You don’t see it on the show, but when it came to judging the final challenge, we were a deeply divided group. Each of us felt, very strongly, that a different chef should win. As time ticked away, and the hour grew later, we were finally able to come to a decision. But it wasn’t easy.
These are three impressive, and seemingly very different chefs, but what fascinates me is what they have in common. Each is classically trained in the true French tradition -- and each has retained a fierce commitment to an ethnic tradition.
Consider Floyd. The first time I tasted his cooking was when he was working with the superbly talented Grey Kunz at Lespinasse, one of the best restaurants to open in New York in the '90s. Each time I dined at the restaurant there was some flavor I could not identify. “What’s in this?” I kept asking the waiters. They’d disappear into the kitchen and come back with answers like “kokum” and “mango powder.” When he went on to Tabla, Floyd took his spice box with him, and I was thrilled by the bold flavors that characterize his cooking. He is also a chef who is fascinated by texture, and he also brought that to play in this challenge. James is absolutely right –- the food he cooked for us had soul.
Traci worked with one of the other culinary giants who transformed American cooking in the eighties. Joachim Splichal blew into L.A. like a whirlwind and changed the game. His Patina was a terrific training ground, and when he thought she was ready he sent Traci off to work with some of the great chefs of France. Still, she never forgot her roots; her father was Acadian, her mother Mexican, and her own history has always inflected her cooking. I liked that she gave us something down-home and Cajun, and something elegantly French. Still, I have to admit that when Gael described her touchstone dish I wondered how Traci was going to pull it off. It sounded dreadful to me –- fried duck with béarnaise sauce? -- and I didn’t think much better of what appeared on my plate.
I had a strong feeling, from the very beginning, that Mary Sue would be among the finalists. She is a person who does not give up easily. I first met her in 1981, when I was writing an article about women chefs (who were very rare at the time), and she had quite a story. When she graduated from chef school, she applied for a job at Chicago’s finest restaurant, Le Perroquet. “The owner said he would never hire a pretty girl like me –- it would cause chaos in the kitchen.“ Instead, he offered her the opportunity to be the hat-check girl. Undeterred, Mary Sue kept calling. After a year of calls she wore him down and he finally allowed her to come in to peel onions and wash lettuce. Two years late she was running the kitchen. That’s the tenacity- and the talent -- that took her to the final three. Although I was a fan of the steak tartare, I would have been more impressed by something with a greater degree of difficulty. But the weak link here were those shrimp dishes. The salpicon was pleasant enough (although probably not the perfect follow up to steak tartare), but that stuffed pasta was straight out of the '60s. The mousse was light and lovely, but she put it in a pasta straightjacket and strangled it in sauce.
But then the lemon extravaganza arrived; it was, without a doubt, the best dish of the evening. “Don’t make the soufflé too sweet,” I begged when I described the dish of my dreams. Mary Sue not only took me at my word, she made a financier with fresh lemon slices that took my breath away.
All I can say, to all three chefs, is thank you. And Bravo!