The thought of eating Chris Cosentino’s food is, for me, an endlessly thrilling prospect. The thought of making that food, on the other hand — and working alongside him — was more nerve-wracking than I can articulate. I’m intensely perfectionistic. And while Ruth, Francis, and I didn’t know which chef we’d be paired with ahead of time, what we did know was that we’d be cooking on camera, and that our own successes and failures would be those of our to-be-determined chef partner. I’ll be honest: I didn’'t sleep the night before. At about 4:30 a.m. I sat up and made a promise to myself. Come what may, I thought, I was going to win.
I found out about three seconds before walking onto the set that I’d be paired with Chris, and as soon as I took my position at our station, the rest of the world fell away. I spent the minute or two before the starting bell familiarizing myself with the space -- checking out what knives were located where, figuring out how the heating element worked. So when the challenge began, I felt ready to face whatever Chris was going to throw at me.
Something about the construction of the space made it almost impossible for anyone to hear anything else, which made a tough situation even tougher. (It wasn't entirely helped by the Southern accent I adopted that Chris couldn’t place — at the producers' request, we disguised our voices, and I chose to pay homage to the rural Oklahoma town where I lived for two years as a kid.) Still, I felt throughout the challenge that I was in entirely safe hands. Chris is a natural teacher — a great gift, and one that I was not a little surprised to find in him. He has a calm, deliberate, very thoughtful way of conveying his ideas, with an amazing degree of insight to what it is that the student needs to hear in order to get the job done. At each step along the way, he made sure I right there with him: “Do you see the celery? Do you have the celery? Is it actually in your hands?” His patience paid off. Our final plates looked pretty great, if I do say so myself, and Chris won the challenge.When I watched this episode, I realized that the patience and clarity from which I benefitted during the Quickfire was on display times ten during the elimination challenge. While Chris’s team’s final plate of food wasn’t my favorite — I found the pork to be slightly overcooked, the hazelnuts not integrated enough into the flavors, and that poor, prematurely-plated salad was a shadow of its former self by the time it finally landed in front of me — it was evident that the students with whom he worked learned a tremendous amount at his side. During filming, the only interaction we had with these folks was during the moments when they presented their dish, and Chris’s team looked exhausted but exhilarated, bright-eyed with a renewed enthusiasm for cooking that was palpable all the way to the Critics' Table.
Kerry and Lorena took their own very different tactics with their student chefs. Kerry treated his as if they already had jobs at his restaurant: he expected perfection, and he expected it quickly. To my great admiration, these high school kids rose to the challenge, producing an elegant plate of food that included quite honestly the best creamed spinach I have ever had, bright and aromatic without the cloying heaviness that the dish so often has. It was the clear winning plate of food, further proof of Kerry’s role on the show as the king of quietly refined cuisine.
Lorena was Kerry’s diametric opposite. Where he pushed his team hard, she was perhaps too hands-off. The lasagna and salad she and her team created was extraordinary, without a doubt — it was my favorite dish of the three by a long shot, with an exhilarating complexity of flavor that was perfectly balanced by the bright arugula salad — but Lorena’s reluctance to reconceptualize her team’s original dish wound up hurting her. The challenge, after all, was to take the students’ creations and lift them up. Her lasagna was a thing of beauty, but both Kerry and Chris took more creative approaches, and as a result led their teams to areas of slightly higher elevation.And so here we are facing the final episode, and it feels so, so right: Kerry and Chris, two chefs who are so different in their style, so different in their approach to food and cooking and the world. And yet there’s a fundamental similarity to their core, a synchronicity in their commitment to the kitchen and to the diner. I don’t know if I’ve ever looked forward to a final showdown quite as much as I have this one. I can’t wait.