Rick Bayless: Top Chef Master

The Mexican cuisine chef takes home the title. When you found out what the final challenge was, what your strategy?
I wanted to really represent those stages accurately but also keep in mind the challenge of delivering good, exciting food.

Did you have any trouble deciding what dishes you would do?
No … because I grew up in a restaurant BBQ family, I knew that my first food memory would be my home BBQ, and doing the dish with quail was updating it to the now with all of the flavors of my past. As for the experience that made me fall in love with Mexican food and want to make it my profession, traveling to Mexico and tasting black mole in Oaxaca really was life-changing. For my third dish—on opening Frontera Grill almost 23 years ago — my chef Brian and I knew right away would represent and be over-the-top. You really can’t beat Cochinta Pibil. As for our last dish — where we are now and where we are going—we (Brian and I) really wanted to bring in the food from Topolobampo, our fine dining restaurant. So we came up with the arroz a la tumbada. Each course had a direction behind it from Kelly — how concerned were you and other chefs about making sure the courses progresed well? (light to heavy?)
I thought of the menu as a whole, even though each had to represent something. That is why I thought I could still keep my past, etc. but place it in the menu where it would fit best. What did you think of your competitors’ dishes?
I thought Hubert and Michael were true competitors. They all had great stories, and to tell you the truth … I knew it was anyone’s game. Not for one second did I think I had it in the bag. No way. It seemed the only criticism you received was on the last dish, and that I believe was the one with the seafood that you knew at one point was overcooked. Did you ever think about changing the dish? Yes, we did think about it … but during this contest I really did learn one BIG thing—you have to commit to your dish and go with it. The problems we had all came down to not having a clear vision about this dish from the beginning, and that is why it eventually did not work on the plate.

Did you think the seafood was overcooked when it was sent out?
Yes, and there were other problems. The plating was wrong, and there wasn’t time to fix it. Gael seemed especially bothered by “air.” What’s your take on it?
I think it is always good to try new things and listen to your team of chefs. As in the prior challenge with Richard and the avocado ice—I let him run with it. In my kitchen in Chicago, when I have a chef that wants to try and use different techniques, I welcome it. It makes the environment exciting and quite satisfying.

Do you use it often?
In Topolobampo we do play around with using different flavors of “air” on our plates. I don’t think we overuse it or try to make it like we are trying too hard to create something that doesn’t fit for us and our cuisine. How excited were you to win?
I couldn’t believe it! I really couldn’t. This was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life—physically and mentally. I also was thrilled to know that I would be bringing 100,000 back to our farmers in Chicago. How hard has it been keeping the secret?
Not too bad—I sort of stuck to the “We aren’t even done filming it yet” sort of approach. And I loved being able to say: Watch what happens! How did you think your family/chefs will react?
FREAK OUT… they know that it was hard for me to be away from them and the restaurant. Was it helpful was it having your sous-chef there?
Yes! Instant bond and a feeling of great support. Brian has been with me over 10 years. Mexican food doesn’t always get the cred it deserves, do you think this will help? I sure hope so!
To beat out a fabulous French and Italian chef—pretty amazing stuff.

Why do you think that is in the first place?
Perhaps because the ingredients are sometimes not super-expensive. For ages I have stood behind French and Italian cuisine and waited, waited for America to discover authentic, high-end, contemporary wine-drinking (not just beer and margaritas!) flavorful food. Hopefully I showed that on this series. How was your experience overall?
Tough, amazing, incredible, overwhelming, lifetime friend-making, satisfying, tough.

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.