Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not one of those foodies who has fast food shame. I believe that one of life’s perfect meals is a McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish with fries and a vanilla shake, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There’s something deep in my psyche — and, I think, the psyche of most Americans — that finds tremendous contentment in these neatly-wrapped, efficient meals. The very best fast food is ultra-satisfying, goal-oriented eating. The diner wants a delicious experience, and he or she wants it — and gets it — now.
But as this week’s episode showed, high-end chefs can have subtle forms of schizophrenia when it comes to fast food. I imagine almost any Top Chef Masters-caliber toque would tell you that there’s a vast difference between the world of fine dining and the world of heat-lamp burgers; a difference in quality, in philosophy, and in the care that goes into each dish. That may be the case in some instances, but I’m not sure it’s the universal divide that some of this week’s chefs made it out to be. Good food is good food, whether it comes from a corporate test kitchen or a Top Chef Master. With the exception of Floyd, all of this week’s contenders were born and (largely) raised in North America, which means that in some way or another, all of them grew up around fast food. Americans know fast food. We know how it should look, taste, smell, and feel going down. When we hear that voice come crackling over the drive-thru intercom, we start to gear up for a very specific, deeply satisfying, easily portable meal.
And some chefs delivered — Tracy, Mary Sue, and Floyd all turned out dishes that were on point, proving that meals that adhere to the tenets of good fast food (salty! crisp! delicious!) can go hand in hand with a meal a serious chef can get behind. (So did Naomi, whose steak sandwich on ciabatta was, I thought, good enough to put her in the top three.) But of the three finalists, it was Mary Sue’s quinoa fritters that really catapulted her to the win: they were a revelation, a health store ingredient reconceived as flawless, eminently edible fast food, with a garlicky Romesco-style sauce that was perfect for dipping. I’ve never seen quinoa on a drive-through menu before, but now I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts showing up all over. A crazy idea? Maybe not: the fast food menus that I grew up with had (basically) three items: burger, fries, shake. Now you can get flatbreads, chipotle-rubbed chicken, arugula — it’s a completely different world.
Compared to the tremendous success of the top three chefs, this week’s bottom three were really unremarkable. Alex’s salmon taco was a flavor disaster, overly sweet and oddly seasoned, but at least he did some quick thinking when the chefs pulled up to the Farmer Boys, and revised his initial plan to better suit a fast-food environment. But Celina and George were dealing with failures of both execution and philosophy. Both chefs stuck to their original schemes (devised, remember, when the only detail revealed was that they had to serve 100 people with no utensils — for all they knew they were cooking for a gallery opening, not a fast-food crowd), which led to serious problems at the judges’ table. The dishes they created were cerebral, subtle, and required thought on the part of the diner — all wonderful attributes when I’m sitting at a white-clothed table in a hushed dining room, but in a fast food restaurant, that shrine to instant gratification, the last thing I want to do to with my food is think about it.
I was saddened, but not particularly surprised, when we sent George home. He is without a doubt a brilliant chef — the sole meal I had at his restaurant Aldea was an extraordinary dining experience — but I wonder if his brilliance is well suited to the context of this show. He had a hard time letting go of his fine-dining background; over the last few weeks he produced dishes that were exquisite in their concept but often fell short of the mark when executed under the severe, and occasionally bizarre, constraints of the Top Chef Masters kitchen. His pork skewer this week was, um, kind of yucky. It’s true that while conceiving the dish, George didn’t realize it was for fast food diners, but when he did learn that final twist, he chose not to adapt to it. Served in a huge, white, Styrofoam to-go container, those skewers and their cucumber salad accessory weren’t smart, flavorful finger foods; they were tiny bites of meat with a few veggie wedges on the side. It was food, it came (relatively) fast, but it didn’t hit any of the marks that define fast food at its best. I’m really disappointed to see George go home, but it’s good that he’s back in his kitchen in New York, where he can go on producing the exquisitely-constructed dishes on which he’s made his name.
James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur.