Leave the Gun. Take the Cannoli.

Hugh Acheson explains why the mentor challenge was so important.

The end is nigh for our three remaining competitors. Chris is the odds-on favorite, at least in this bookie’s opinion. He’s just been solid through the whole season and has a breadth of skill that suits the competition well. Lorena can prevail once in a while, but is limited in scope. Kerry is the dark horse here and could upset but he’s been a team-of-one for a long time and that not been a consistent prevailing wind, more like a gusty, brief storm mixed with stillness. 

Naomi Pomeroy was famous in the last season for screaming incessantly at her dad. This challenge brings that kind of frantic fun. The anonymous culinary  partners are our trio of judges, and I am giving Francis the up-front advantage on this one. He just seems a little more gastronomically able as opposed to merely gifted with words, but I could be wrong. It could be that Chris and Mr. Sweater have the edge here, or that Ruth and Kerry have made a chicken-winning extravaganza. It’s going to come down to who the better explainer is. 

Chris and James are judged first and kudos to them both because the dishes look pretty identical. Chris was smart to do a dish that had symmetry and simplicity in it’s heart; a dish that was easily explainable through a partitioned wall. Curtis can’t decide whose is whose and which is better. Good omen. Chris and James have created conjoined identical twins named Akbar & Jeff (to the Google!)Lorena and Francis have made similar dishes of swiss chard and chicken and cream that are deemed good, but both are inherently sauces more than dishes. When the pasta water don’t boil there will be no pasta. Though Curtis likes the duo of dishes, it’s not a concept that will end up as a Savory Mexican Smoothie© flavor at Taco Bell. Essentially, Lorena and Francis have created identical twins that wear different colored sweaters, like Ronde and Tiki Barber.

Let’s remember that Kerry is not the greatest communicator. And Ruth is a good talker but probably not the best listener (in her defense, I am also kind of like that… working on listening). Can I haz sautéed chicken with chard… again? The plates look very different, and though they taste pretty spot-on, they are not going to win this thing with the real variance. Curtis thinks that Ruth’s chicken is better. Kerry laughs his “I am so angry” laugh. This is about getting the plates as close to identical as possible, and Kerry and Ruth have created fraternal twins, one of whom is a professional chef while the other is a frustrated beat poet with a penchant for cookery.  

Winner winner prawn dinner. Cash to the Fox Foundation. My inner bookie is thinking that unless Chris falls down on his head, he will emerge victorious in this whole season.

Cooking school challenge? I like it. Being a chef is so much more than just cooking. I put it like this: our job is to inspire people to love the work, love the repetition, love the menial task, love the endless learning. Cooking is rarely about the limelight and the accolades; you need to love to cook to be in this business. Inspiring, teaching, demanding, lauding and challenging people is the hallmark of a great chef. Hey Elves: I love this challenge. It’s awesome. It shows truly what Masters should be able to do. More of this. 

In the car we learn that Kerry is old and the kids know it. Godfather 1 is not on their radar. Shopping has also tired him and he slurs the words, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli,” before nodding off. Kids these days -- whadda they know?

Shop is what it is and we see the difference in leadership styles. 

Cook time is more dramatic. Kerry is a squadron leader of the dark side. Chris is a teacher of a different mold, kind of like that math teacher who made you love math until you learned to hate it again the following year. He is careful and caring. Lorena is a little frantic with her peeps, JoJo and Jhane, but is showing some good traits in her syllabus. JoJo is diabetic and is fighting to eat well in life. Hear that, America? Wake up and learn from JoJo. We should not fight the malaise of diabetes with meds, rather we need to strike back with truly nourishing our communities.

Emilio from Chris’ team can come and work for me when he’s ready. I love kids who refuse to give in to the limitations of their upbringing and just strive to advance all the time. Those are the chefs of the future. 

Ruth, Jimmy, and Francis are the judges with some of the culinary staff from the local college. Tasting time is off to the races. First up Chris’ team, Lacey and Emilio. The pork is a loin which is a challenging cut because it is so lean. Though the pork may be perfectly cooked we are shown James Oseland chewing a lot. Emilio’s mother is verklempt with pride. So sweet. This is like a feel good after-four special, but even I can’t seem to make much fun of it. 

Second up is Lorena’s lasagna team of Jhane and JoJo. Three meat lasagna with a nice salad. The tasting panel really seems to like it. Love the proud parents really behind those kids. Kerry is up next and the plate looks good. Maybe the Kerry’s School of Hard Knocks will pan out. This chicken and spinach rocks… much better than the chicken and chard from this morning. 

One taster says it best: “They’re (all) winners.” True. Now let’s viciously let one of these three chefs pack their knives and go. 

It’s interesting to see whether the judges will have any harsh words for the chefs. Curtis is wondering whether Lorena would serve the lasagna in a high-end restaurant… sometimes I wonder what Curtis means when he says high-end restaurant. For most of America, Olive Garden is a special occasion. There are many different types of high-end restaurants. I think that lasagna would be great to serve in a fancy little place, shared with three friends and a great bottle of Riserva Chianti. Nothing wrong with that. 

