Several weeks ago when he was feeding wedding guests or tailgaters and hanging on by the flick of a paring knife I could not have imagined Marcus Samuelsson would be the triumphant Top Chef master and take home the $100,000 prize. What a shock it was for me. Indeed I thought everyone seemed surprised last night. Susur seemed shaken. Rick was rocked. As Jay noted, as I am sure the critics agreed, it was a difficult decision because it was based solely on the final challenge – a dinner that expressed each chef in three courses. As for me, I had been forced to tear myself away from the Critics' Table for that ultimate judgment because of an earlier obligation to appear at a benefit for Citymeals where I was listed as the host.
As caught up as I was in the competition – watching the finalists as they mastered one moment and fumbled the next over the first eight challenges – I felt I had no choice. It was painful to tear myself away.
Did I think there was nothing more to know about Susur Lee? Bristling with confidence, moving like a warrior, fiercely competitive … I had no idea that he had lost his beloved first wife in a plane crash nor that he had left a comfortable life in Toronto for the Far East so that his half-Asian children with his second wife could learn about their heritage. That Marcus grew up with an adoptive family in Sweden is well-known … but the details of the poverty that he had escaped became more vivid on this episode. As for Rick, he had been defeated in earlier segments by too much ambition and the inability to improvise so it was amusing to watch him trying to calm himself and stay focused.
The challenge forced each of the chefs not just to cook brilliantly but to get in touch with who they are and how they came to be in this Top Chef Masters kitchen. It’s not an assignment you can just leap into: A three-course meal with the first plate reflecting a early childhood food memory, the second tied to an experience that made each realize he wanted to be a chef, and a final dish that sums up who he is and where he stands as a cook right now. Freud on a plate. And no time to brood on the couch.