As a Top Chef Masters judge, I'm not supposed to play favorites. But of the nearly 40 episodes I've been involved in over four seasons of the show, this last one may well be my favorite. I loved the energy throughout, the laser-like focus the chefs brought to the, um, stadium (and the Quickfire Challenge). But above all I loved that the episode was entirely, start to finish, about the chefs' skills at the stove. Sometimes, on Top Chef Masters, the challenges thrown at the chefs can border on being Fellini-esque. This episode, for me, was simply about who could cook and who couldn’t. It was a pleasure and an honor to be exposed to this pure expression of skill — so intimate, so rewarding.
First up: this week's Quickfire, which I hadn't seen until watching the episode myself. The structure was a terrific bit of foreshadowing for what the chefs would be facing in their elimination: it was all about mise en place, about thoughtful prep, and about working accurately at a breakneck speed. How fascinating it was to focus a macro lens on truly essential skills. It was also, entertainingly, a nice confirmation of my own dime store analyses of the chefs' personalities: Chris, for example, has an eagerness (or, OK, maybe cockiness) that's sometimes unbeatable but can occasionally do him in, as it did here — he may have finished the fastest, but quick work meant under-portioned filets… and disqualification. I wasn't surprised to see that the last two chefs standing were the (slightly) older Kerry and Takashi, with their calm dispositions and clear-headedness. It was a delight to see Kerry finally win something: he's an extraordinary chef. It's about time! His parmesan-encrusted steak looked like a total knockout.
Speaking of, er, knockouts, what a treat it was to spend an evening with the amazing Sugar Ray Leonard, a true icon. And what a great set-up for an elimination challenge! The whole deal — from the Jubilee girls (so gorgeous—I had feather-boa envy) to the boxing ring to getting to ring the bell before each bout (I gotta confess: I was more than a little nervous performing this task next to Mr. Leonard) — was a blast. The first round was fascinating: bacon is an easy ingredient, one with which both Chris and Takashi have great facility. But Takashi's plate of bacon steak with fruits and a fennel salad was a little too complex…it was overwhelming, particularly measured against the clean, confident, delicious Mexican-inspired bacon and eggs that Chris presented.