Kerry is in with a win. Evidently leadership can take many forms. Somebody has been taking notes while reading Who Moved my Cheese? He pushed those kids to the limits and maybe that anti-coddling was good for them. They are crying in the corner right now after being yelled out for hours by Kerry, but hell Kerry won so who cares. JUST KIDDING… Good job, Kerry! 

This is a hard one. Though Chris’ dish looks pretty good and his team had great chemistry, it was plated too soon and was not his best showing. Francis loved it and James did not. Lorena on the other hand led her team pretty well and the dish was just maybe too simple, yet her salad gets described as a “quilt of flavor” by James. James quits because he likes both chefs. But he’s kidding, he ain’t quitting this gig! He loves this job!Lorena is packing those knives. She really rocked it out this season, made a friend in Art, and somehow managed to sign a contract in fast food that would make most people very jealous. She leaves having raised a great amount of money for a great charity and she also leaves with a big smile and a ton of class. No matter my banter, that chef is a Venezuelan tornado of goodness. May she continue to succeed.

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Jennifer Jasinski Was a "Great Miracle"

James Oseland can't get enough of the chef's paella gnocchi.

And so we’ve come to the end. What a season! The talent on display blew me away when I experienced it firsthand as a critic, and again as I’ve been rewatching the episodes as they’ve aired. 

But I’ve also been moved—both as we filmed and upon viewing each episode—by the humanity of it all. For me as an observer, I hugely value how much this show is a fundamentally humanizing one for its contestants. Chefs, as pop culture figures, have taken on such iconic status that it can be hard at times to remember that under the pomp and posturing and embroidered-logo white jackets, they’re just real folks with quirks and foibles and dark sides and endearing weirdnesses. Over the course of 10 episodes, I—and we—have gotten to know them as people not just restaurant figureheads.

It’s been a particular pleasure to get to know the three finalists. On the surface, Douglas and Bryan have a lot of similarities as both people and cooks—they’re reserved, meticulous; they have a related culinary vernacular of precision and experimentation. But we now know that, in fact, they couldn’t be more different. Douglas can be so cerebral, so thoughtfully minimalist—his food is subtle in a visceral and alluring way, and it always feels rooted in tradition, be it French or Japanese. Bryan, on the other hand, is cooking new food, inventing his language as he goes, with only occasional (which is to say very infrequent) references. And then Jennifer is cooking in a different language entirely, an elevated cucina povera that is a form of emotional transmission, as opposed to Douglas and Bryan’s intellectual communication.

In retrospect, it’s clear that Jennifer was, for me, the great miracle of this season. After five rounds of being a critic, I generally feel confident in my ability to pick who the three finalists are going to be after a few episodes. Boy, was I wrong! But who can blame me? At the beginning of the season, Jennifer simply wasn’t cooking at the level she later demonstrated to us—maybe it was her close brush with elimination that brought out her fearlessness and elegance, because the food she served in the past few weeks was miles beyond what she’d started out cooking. 

I thought I had a handle on Jennifer’s excellence as a cook, and then during the finale meal, she served us her paella gnocchi. My God, it was the single best dish I ate all season—so perfectly balanced, so beautifully executed, so lovely to look at. Unfortunately for her chances at winning the season, her other three courses—while very, very good—didn’t come anywhere near the glory of that dish. Still, if we’re handing out prizes for individual plates of food, this one is the season five gold-medal winner.

Bryan’s food for the finale was almost all as revelatory as Jennifer’s gnocchi. His first two courses, in particular, were startlingly good: the elevated “chicken Chesapeake” was a gorgeously refined riff on the original, and his black cod may have been one of the finest presentations of that fish I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. And, wow, that strange and amazing dessert: an all-white confection with a harmonious combination of aromas and flavors, it was as stimulating visually as it was on the palate. Regrettably, Bryan was hamstrung by an overly heavy third course—meat upon meat upon meat—that for me, as well as some of my fellow critics, was just too much.

It’s no spoiler to mention that it was clear to me as soon as this meal was over that Douglas was going to win. Throughout the season, he did not once produce a dish that was anything less than very good: he’s an absolute master of technique, with an uncommon ability to coax exquisite flavors and textures out of his ingredients. In the finale, the trajectory of the dishes he served was perfection. The white wine and mussel soup Billi Bi was the epitome of his style, so minimal as to be almost a cerebral conceit rather than a physical one. His sea trout was sumptuous and startling, not even needing its unconventional presentation (though it was certainly fun). The Gray Kunz-inspired tamarind-glazed duck was perhaps the least successful of his four courses, though it was still wonderful… but it lacked an ineffable Douglasness, maybe because he was hewing too closely to the instruction to make a “borrowed” dish. 

And then there was his dessert, an utterly transcendent plate of food that brought together all the threads of his cooking and tied them together in a neat, fantastically delicious bow. This plate of food really didn’t visually translate well on your TV screen: it literally looked like a bowl of gray porridge with some bright confetti on top—a complete culinary cipher. But once you started eating it, you couldn’t stop. It was rich and light, sweet and savory—after Jennifer’s gnocchi, it was easily the second-best dish of the evening.

We had a lively dialogue around the Critics’ Table at the end of the meal about who should win, but ultimately it was an easy choice. I couldn’t be happier for Douglas -- he is a true Top Chef Master.

James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine and

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