Michael Got Hosed

While Harold enjoyed all the food during the 'Top Chef Masters' finale, he thinks Michael Chiarello should have taken home the win.

I thought that the whole finale was interesting. It was such a long meal and it's amazing how it was cut and how it was just like, I can have distinct descriptions of each meal because it was so good. For me that first round was Michael's. That gnocchi was something that was crave-able and I could eat everyday. It was probably one of my top three dishes at the tasting, It was really solid. He did do a duo though, and on the other hand, the other gnocchi was unevenly shaped, and because of that hey didn't cook so great; they were very so-so.
He said it was a two-part situation and he'd begun to make gnocchi with ricotta cheese but he was taught to make it with potato by his grandmother and mother.

I thought Rick's quail was cooked beautifully and the BBQ sauce was really top notch. I had no idea he grew up with that background in BBQ, totally no idea, which was cool and you didn't catch on until he took the watermelon and made the salad. He compressed it. What that does is it pushes all the flesh together. He then diced it up so you have beautiful nice cubes of watermelon. That dish was really good.

The Baekeoffe Keller made was delicious. The lamb was braised perfectly. Th dish was very rustic. I'm not a big fan of like whole juniper berries and the greens frisee and red endive were really rustic and for me the greens ether need to be dressed or cut up or cooked somehow. Overall, I thought they all started out really sharp, but my favorite dish was the gnocchi and quail the best — they were really good.

When we were filling out our cards, I thought the storytelling was important. There was a lot of storytelling behind every dish which I thought was really cool, but at the end of the day it didn't really go into it. I didn't take that into any consideration. For me it was about making food that tasted good and how it's presented and prepared.

As far as Rick's mole, I'm not a big tuna fan but I'm a huge mole fan, and it was really legit and really good. But at the same time, for me, again I really liked Michael's rabbit with the liver polenta dish. I think it was James that said he thought the polenta could have been cooked a bit more, but I don't know what the deal is between James and Michael. I really thought Michael should have won, and I've got to be honest, after sitting and eating a meal with James and listening to his comments I don't want him to come to the restaurant because I question his palate. I couldn't believe the things coming out of his mouth. I didn't think we were having the same meal. I couldn't remember him making a positive comment about Michael's food and I thought that was bulls--- because for me I thought his food was the best at the end of it all. I couldn't believe he only gave him 3 1/2 stars. I thought we were having different meals and were at different tables.

On a personal level, I was pulling for Hubert because he's awesome and a great guy. I was really pulling for him. What doesn't really come across is that, aside from Gail and Tom obviously, is that the judges don't come from cooking backgrounds. I don't think they picked up the amount of work and level of difficulty that went into every one of his dishes. They are much more complex and much more difficult to execute for that amount of people, and I'm sure he's making food that he serves in his restaurant, where he has a whole brigade of cooks. If you look at the level of difficulty it is to make the perfect Baekeoffe, and his fish is poached perfectly, and the way the filet is beautiful, it's so much work! Everybody else's dishes were great, but the degree of difficultly is not the same, and it's one thing where unfortunately it's not one of those things that's a part of the criteria of judging. At the end of the day it's like, you're not putting that in your mouth so I get it, but it's one of those things that never really comes across. His technique is unbelievable but unfortunately it did not come across in the food.
Look at the lamb: it was beautiful and perfectly cooked with a piece of garlic in the inside and then you have the veggie mouse that is beautiful and luscious and then you have blanched spinach that has crust around it and I'm like, "Are you kidding me? Do you know how much work that is?" But again, there were some things on the plate, like the garlic was raw and the sauce was a little over vanilla-ed as well.

Rick's pig dish was ridiculous and really good. And this was the course that was my least favorite dish from Michael, the fried fish. There were a couple of problems though: I mean the plate he served it on was too small, the head and the tail were hanging off and there was no discard plate to put the bones. It was problematic, it was hard to eat, and it didn't work. It was interesting that he was doing new world cuisine at the time or global cuisine and now he's doing some really nice Italian food.

Last dish: Michael's short ribs were slammin'. It was the best dish of that course. I was giggling listening to Hubert describe his dish because he used truffles and he mentioned how he was using humbled ingredients. He's got truffles on top of it! I was just giggling about it. We had that first and my sweetbread was totally undercooked but then the cheeks were very nice. But then next we had Michael's short ribs and it was like night and day. There wasn't much of a comparison which was surprising to me. His whole dish was slam dunk. Rick's dish for me was surprising because he put the foam on top and I thought it didn't taste like chorizo. It tasted like a soy product instead — you didn't get the true chorizo flavor.

I thought having the sous-chefs coming back was great. They needed some help because they did some pretty ambitious foods. I enjoyed it all. I had a great meal and thought the food overall was very classical, and I enjoy classical food so I enjoyed it. Michael made my favorite meal. Any given day it's more of a thing that's so subjective. I could eat Michael's food every day. I was in Napa in February and I went to his restaurant and he had the ricotta gnocci on the menu and I had to have it again. And Hubert's, it's just one of those things. I think he took a lot more chances. He put a great meal together. It just wasn't a course that I thought was amazing, it was just more of like a master of technique. But I think Michael got hosed.

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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.  

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