn thing. Now he wins both the Quickfire and the Elimination Challenge – good for him!

There’s only one spot left in the finale and it’s gonna come down between Jonathan and Rick. Jonathan’s chicken dish gets 3 stars from Jay, 3 from Gail and 2 ½ from James. With 3 from the diners, he only has a total of 11 ½ stars.

Rick gets 3 stars from James, 3 ½ from Jay and 3 ½ from Gail. The diners give him 3 ½ and DAMMIT! Rick is stupidly onto the finale with a total of 13 ½.

I’m really not happy; I was definitely rooting for Jonathan to beat Rick for the final spot, but it looks like he fell victim to the same criticism that sent Susan home last week: the dish was not complex enough to merit advancement in the competition. Sigh.

Jonathan says that the saddest part of leaving is not being able to work with his fellow Masters in another challenge. He remarks that over the course of the show, he’s tried to help Rick lighten up, told Marcus not to throw so much on his plates, and learned a lot from Susur. He’s proud that he made money for his charity and considers his time on Top Chef Masters a job well done.

I’ll definitely miss Jonathan but for now, BRING ON THE FINALE!