Perfect Bite

James Oseland compares Patricia's winning dish to Debbie's eliminating one.

There wasn't a Quickfire Challenge in this week's episode, which is something I didn't realize until I was watching the show yesterday — while we were judging, we hadn't been aware of the fact that the Elimination Challenge was all the chefs were up to this episode. But in hindsight, it makes sense. This challenge, creating a full wedding menu from passed hors d'oeuvres all the way through a towering cake, is as difficult as two challenges rolled into one. At least. As a judge, it was also a remarkable opportunity to take stock of this season's contestants: while the menu needed to work as a coherent whole, each chef created his or her dish more or less entirely on their own, playing to their own strengths, with only the most minimal of limitations imposed on them. It showed us who was capable of thinking on their feet, being creative in execution and adept in ability, and who would falter under the pressure of creating a wedding feast. 

And what a wedding feast this was! Working from a request that the menu be Filipino-inspired and generally "Asian" in scope and palate, the chefs divvied up the courses: some on one-bite amuses for the cocktail hour, some on full-fledged plated courses, some on dessert. Art's wedding cake got a lot of airtime thanks to its architectural instability (which, to be honest, I found kind of endearing — it actually made me more sympathetic to the cake), but what landed him in the bottom three wasn't an aesthetic concern; rather, it was the fact that what he advertised as a pineapple upside-down cake simply wasn't. What makes that cake so great, so delicious, so wonderfully fulfilling is the combination of a really soft, moist crumb, a sweet vanilla flavor, and — the real payoff — that gorgeous, oozy layer on top of caramelized pineapple and brown sugar. Art's cake just didn't have that. It didn't make me want to take another bite, and another bite, and another bite, the way a truly good version of that cake should.

Still, it was head and shoulders beyond Debbie's ultimately elimination-earning salad. We were given menus at the beginning of the meal, and what was promised as a Thai-style salad of Napa cabbage and green mango was in reality a plate of burned cabbage without any of the sweet-sour tang that a true Thai savory fruit salad ought to have. Debbie justified her decision to grill the greens by saying that the char added a necessary acidity to the cabbage, which to me was a baffling choice: why not add acidity with lime? The salad was even less successful when I considered it in context: as the first course of a sit-down meal at a beautiful, emotional wedding, it was a weird choice.

It was in Patricia's winning dish of mackerel with young coconut and chilies that I saw what I'd been hoping for from Debbie: a vivid, multifaceted bite of food that drew inspiration from an authentic cuisine (in this case kilawin tanigue, a Filipino ceviche), but was still very much individual to the chef. With a bright, clean herbal flavor punctuated by unexpected bursts of ginger from a genius, slightly subversive addition of finely chopped ginger candy, it set the gold standard for this episode, if not the entire season. My only disappointment in the dish was that, designed to be just a one-bite amuse bouche, I couldn't go back in for another mouthful. It was perfect for a wedding, perfect for this wedding, and a perfect showcase of the great things of which Patricia is capable. And it was a terrible, wonderful, frustrating flirtation — everything I want a bite of food to be.

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

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.