How to balance sweet and savory like a "Top Chef"

Why keep them separate? A dish with both sweet and savory notes can be perfectly balanced and totally delicious

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published April 13, 2024 12:05PM (EDT)

Goiabada, a sweet Brazilian delicacy (Getty Images/TinaFields)
Goiabada, a sweet Brazilian delicacy (Getty Images/TinaFields)

We’re four episodes into the new season of “Top Chef,” which means there is both quite some ways to go to the finale, and that I’ve seen enough to compare it more accurately to seasons past — and something feels a little off. 

There are some odd editing and production decisions this go-around, like when (and spoilers abound moving forward) Charly was given Michell’s immunity despite having nothing to do with her dish, but Danny wasn’t extended immunity when he had a clear hand in Rasika’s dish. Bizarre. The cast is lovely, but sans a few standouts, they seem a bit lacking, prompting a lot of disappointed judging reactions, especially in this episode. 

Perhaps the recent seasons, which were filmed throughout COVID and had casts of “all-stars” and international alumni galore, spoiled viewers a bit. Either way, I hope as the group dwindles, the strongest cheftestants emerge from the pack. 

While the season thus far may feel a bit disjointed, one of the main points of the challenge in this week’s Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired episode was, ironically, about duality — or the balance between two opposing concepts, like darkness and light. One of the most classic culinary juxtapositions of this type is the balance between sweet and savory flavors, from Kaleena's maligned mushroom cheesecake ("It's like a tack" said judge Tom Collichio, about the crust), Michelle's mushroom biscuit, or Michelle's inspiration of fried chicken with stewed, sweetened apples, to name some examples.

Bridging the gap between sweet and savory — or blurring it entirely — is one of my personal favorite things to do in the kitchen and I like seeing it get some shine on the show. There's a clear interplay there, or a duality, if you will!

This "blurring" of the line can be seen in so much: Salty desserts (which became all the rage about a decade ago and I am still very happy about that); chicken and waffles doused in real maple syrup; cranberry sauce on a Thanksgiving plate; pineapple on pizza; sweet-and-sour sauces; mostarda; agrodolce; the Italian custom of using crushed amaretti cookies in pasta dish; meatballs with a grape jelly-bbq sauce; cheese and fruit danishes; pastellitos; goiabada; and also dipping cream cheese-stuffed, deep-fried crab rangoon in a sweet chili sauce.

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I love the juxtaposition, the brightness of sweetness against the sometimes fatty savoriness. It's such a bombastic flavor experience. It also brings to mind the always-incredible pairing of olive oil and flaky salt on any sort of frozen treat (I first tried this on a lemon semifreddo at Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune and was nearly knocked out of my seat). 

Obviously, I'm a big fan. If you're not, though, then lean into some of the lighter moments of this sort of interplay: Maybe a citrus-tinged whipped butter, a peach or apricot-laced BBQ sauce on grilled chicken breasts, a cheese platter with your favorite jam, pickled watermelon rind and candied orange peel, or a slightly spicy chocolate dessert, incorporating the bite and heat of chili with the lush sweetness of the familiarity of chocolate.

I promise, the dichotomy is a winner for a reason. When you're able to fuse the two disparate flavor profiles to the point in which someone is unable to discern if you're serving them a savory dish or a dessert, then you've truly conquered the notion.

"Top Chef," Episode 4 Takeaways

  • I loved the Manny/Kevin dynamic. I think they're both super talented and very root-able and their humorous, likable presence, especially in a relatively dour episode, was really refreshing with their boisterous laughing, their big smiles, and their energy overall. The "Damanda" pairing also seemed so lovely!  
  • -We bid adieu to Alisha, who I found to be refreshing. She feels both like a "Top Chef" competitor of yore and like someone you'd actually meet in a restaurant kitchen. Alisha brought a certain authenticity and "old school" Top Chef energy that — for me — has been sorely missing from the show. 
  • Thus far, sans maybe Michelle and Danny, this is inarguably Rasika's competition to lose. I'm so happy to see her doing so well. It's curious that someone specializing in Tamil food is excelling in such a way right after Padma's departure. I would've loved to have heard her feedback on Rasika's terrific food.

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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Bravo Cooking Flavors Savory Sweet Sweet And Sour Top Chef