Set in the hills of the Pacific Palisades, the Getty Villa is a modern day Mt. Olympus. Tall, sleek columns give entryway to grand pavilions anchored by a vast fountain, and outdoor courtyards are guarded by Greek and Roman figurines. Lovingly manicured bushes and flower gardens dot the ornately-tiled walkways. Busts of Artemides and Athena look on toward empty benches as if to beckon a visitor. This is a place where the Gods and Goddesses would surely like to play, and on this day, the site was the backdrop to where I revealed the final Herculean challenge to our Master chefs.
And what an emotional moment it was for me!
I don’t think anyone caught me blink-blink-blinking away the tears that welled up in my eyes when Michael, Rick, and Hubert walked down the steps in front of me. I felt like I had completed a lengthy journey along with these culinary virtuosos. Each chef had expressed
his cooking style and peerless technique while being gracious with their competitors. It was the perfect prerequisite for me to commission the Autobiography in Four Plates final challenge. Us diners were in for a meal that even Dionysus would revel in.
A BACCHANALIAN FEAST
The First Food Memory
An eye-opening treat, it was, to watch and listen to Rick, Hubert, and Michael tell the stories of their childhoods. Rick’s separate closet of dating clothes, Hubert’s laundry day meals, and Michael’s pasta-making; their pasts were expressed through their food so beautifully here. And the dishes – BBQ quail, a duo of gnocchis, and the baeckeoffe – were such intimate portrayals of THEM. While I loved the tales behind Hubert and Michael’s plates, my favorite of the three
was Rick’s quail dish. Tangy ‘cue’d bird paired with juicy sweet watermelon cubes was clean and flavorful. I loved it.
Becoming a Chef
Two words: Black mole. Here’s where I think Rick captured the title. I admit I have an infatuation with black foods – squid ink, black caviar, truffles, and portobellos – and I have always had an obsession for mole sauce. Rick’s version was spectacular. Umami-loaded, rich and velvety, it coated the plate like a mink blanket and complemented the tuna and starchy sweet plaintain impeccably. The nut crunch on top of it all showed Rick’s sensitivity to texture, too. I don’t know if I can eat mole sauce again unless it’s made by Bayless.
First Restaurant Opening
Rick called his cochinita pibil sophisticated, and it certainly was. Taking what some people might consider unsavory animal bits – pig’s feet and atypical pig parts – then fashioning a cake out of that and setting it atop of creamy sunchoke puree and adding pickled red onion
was a genius creation. It stood out from Michael’s bone-laden rouget as well as Hubert’s lamb with garlic in the center. As for Hubert’s dish, I found my piece of thrice-blanched garlic to be pleasant, while the other diners claimed their garlic to be too sharp. Maybe it’s the Korean in me, but I liked that part.Your Future as a Chef
Of the final three dishes, Michael’s tender short ribs arrested my palate. When the waiters brought out his plate, what you, dear reader, didn’t see was Michael wafting smoldering branches of cabernet cuttings through the air. It was all a part of his love for storytelling and setting the mood for his food. But his meat didn’t need the prelude. It was savory fall-off-the-bone delicious, and his five-onion cavolo nero which accompanied it was hearty good.
Top Chef Master!
Before I announced the winner, everyone was visibly excited. What an intense and full-on experience it had been, and all of us – the critics, the entire crew, and the competitors — had grown close in a short amount of time. For the chefs, the finale wasn’t a Clash of the
Titans but more like a celebration of their careers and futures. Mexican maestro Rick Bayless was the winner! And the Gods were very proud.
P.S. As an aside, I thought it was funny how everywhere I went, ladies (and some men) confessed to me that they had crushes on the finalists. I sat in on more than a handful of conversations and debates about which Master was the hottest / handsomest / cutest. Who knew our three master chefs would become such heartthrobs? And more importantly, who is your crush?
How do you feel about our Master chef?
Tell all here, and also tweet me @KELLYCHOI.
P.P.S. - Thanks everyone, so much for your support thus far. I had the time of my life in the presence of such passionate and inspiring artists doing what they do best. Yes, the food was staggeringly good at times and disappointing at others, but ultimately, I learned so much from watching all of the chefs pushing and perservering and relishing what they love to do most. I was the princess in this wonderful fairy tale dream!