No Guts, No Glory

Hugh ponders the finale's classic chef vs. bravado chef and admits which dishes he wishes he could have made.

According to the purists, the best wrestling match ever, and I mean real professional wrestling (not that Olympic stuff), was “Nature Boy” Ric Flair vs Ricky, “the Dragon” Steamboat in 1989, to settle the NWA title. Long story short, Flair won and then got a beat down from his arch nemesis while walking to the locker room after the match. The essence of the bout was clear: two leotarded men faced off in the ring and one took more chances to win that title. Seize the day and all that.

In our culinary cage match this evening we have the very classic Kerry (Curtis uses the line “classical trained, maestro of modern American cuisine”!!! Wowza.) versus the season favorite Chris “the Spirited Savant” Cosentino. Somebody was on happy drugs when they wrote Curtis’ lines. No exploding cage match here, just a simple four-course dinner for a bunch of sanctimonious paid yelpers. I think you call them dining critics.

We get the standard prideful moments for Kerry and Chris for getting this far. They look tired but these armies of one will be armies of two. Enter sous chefs, Manfred for Chris and Nick for Kerry. Let the games begin.

The challenge has the sentimentality thing entwined in it, which is not my thing. The courses have to relate to letters: a love letter, a letter of apology, a thank-you letter and a letter to yourself. The latter is the one that confuses me. Do people often write themselves letters of positive affirmation to themselves?

“Dear Hugh,

You are rocking a good hair day today. I want you to put this moment in a snuggly. Keep on keeping on.


P.S. Your fly is open.”

We are off to Whole Foods and only for Kerry, while Chris has decided to shop at the local butcher, Whole Foods and 99 Ranch, all of which have their own Yelp reviews if you care to whittle away a day reading the opines of people who claim to know a lot about butcher shops, organic food stores, and Asian grocers.

Kerry can’t find a lobster for his Korean stew. He’s going the crab and spot prawn route. Other than that he is focused on getting this all in the paper bags so he can get his prep on. At the cash register he is flummoxed by going over budget by a tiny amount. Smart Kerry grabs a prawn that costs .61 from the bag and is right on the money. You will notice that he just puts that prawn back in his pocket though and was later arrested by the Whole Foods security team. “Sir, SIR. Is that a prawn in your pocket?”

As a small independent butcher I would revel in the opportunity to serve Chris Cosentino. Giving him $600 to shop for piles of muscles and guts is like giving a nine-year old boy ten rolls of quarters at Chuck E. Cheese. Chris is taking much more time in this shopping excursion than Kerry but he’s proving pretty successful in his purchases of blood, foie, and unicorn tears. Remember, purveying is the first key to good cookin’.

Cosentino is still Euro shopping for a new apron and some rare Iguana esophagus, filling up that Lexus RX, the prescribed vehicle for chefs of a certain affluence. I drive a diesel Jetta but the pops-in-law used to have an RX for a whip and they are pretty sweet. But that automatic trunk door is just one more “convenience item” to make America lazy. Eventually Darwinism happens and our arms become just button pokers. Do not let this happen America. Not on my watch. That said, LEXUS GIVE ME A CAR.

Kerry is still working on his letters, which keep coming out as Dear Johns, confusing even Kerry. He doesn’t even know what he’s walking out on. Chris, being the more emotive soul in this gastro-joust, is much more nimble when it comes to expressing his feelings. Kerry keeps it all locked up. Express yourself Kerry, let go.

Prep. Kerry has the lead and seems in good shape. Chris finally shows up and is bragging on his purchases. He begins to make morcilla, or blood sausage. It can be a tricky thing, that morcilla, and we later see those links bursting at the seams. Can’t rush the sausage. Curtis drops by and sings “The Letter.” Have you all ever seen Joe Cocker do that song? Truly killer. Leon Russell is stoned to the gills but rockin out in his own special way and Joe is positively losing it. Amazeballs. I think I account for at least ¼ of those YouTube views. Cmon, it’s an Alex Chilton song. Enjoy.

