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And so we come to the end, with a meal that was, depending on your point of view, either the kisses of angels and the delicate beating of butterflys' wings made nourishment, or an outrageously decadent gustatory assault course, from which it was a miracle that we escaped without a gushing embolism each.
Consider the stats: three chefs, four courses a man, no cap on the budget. The latter was an instruction Hubert took to heart. These are shrinking economic times, he said, rightly, so he was going to cook with the cheaper cuts. What he didn't say was that he was cooking with the cheaper cuts of the most expensive breed of cattle on the face of the earth. In one of his dishes he used shavings of black truffle that were so large I could have worn them as a hat. But oh, what we got to eat: not just Hubert's braised beef cheek or his homely stew made luxurious. There was Rick's barbecued quail and his extraordinary pork dish. There was Michael's gnocchi and his short rib. These were the meals of their lives which, in turn, became one of the great meals of ours.
At the end of course, we had a winner. It was said, going in, that any of them could have won and I think that's true. Eventually, though, it was Rick Bayless who won, and for me that was exactly the right result. Then again I would say that, wouldn't I.
Still, let's put aside the finale and consider instead the whole series. I want to give my perspective as an outsider, albeit one who has travelled and eaten across the US – or at least the lower 48 – quite a lot over the years. A quick warning: I am aware that I run the risk of being terribly, terribly patronising here. It's a risk I am prepared to take.
What struck me about the vast majority of the food cooked for me by the chefs involved was that it could only have come from the US. It wasn't always that way. For far too many years ambitious cookery in America seemed in hock to, perhaps beholden to, the great European traditions, which most of the time meant French or Italian. It was an ersatz version of something else. It could be an accomplished facsimile, but a facsimile for all that. And yes, I know there are exceptions: restaurants like Chez Panisse and chefs like Jonathan Waxman and Wolfgang Puck, who strived very hard to create original food. But these really were the exceptions. What's more, even at places like Chez Panisse or Spago, you could feel the shadow of Europe stretching mightily long.
I remember the moment when I felt something had finally changed and it was, perhaps fittingly, at Craft, Tom Colicchio's terrific restaurant in New York, sometime back at the beginning of the decade. It felt to me like a true American cookery, mortgaged to nothing else but its own sensibilities. Or, as I said back then, “The very best ingredients the US has to offer are cooked to their very best advantage in as unadorned and unFrench a manner as possible. Naturally, it will therefore cost you a week's salary because, in the land of the free, nothing is, especially simplicity. Do without the hotel room to pay for it and sleep rough.” I loved it. I ate too much. And then I ate a bit more.
If I think back over those dishes prepared for us on Top Chef Masters, it's more of the same. The food prepared by the likes not only of the final six but also of others like Rick Moonen and Tim Love, Cindy Pawlcyn and Mark Peel, Christopher Lee and Elizabeth Falkner could only have been cooked by American chefs. It was there in the fascination with provenance, the commitment to how things tasted, and mostly in the lack of prissiness. Over here in Europe there is too often a grotesque fascination with painting pictures on the plate, as if creating dishes was advanced therapy for people with obsessive compulsive disorder. On this show there was elegance and control, but nobody went all painterly on us. It really was all about flavour, flavour, flavour.
And for that I am eternally grateful. As I've said before, I don't have any time for the emotionally incontinent guff about cooking with love (even from Art Smith). I don't want chefs to love me. Hell, they don't even have to like me. And nor do I expect them to harbour lascivious feelings for their ingredients. What I want them to do is use oceans of experience and technique to create fabulously distinctive and original platefuls of food. And throughout this competition, that's exactly what happened. And all with an American accent.
That, I think, is enough from me. It was a serious privilege to work on this show, even if it did come with consequences (some very serious effort down the gym, the moment I got home; not a pretty sight and certainly not an aid to the digestion). I've also been impressed by, and grateful for all the comments that you, the show's viewers, have made. You have kept me on my toes. Would it be too grand to say, "Thank you America?" Yeah, probably.
So I'll leave it like this: see you around.
Jay Rayner is the author of The Man Who Ate The World, published now by Henry Holt.
