Nothing Personal

James Oseland describes the final meal and readdresses his judging of Jonathan Waxman.

Oh my God.

I am in no way exaggerating when I say that the feast that Susur, Rick, and Marcus prepared for the last episode of the second season of Top Chef Masters was one of the best meals I’ve ever consumed. Not only was the food (nearly) flawlessly prepared, but each dish came with an amazing story, a story that made us diners intimately aware of each chef’s personal and professional journeys. It was a meal that I couldn’t stop thinking about for months afterward. (We shot this season last November.)

But more about that in a moment.

I want to respond to a few comments I’ve read from viewers who felt my judging of Jonathan Waxman’s food during the penultimate episode was biased. It makes me feel like maybe you aren’t seeing the whole story. And it makes me feel crummy.

Am I biased when it comes to Jonathan Waxman? Absolutely. But not in the way some commenters thought. The fact is, I think he is one of the country’s greatest chefs, and I’ve long been an admirer of his cooking. I’m also a professional colleague of his. Saveur, the food magazine I edit, has featured articles about him over the years, most recently in our April 2009 issue, which had a piece about the groundbreaking kitchen of his restaurant Barbuto in New York City’s West Village. I’ve eaten at that restaurant more times than I can count, and each time has been a revelation. I remember a radicchio and Parmigiano-Reggiano salad that I once devoured there that forever redefined for me what a salad could be. Saveur’s test kitchen director, Hunter Lewis, is a protégé of Jonathan’s; he worked intimately on one of Jonathan’s cookbooks and has invited him to cook in our kitchen. He’ll even be cooking at a barbecue Saveur is hosting in a few weeks. When it comes to Jonathan Waxman, I love the food, and I love the man.

But Top Chef Masters isn’t about personal history. It’s about cooking in the moment in the face of insane (and often inane) challenges, jumping through whatever crazy hoop is thrown at you. When you’re at the judges’ table, you’re not thinking about Jonathan Waxman, master chef. All the drama, all the charming and not-so-charming personality quirks of the chefs, no longer matter one bit. You’re thinking about the food you’re eating, and judging it in the context of the particular challenge. Period. When I ate Jonathan’s food, I felt he could’ve pushed himself a bit further (he even basically said so himself), and I voted accordingly. Was it anything personal? Far, far from it.

The challenges given to the chefs are hard—really hard—and even seemingly straightforward ones often involve hidden pitfalls that sometimes might not come through to viewers. But here’s one of the reasons I loved the biographical challenge in this final episode so much: it encouraged the three chefs to transcend the technical difficulties of jumping through the show’s hoops and embrace the foods they know and love. Suddenly, they were doing more than culinary acrobatics. They were cooking from the soul. These dishes were not exercises as much as they were expressions: Marcus evoked the first meal he cooked for his family with soulful smoked char, followed by salt-cured duck with an astonishing molten duck-liver ganache and then blissful hamachi meatballs with porcini couscous. Rick recalled a eureka moment of his youth—the first time he tasted mushrooms—by cooking a spare masterpiece of gnocchi, truffles, and a silken poached egg. And then there was Susur’s extraordinary, uncompromising Thai-style lamb with yellow curry and peanut sauce—a heartfelt token of his self-described cooking style, a bridge between East and West, and a family trip to Thailand. All of these expressions were pure, unedited, and enormously beautiful.

I don’t get to watch the chefs as they cook on the show, so when I eventually do see the episodes, it’s always a thrill to witness these people in their element, moving around the kitchen with a sense of purpose, creating their food. This episode was particularly revealing, because it highlighted just how differently each chef approaches the stove and, in a larger sense, cooking in general. Susur is, as Rick described, a tornado—a true force of nature. And, in fact, that’s what this man seems like in real life. Rick’s cooking is precise, but it’s also wildly complex. That strikes me as a good description of Rick himself: just consider how hard he works to honor his ingredients and his belief in sustainable food practices while at the same time being willing to think like a working chef and go with an ingredient that isn’t entirely PC. Then there’s Marcus—smart, passionate, driven Marcus. After watching him cook and manage and problem solve and create foods of such stunning beauty they practically made me weep, I’m convinced he would have excelled in whatever career path he chose. I’m just really glad that it was cooking.

Getting a glimpse of the chefs’ cooking narratives during the final episode was an honor. And here’s what it taught me: as different as these three chefs are, they share a common trait. It’s something that every chef I know—every good home cook, too—has embraced. And that’s the deep-down belief that cooking is more than an art, a skill, an adrenaline rush, a paycheck, or a technical challenge. It is simply who we are.

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