Pack up prep and get some dinner but the surprise is that Curtis has invited the chefs to the suite life. The Cosmopolitan never hooked me up in that one, but their regular suites are purely amazing so no matter. One fine hotel.

This is like dinner with the blond bombshell is like an homage to Curtis’ original show where he picks up the ladies at the grocery store and shows them how to butter their toast. To make it more authentic I am going to dress up like Marco Pierre White and scream at him from across the suite. Google that my peeps. There is nothing like a crazed, screaming, British chef to lighten up a dinner party, just ask that other British chef, whose name rhymes with Gordon Ramsey. He’s built an Empire on it.

Fish, foie, and that’s it. The shortest tasting menu ever. Everyone seems happy though.

Dinner time for realz.

Chris’s menu:
Beef Heart Tartare, Foie Gras, and Puffed Beef Tendon
Scallop, Pancetta Piana and Sea Urchin
Trippa Napolitana
Blood Sausage, Poached Oysters, and Egg

Kerry’s menu:
Scallop and Spot Prawn "Koren Jjigae"
Flan of Sugar Snap Peas with Prosciutto, Morels, and Chervil
Branzino with Clam Ragout and Mustard Greens
Dry Aged "Cote de Boeuf," Short Ribs with Swiss Chard and Fennel Gratin

The fine table has some crazy big names of people who, with their keyboards, have blessed and cursed many restaurants. Oh critics.

Jane Goldman
Alan Richman
John Curtas
Alan Sytsma
Karen Brooks
Lesley Bargar Suter
the Oseland
Ruth Reichl
Krista Simmons
Francis Lam

We learn quickly that Alan Richman got laid a lot back in the day thanks to Julia Child’s cheese souflle, but never in New Orleans, cause EVERYBODY hates that guy in NOLA. Everybody. Google that too. Lots of googles tonight.

Kerry has made a spot prawn and scallop rendition of Jjigae, a dish he once wooed his wife. It’s an ode to her Korean heritage and the love letter part of his meal. Alan Richman says something and nobody listens. Lesley would let Kerry get to first base. Just then Kerry remembers he’s married.

Chris has put his heart on the plate with beef tartare with foie and puffed tendon. Looks good. Looks familiar. We serve something very similar at Empire State South in Atlanta. Come. I will feed you.

Second course. . .Chris is yelling at Manfred but you get the feeling that it’s more a matter of putting on a show than much ado otherwise. How do you apologize in food? Kerry does the pea, morels, ham thing. Chris tears up with his second course apology to his wife. Scallop with pancetta. Kerry is killing this. Have I underestimated Kerry’s mad skillz abilities through an entire season? I may have people, I may have. Chris’ dish gets mixed reviews. Chow Jane thinks it’s salty. Ruth thinks it’s sexy. Ruth is such a minx in spanx. Kerry double dipping with a big ladle. Third course from Chris is tripe Napolitana, an ode to Grandma. Looks good. Looks hot.

Kerry has an ode to his family and Cape Cod. It’s a branzino with clam ragout and mustard greens. Chow Jane likes Kerry’s dish

John Curtas continues the trend of men as critics being complete douchebags when he rails against Chris’ egg dish but don’t you worry, Lam has is playing contrarian and gives Chris’ dish a resounding thumbs up as a retort to the douchebag’s comments. We like Francis. I like the egg dish. Gutsy.

Kerry’s final dish looked a lot like a dish I would think through (we are very similar in style) and then not pull off as well as I would have liked to. How’s that for honesty? I think he probably feels the same way. It’s good but maybe not a winner winner chicken dinner.

This is kind of a matter of classic chef vs. bravado chef, which is a very interesting idea and one that we see a lot in the bizness. I am in the middle. I think there is room for both on the spectrum of restaurants and chefs that are sheer awesomeness.

Guts prevailed. $141000 for MJFox Foundation. We have a winner. Both gents should be very proud of how far they got.

Great season. Fun. Great cooking. Good peeps.

Top Chef premieres Nov 7. Watch me. Watch me. WATCH ME.

Until then follow me on Twitter: @hughacheson

This is a good conversation and one important to our restaurant landscape.

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