I've thoroughly enjoyed your witty, oft acerbic but always devastatingly honest contribution to the show this season, Mr. Raynor. Patronizing or no.
Fascinating perspective in this particular blog, viewing American cuisine from an across- the-pond heritage does give you a keen insight. It's heartening to hear that we've managed to achieve a cuisine style original to us (and I shall refrain from commenting on what the U.K. equivalent might entail. My granddad was a Welshman). :-)
I can only imagine what an arduous endeavor it was to judge such superb offerings in the finale. It was a daunting experience merely to observe from a distance. Great thanks for some wonderfully educational and occasionally inspiring television.
I respected your judgments on Top Chef: Masters, but this post makes me respect you all the more. I am happy to see your acknowledgment that in the end what matters in flavor. I know so many people who eat only because food is fuel. But the truth of the matter is that food is flavor. Taste is our most sublime of senses, and watching the truly inspiring dishes prepared on the Masters version of Top Chef has made me realize that I have not appreciated enough the geniuses who appeal to that sense. I applaud your choices and am happy that Rick Bayless won the title, but recognize that any of the final three chefs, and in fact, any of a dozen competitors on Top Chef, could have won the competition. It makes me glad to be alive in America at a time when so many artists are challenging the European traditions that have set the pace. Congratulations on your triumphant run as a Top Chef judge and I hope I am able to follow your further culinary adventures in the future.
Thank you Jay for being a well spoken judge with a great descriptive ability! You were a joy to watch on the show and you kept it on the level it should be on. Lucky you for the last dinner, looked fantastic!
See you around indeed!
You became a new-found (and unexpected) favorite of mine among the judges....sure am going to miss your commentary! Hopefully TCM will be back for another season (in which case, start hitting the gym early)!
--Pam (who couldn't cook her way out of a paperbag, but thoroughly enjoys watching others who can)
Well Jay, I for one thoroughly enjoyed your humorous and serious comments on TCM. You are colorful and refreshing and I hope you return for another go around. I think you chose the right guy, I was rooting for Rick Bayless. My hat is off to you Jay, you were totally entertaining and knowledgable. Cheers!!!!
Right back at ya!
I enjoyed your perspective throughout the season. Thanks for popping over the pond to delight us with your unique brand of wit. Your descriptions of the food were rather succinct and colorful. I agree with you about not caring whether the chef loves me or his ingredients. Just make the meal great because good food I can make myself.
I loved this show and the whole premise of it. These wonderful chefs competed with style, dignity, and a wonderful camaraderie to support each other. They also chose great charities to support in their winnings. The judges were kind and the criticisms were positive and constructive. It seemed as if all enjoyed being on, working hard, and spending the time on this show. That says a lot in the world of what some of these competition/reality shows have become on this and other networks. It was a positive, enjoyable, and informative show. I loved all of the chefs and had difficulty rooting for any one to win. It must have been a very hard decision for the voters/judges to choose amongst such incredible chefs. The last challenge was great. I enjoyed the stories of each chef and their past and future dreams.
Jay, This season of Top Chef Masters was amazing to watch..so much talent and gracious behavior. I must disagree with you about one thing: how can a chef cook without love or passion? It is impossible to do...maybe you never cook for anyone
Jay: I want to thank you for a thoroughly enjoyable season, and I hope (as do others) that we will see you again....perhaps sooner than the next season (fingers crossed) of "Top Chef Masters". What a classy show compared to most U.S. cooking competition television--even when compared to "Top Chef". Each contestant showed themselved not only to be masters of their craft but examples of how other chefs--and I am looking at you, up-and-comers--should conduct themselves. Not only were they gracious in their cookery, but also in their personalities and respect for each other.
Frankly, I would like to see you as a judge on the "normal" season. Toby seems to be trying too hard to be clever, whereas your quips never failed to make my wife and I smile. We enjoyed having you. Thank you, and as I said: Hope to see you again; sooner rather than later.
Thank YOU, Jay. This show was fantastic and you being a part of it helped make it so.
I said when Rick first appeared on the show that I thought he was the biggest gun to appear thus far. We've all seen why. He's the man.
I hope the show does return for a second season!!
