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'Top Chef Masters': Art Smith and the power of finger-lickin' fried chicken

July 23, 2009 |  7:46 am

NUP_133883_0138 Is there anyone who can resist?

I don't know about you all, but I wanted to dive into Art Smith's crispy-looking fried chicken legs. Those smothered thighs didn't look so bad either. And mango cobbler for dessert? Heaven help my arteries.

And that's the truth: This week, maybe more than the last five, I was super excited to see the competition among well-known "master" chefs: Art Smith, famous for being Oprah Winfrey's personal chef for 10 years; Jonathan Waxman, Barbuto chef-owner and mentor to many greats including Bobby Flay; Roy Yamaguchi, king of fusion cuisine; and our hometown guy Michael Cimarusti, executive chef of Providence on Melrose.

And all four delivered right off the bat, and in one of the more difficult, and probably maddening, quickfire challenges: Create a dish using only the ingredients in a single grocery aisle. (I still fondly recall Hung's smurf village, which he made after landing in the cereal aisle. It was pretty. It won him squat.)

This time, I could have eaten any and all of the offerings: Waxman's lentil and red pepper salad, Smith's multi-grain risotto, Yamaguchi's pasta with fried egg (by the way, adding a fried egg makes almost everything better) and Cimarusti's chocolate parfait.

But when it came down to cooking from the heart, with ingredients lovingly selected by their competitors, Smith sailed through to the finals. The challenge was a gimme: Create an entree using the ingredients selected for you by one of your competitors. In the lovefest that is "Top Chef Masters," everyone got what he wanted, except for Cimarusti, who was denied the seafood he's famous for by Waxman. Bad form! Still, no one got anything bizarre, or ingredients that wouldn't go together.

Recipe-13738 Yamaguchi admitted he was hampered by the time constraints, and Waxman and Cimarusti had the same idea about preparing their ingredients as simply as possible. Waxman just did a better job of limiting what he put on the plate, while Cimarusti threw most of what was in his basket on it.

But only Smith squealed with delight when he opened his box of ingredients: "Chicken! My middle name is chicken!" His food was the homiest, but it also required the most work. How many times have you had soggy-skinned fried chicken, bland fried chicken, over-battered fried chicken? Too many, I'm sure. While everyone was sauteing and grilling, Smith was frying and smothering . . . and baking. Mmmm, cobbler . . . .

Froufrou fine dining is all well and good, but it turns out everyone -- chefs included! -- just craves tasty, filling, well-prepared comfort food. A well-earned 22 stars (including a perfect 5 from Gael Greene).

So who's heading into the finals? Let's hear it for California competitors Hubert Keller, Michael Chiarello and Suzanne Tracht. They're up against Smith, Anita Lo and Rick Bayless.

Who is everyone rooting for?

-- Denise Martin

Photos: Top, Art Smith in "Top Chef Masters." Bottom, Smith's Chicken Two Ways. Credit: NBC Universal

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