All About the Ingredientses

Kerry Heffernan made a decision that may have cost him the title.

Well, my little blood sausages, the day finally arrived -- finale day. And oh was it glorious. Ironically, it's Yom Kippur and I'm fasting, so a) please don't tell my rabbi I'm doing work, and b) please excuse my stomach grumbles. Let's dive right in!

There was obviously no Quickfire Challenge for this challenge, so our two chefs -- Chris and Kerry --  headed straight in to a truly inspired challenge: to create four courses based on letters. These letters were: a love letter, apology, thank you note, and a letter to yourself. These two chefs happily embraced the challenge, and I wondered if we were actually going to make them write letters. We didn't hear any, so I'm going to assume they didn't. Some chefs are great writers -- if you don't believe me, just read Hugh Acheson's blog, while other chefs prefer to only write menus.

The two chefs get a surprise -- they get sous-chefs! And not just any sous-chefs, but their usual sous-chefs -- or in Kerry's case, a longtime colleague. This is usually my favorite moment and I think truly adds a special element to these challenges -- the viewer gets an even bigger taste of what these cheftestants are like in their professional kitchens. I have to say this season's sous-chef surprise also brought a fun extra element in the form of Manfred. I'm obsessed with that name. I would never call him Manny. It would be Manfred all day, every day. And although his name is Manfred and not Alfred, whenever Chris said it, I considered him Batman. He's certainly got the voice for it.So the two teams start menu-planning. Predictably, they both dedicated their love letters to their wives. and perhaps somewhat predictably their 'I'm sorrys" rang very similar -- both wish they didn't spend so much time away from their families in pursuit of culinary excellence. This isn't the firs time I've heard a chef lament this, but it's never any less sad to hear.

After the chefs have their dishes somewhat in mind -- Kerry will formulate it as he shops. In a crucial decision, Kerry decides only to shop at Whole Foods, while Chris and Manfred decide to hit up two other shops-- a butcher and an Asian specialty shop. In the immortal words of Real Housewife of New Jersey Teresa Giudice, ingredientses are everything. I actually don't know if she said that, but we'll pretend for now. It was this decision that may have really sealed Kerry's fate.

Because of the extra shopping and the L.A. traffic Chris and Manfred suffered, Kerry and Nick had a major time advantage in prepping, but Chris caught up by the end of Day One. And so they were on an even playing field for service. Or were they? Now Chris had the ingredients he wanted while Kerry made multiple compromises to his dishes. For example, in Kerry's first dish, he wanted to make a lobster jjigae, but Whole Foods sold out of lobster, so he made shrimp. Was it still delicious? Yes. Was it what he wanted to make? Not really. One of the diners makes a comment that Kerry's dish was too subtle, and I have to wonder whether his broth would seem more powerful next to a piece of delicate lobster rather thn a hearty prawn. Kerry finds out from Chris that the butcher had seafood -- he hadn't thought of that. That moment of realization was a bummer to watch. But before we breakdown the entire meal, let's not forget that the two chefs were treated to a meal cooked by none other than host and accomplished chef in his own right, Curtis Stone. I really didn't think this man could get any sexier but watching him cook, well.... He got to finally speak to Chris and Kerry on a chef-to-chef level, and this was a really nice moment.

But don't relax, guys! It's showtime! We already discussed Kerry's first course, but let's talk about Chris' beef heart tartare. My best friend actually traveled to Canada recently where I believe she ate this for the first time, so this dish wasn't too shocking to me, and the concept was literal and lovely. The next course, Kerry created a delicate snap pea flan, while Chris made something with uni. I say it like that because anything with uni will be greeted well by fellow chefs and food critics. They just love uni! (This is of course an overgeneralization, but test it out. See for yourself!) There's a reason Ruth said it was one of the sexiest dishes she's ever had -- that is truly saying a lot.

For the third course, Chris whips out the tripe, an ode to his grandmother. It gets OK reviews, and a large brown streak on a dish is always going to get the side-eye. Kerry "thanks" his parents for taking him clamming on the Cape when he was younger. 

And the final dish -- a note to one's self. Chris made a dish that made me think of Wylie Dufresne, a fellow egg-lover. Chris served his diners blood sausage and eggs. As we saw, blood sausage is not easy to make. In fact, it apparently "spooges," a term I never need to hear on Bravo again. Some scoffed at the dish's simplicity, but there was nothing simple about that dish. Making blood sausage and a perfectly-cooked egg for that many people is hard. On the other hand, Kerry finally let himself indulge -- in a perfect piece of steak. He's such a New Yorker.In the end, a really interesting question came up: with two great meals, which is better? Kerry's classic cuisine or Chris' "I dare you to eat this" style? This is something I've actually thought about myself. When I used to go out to dinner, my friends knew exactly what I would order, not only because it probably had corn or bacon in it, but because it was probably the weirdest thing on the menu. But I don't really do that anymore because a) many chefs aren't as skilled as Chris, and though I'm all for trying new things, I'm also for eating delicious food, and b) really, what am I proving by eating these foods if I don't enjoy them as much as something maybe a little bit more "safe"?

Kerry's critique reminded me a lot of similar things said in past seasons of Top Chef about the subtlety and restraint of Hung Huynh and Bryan Voltggio's food, and you now what? Their food is what I love to eat, so maybe I need to let go a little too! I do still think about a lamb heart cubano Chris served at a BBQ this summer, though, and so...

Ultimately, Chris wins! And maybe it's cliche, but they are truly both winners. I don't think Chris' win necessarily says anything about risky foods vs. classic cuisine, I think at the end of the day Chris provided a better meal and really let himself go. 

Well, as always, I want to thank you you for reading my recaps this season, a season I really think to be the best one yet! Don't forget to watch Life After Top Chef next week at 10/9c. And until then, Have a Nosh!

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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.  

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