See You Around
Jay Rayner gets a little patronizing, but he's OK with that.
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.