The Finale Countdown

Hugh Acheson assesses the finale dynamic between chefs and sous. 

The have jumped from planes. The have listened to Sang go crazy. They have wrestled with food and each other. They have hung with Yo Gabba Gabba! They have done this all and more. 

Curtis is standing in his new restaurant, Iglesia de Stone. He is going to cook for the trio of Douglas, Jen, and Bryan. I think they could fit in a couple of more tables in the restaurant. Spot prawns a la Curtis look pretty good. Bryan is still sore about his brother winning back in the day. Chicken liver and then dessert. It’s a fast meal. It comes out that the space is actually now owned by Neal. Grace indeed. 

First dish needs to be something old, the second something new, the third something borrowed, and the fourth something sous. Bryan is happy because Graeme won with the lavender dessert frozen dome thing. Doug doesn’t have help in today’s day of prep. Sous chefs enter the sphere, and menu planning happens and then they go shopping. Douglas is smart and is phoning this one in. 

They shop around at various artisanal shops and Jen is already bossing Jorel around. This should be a long day for Jorel. Jenis a cacophonous soundtrack to life in the kitchen. She is a force, though, and will forge through despite the distraction of her own monologue. 

Douglas is in the Zen kitchen. Shibumi? How about Wabi Sabi? Google that. Jen and Jorel come in, and Jen tries to bowl Douglas over with the weapon of small talk. Douglas has his game face on, though, and he is clinging to his Zen focus. Bryan just called out how much direction Jen is having to give Jorel. This is a chef “burn.” Ouchie. 

“This is not Jorel world; this is Jen world.” Evidently, Jen world is like Waterworld where you have to fight everyday just stay alive. Or like Wallyworld which is never open. Or like Elmo’s World where voices annoy you. 

Bryan fashion photos through the ages include the pleated pants we all once wore on formal occasions. To honor this past, he is making pleated Chesapeake Chicken. 

Douglas is sweating dashi as he makes mussels. Not having Paul is a hurdle, but he seems to be in pretty good shape. 

Jen is making paella gnocchi and also ostracizing Jorel AT THE SAME TIME. Prep and pack gets accomplished. Bryan feels confident, while Douglas is tired and grumpy. Jorel seems a little beat up as well. Foreshadowing to mistakes by Graeme. 

Here we go! Jen feels like she is being underappreciated and lets everyone know. The diners arrive. It is a veritable who’s who of culinary critics. There are a lot of opinionated opinions in this room. Curtis has stolen my hairdo, and Gail looks fantastic. They eat this:

Something Old:

Bryan: Groat Salad with Dungeness Crab, Asparagus, Hen Egg Custard, and Chicken Skin

Douglas: Soup Billi Bi with White Wine, Saffron, Fennel Puree, and Uni

Jennifer: Potato-Sunchoke Galette with Salmon, Caviar, Pickled Apple, and Creme Fraiche

They seem to like them all. Not much to really whine about. Francis says "oceanic." 

Something New:

Bryan: Black Cod with Onion Dashi, Date, and Parsnip Puree, and Green Apple

Douglas: Soba Wrapped Ocean Trout, Ginger Dashi, and Groats

Jennifer: Paella Gnocchi with Chicken Meatballs, Mussels, and Shrimp

Hadley and Alan love Bryan’s dish. Douglas’ is loved as well, but Oseland says it may have been dried out. Jennifer’s gnocchi is third place except Oseland thinks it’s extraordinary. 

Something Borrowed:

Bryan: Braised Beef Cheek and New York Strip with Seaweed Potatoes and Maitake Mushrooms

Douglas: Duck Breast with Sake Roasted Daikon, Tamarind, Golden Pea Sprouts, and Dates

Jennifer: Chinese Duck with Shiitake Broth, Eggplant Daikon, Grilled Bok Choy, and Duck Wonton

Duck, duck, cow. Bryan does Charlie. Douglas does Gray. Jenn does Wolfgang. They all are a little flawed. Though it’s 1992, Jen’s is really adored. 

Something Sous:

Bryan: Coconut, Lavender, and Vanilla

Douglas: Black Sesame Panna Cotta, Shattered miso Custard, and Green Tea Matcha

Jennifer: Smoked Macadamia with Chocolate Bavarian Napoleon, Tapioca, and Milk Caramel

Douglas has been reading Fifty Shades of Gray. Brian needs a drink. They have plated the last plates for this season. Bryan feels good about his chances. Douglas is winning this dessert course. Nothing they can change now. The judges had a great meal overall. They are a bit bitchy here and there, but most was utter success. 

Won’t beat around the bush on this: Douglas Keane wins. Great season and great fun with the sous chefs. They all rocked. Congrats to Dougie. He’s the bomb. 

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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.  

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