Highs and Lows

James Oseland breaks down the hits and misses of the final meal ... and gets a little misty-eyed doing so.

Writing this blog post, my last for the season, is like pulling teeth. Why? Well, for starters being in the presence of such outstanding chefs working at the top of their game for so many weeks was an unforgettable experience, and it’s not easy to let it all go.

But even more difficult was going into the finale knowing that only one of the three finalists would walk away a winner. I realize that’s the nature of competition — humans are hardwired to want to watch a great contest and see a single victor emerge. Competition begets great performances, of course, and we love to see people striving to do their best. But picking a winner can sometimes entail some tough decisions.

Rick, Michael, Hubert: each one of the finalists was, I can say without hesitation, a master in the truest sense of that word. Having witnessed firsthand, with all my senses, what these chefs are capable of under pressure has been a gift. The thoughtfully conceived, cook-your-autobiography challenge in the final episode, perhaps more than any of the challenges that came before, brought that mastery into sharp relief. I tasted the food of cooks who had an innate, almost unconscious knowledge of the properties of their ingredients, of how those ingredients behaved in a pan or an oven, about what techniques and seasonings make them shine.

Another thing that sets Rick, Michael, and Hubert apart from the flock is what we didn’t see in the last episode: namely, over-caffeinated tempers — the kind we got a whiff of when Dale Talde attempted to trash talk Michael on Episode 9. Instead, what we witnessed firmly refutes the notion that yelling and insults have a place in the professional kitchen. Sure, there were high emotions in evidence — after all, these cooks were being asked to make dishes with which they had deep personal and sentimental connections — but those feelings, far from getting in the way of good cooking, brought these chefs closer to what the business of preparing a meal is all about: nourishing and giving pleasure to the eater. They proved that being a master is more than just being able to have total recall of a battery of techniques; it’s about knowing, in your heart, that cooking, not drama, is what kitchens are meant for.
As with all the previous episodes, there were a few misses and hits. The seafood in Rick’s arroz a la tumbada was overcooked; it was heartbreaking to witness the moment — when he pulled the half-sheet pan laden with overly steamed scallops and mussels from the oven — at which he realized that. The almost-hard garlic in the center of Hubert’s rack of lamb was a detriment to the dish; too bad he couldn’t have sensed its rawness in the same way most of us at the table had. Surely he would have blanched it for longer. And Michael’s deep-fried, and very bony, whole fish was ugly and hard to eat, while his second-course polenta (the dish with the, uh, vaguely bizarre, burned Saveur-page doilies) was for me aggressively over-salted. Was there too much Parmigiano-Reggiano in it?

But, oh, the hits! Rick’s mole poblano was soul-stirring; Hubert’s tender sweetbreads were divinity on a plate; and Michael’s braised short ribs were so succulent, so wine-y and unctuous, that it nearly called for physical restraint to stop eating them. All in all, these three chefs pulled off a grand, soulful feast that I will never forget. I know it’s a cliché to say it, but they were all, truly, winners. Rick just walked home with the prize.

Oh, boy. I’m getting all misty eyed — for the umpteenth time today. So, I’ll just add a few more words before I say goodbye.

I learned a lot of things during my time as a critic on Top Chef Masters — from little details like Rick teaching me that Mexican sweet, fresh-corn tamales never contain lard to larger ones like the fact that for me shiny black lapels should be a fashion no-no. But perhaps the most valuable lesson I took away from the whole experience was this: even in the highest-profile kitchens, the kind of humbleness that Rick, Michael, and Hubert exhibited is perhaps the most valuable skill of all. My hat goes off to you guys.

True confession: Another thing that makes writing this final blog post so difficult is that my cat Pete, my soul companion for the past 16 years, is sick with inoperable cancer. He’s sitting beside me here in my New York City apartment as I write these words, weak but stoically keeping on. It’s funny: being in his company is another reason the quality of humbleness has been on my mind. Like Rick, Michael, and Hubert, it’s something Pete also has in spades. Let’s all, please, say a prayer for the little man.

Francis Lam: What's on the Menu?

The critic focuses on the first part of the cooking process.

When I talked with Chris Cosentino about cooking last season's Top Chef Masters finale dinner, he said one part of it was easy --the menu planning. The challenge then was to cook four courses, with a theme of letters: a love letter, an apology, a thank you note, and a letter to his future self. Chris' menu came together quickly because, he said, "I know who I am." The wording of the challenge was provocative, but it was really just a way of asking the chefs to tell a story about themselves through their food. It left lots of room for personal interpretation. 

This year, the finale challenge also asked the chefs to dig into their personal lives but with more specific instruction. Asking Jen, Bryan, and Douglas to make dishes that represented their past selves, their current lives, something from a mentor, and something from a protégé was asking them to encapsulate their careers in four courses. (Only giving them a day and a half to do it meant that no one could lie on a therapist's couch to unpack their memories, which is probably a good thing.) 

I loved this challenge, and I was happy to not actually be there as a judge, but rather as a diner, as an observer, and as a fan. Without having to worry about who did “better” than the rest, I could just focus on the food and, even more, on the insight into each chef’s culinary life. Who these great chefs thought they were.   

I loved the way Douglas’s first thoughts were to his formative cooking experience, the first dish he remembers making in a restaurant, and how it became his mussel billi bi soup. I once had a version of that soup at his restaurant Cyrus in 2007. It had so much mussel flavor I can still taste it. To taste it at finale was, for me, like the past come back to life. And for him, someone now so inspired by the lightness of Japan, to reach back to the glories of a wallop of cream and brine… it felt like he was starting the meal by going back to his roots. 

I loved the way Bryan went in another direction, going to the first dish he ever cooked for his wife. I thought his dish was fantastic: the sweet subtlety of crab hovered over the grains and the egg yolk, but honestly, I also could’ve eaten the OG version of a sautéed chicken breast with crab and cream sauce. I kind of miss food with names like Chicken Chesapeake. Who will be the brave soul to bring back ye olde cruise liner food in their restaurant? But anyway, Bryan’s cooking impressed me through the whole season with its creativity and intelligence—I was shocked to realize he hadn’t actually won a challenge until the end—but it was so great to see, in the end, how grounded he feels in his emotional side as a person and as a chef. The dish was light; it felt full of possibility. You could tell his was cooking with the memory of being at the start of something, the excitement of it. 

And I loved it when Jen took the “something borrowed” part of the dinner as a chance to nod to her old mentor Wolfgang Puck, from when he was borrowing from Chinese cuisine at Chinois on Main. Her “Chinese duck with shiitake broth, eggplant, daikon, grilled bok choy, and duck wonton” was too busy, too over the top, too 1992… and just freaking awesome. Just like L.A., really. (I used to think that L.A. is stuck in the '80s and '90s, until I realized that, no, it’s just that in the '80s and '90s, the rest of the country was just trying to be like L.A.) I hadn’t had the pleasure of eating her food before Top Chef Masters, but I could see a direct line between what she was “borrowing” and her own food: it pulls flavors from a global palette—pulls them mightily, puts her back into it—to come up with thoroughly American dishes. Her cooking is so muscular, so full of umami and depth and, when she wants to use them, pungent spices. 

There were many other dishes that day: thrilling ones (Bryan’s white-on-white dessert), masterful ones (I mean, you try to wrap a piece of fish in individual noodle strands like Douglas did!), just bang-up delicious ones (Jen’s paella gnocchi. That is all.) But I most loved seeing into these chefs’ past and how they went from there to who they are today. I haven’t had a chance to talk with them yet, but I wonder which of them will say that writing the menu was easy. All three of these chefs were so good, their cooking so assured, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that from all of them.