Thank you! It was a pleasure watching you and hearing your commentary. Your "wordless" review of Bayless' mole inspired us to make reservations to taste just that (having been fortunate enough to have eaten at his restaurants before).
I'm sure we'll do a little bit of grunting ourselves!
I do hope you're back!
Hey Jay,Thank you for your intellect in conversations with the other judges and critiquing the constestants through out the series.I look forward to seeing you again.P.S.I thought that Hubert had the champiomship all along.
It was a complete pleasure to have you on the show, Jay. I very much enjoyed your point of view and wit.
I do hope we'll be hearing from and/or seeing you again.
I very much hope that we do see you around:
I hope that we see more series of this wonderful program (pay attention, Bravo!), refreshingly free of the ridiculous pettiness and immature drama that has unfortunately increasingly infested the original version.
I hope that we see you again as a judge on it--I forgive any patronizing--we're guilty of it here too about British food--actually, about many European cuisines other than French (Italian to many means red-sauce Italo-American, comforting though it may be, many of us would be hard pressed to name a Spanish dish other than paella, German food means beer and sausages, etc. etc.). Whatever general preferences and preconditions any of the three of you judges came in with, I thought you were fair, reasoned and conducted yourselves with class.
And if we don't get another series of TCM, I hope we see you as a judge on TC itself, whether as a regular or a guest, or on some other American programs from time to time. Like Clarkson, May, Hammond and Masterchef Goes Large, I wish we had more of you over here.
Jay, you're the man. Bravo made a great choice in having you as one of the judges. I mean no disrespect to Gail or James, but your criticism, in the true sense of the word, was far more accessible to us plebes than the delicate and effete sensibilities of your cohorts (Toby Young was a good replacement, but just that - a replacement).
And I couldn't agree more about the love thing. Of all the emotions I want to see in food, I think love places on the bottom of the list. For one, there's certain bodily functions involved in my mind that I don't want to encounter in my dining experience. No, I think I'd much rather see wonder, excitement, curiosity, etc. Even hate would be more interesting so long as it was directed at the plate.
From this red-blooded American, I hope you'll be back.
Jay, you are totally cool.
I hope this first TCM was just the first season of many; this country must be full of “best” chefs ready to compete. Now, at first I thought the judges were a little goofy, but they became one of the best parts of the shows; Gael and her queenish hats, Jay and his hair and sexy accent, and James and his “pursed lips” and “frowny faces.”
And, I have a contender for my little list, and that would be Michael “How do you pronounce my name” Chiarello. Yes, I have a list,
I keep a little list That I read from day to day;
My list it has a name,
A stupid little name Called “I hate Bobby Flay.”
I share your perspective, especially about emotional incontinence as an adjunct to, or sometimes in place of expert cooking. Gawd, I was sick of Art Smith.
Jay, add us to the long list of viewers who loved your involvement in this show and hope to see more of you in future TCM or TC shows. Thanks for participating!
I have loved your insight on the show and it's going to be sorely missed as another "Top Chef" season begins. Your wit and humor grabbed my attention immediately, so much so that I promptly went out and practically devoured "The Man Who Ate the World." I'll just have to get my fix from reading your restaurant reviews online from now on. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us here.
Somewhat surprised that you have never eaten mole before this show. For a restaurant critic who has eaten all over the world, it is somewhat disappointing. I am not Mexican so I was not exposed to it growing up, but any mid-priced Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles would have exposed you to decent mole. I am sure Rick cooked an amazing meal, but I wonder whether your relative unfamiliarity with Mexican food gave him an advantage.
That last TCM was brilliant television and a wonderful positive experience for a world that needs it so badly right now.
If Bravo doesn't recognize that you are the break-out star of this show, they are deluded. I could watch you opine about food 24-7. You not only deserve your own show, but your own channel.
I very much enjoyed reading your book.
I'm a former New Yorker and resident of Paris, turned San Franciscan - Jewish, married to a Brit - and of course, a relentless pursuer of great food. From that short profile, I hope you can get a sense of just how closely I read your every word, smiled at every spot-on characterization, social commentary and straight up foodie lust. I love your book.
Best wishes in 2010,