The big moral takeaway from this episode for me -- one in which at least two of us faced down foods we'd rather not eat only to discover that we loved them -- is the great value to be found in plunging headfirst into the unknown. Life is short, try it all—you never know what's going to surprise you with its wonderfulness. To paraphrase Kathie Lee: you never know what's going to be your personal deep-fried shrimp head.
The less we box ourselves in, the less we stick to what we know and what we're comfortable with, the more we have access to what's out there. Try the fried shrimp head, or the chicken heart: you'll have a new thing to add to the list of things you love. (Or, if you don't, you've nevertheless got a good story about chicken hearts to tell at your next cocktail party.)
I may try to live (and eat) by the principle of Try It All, but it's not always easy—especially on the Top Chef Masters set. I'm not big on raw meat, for example, but tartares aren't always easy to avoid. Still, I find myself delighted far more often than I'm disappointed: last year, on Season 4, chef Chris Cosentino presented the judges with a heart tartare that was one of the more difficult things I've had to bring myself to eat, but once I had that first bite of the exquisitely prepared, earthy, savory dish, I was instantly converted. It had been worth overcoming my qualms. I'm still not sure I'd seek it out and order it in a restaurant, but it made me a better person (and a better eater) for having experienced it—and the same goes for a number of the foods I tried on this week's episode.
Chief among those was Douglas Keane's exceptionally wonderful riff on cookies and cream, which you may have noticed I was pretty skeptical about. I have a cynicism about savory desserts: I like my desserts to be sweet and honest, and more often than not, I find the incorporation of savory flavors to be indicative of what I think of as "dessert shame," an unwillingness to capitulate to the simple joy of a sweet ending to a meal. But what Douglas created was great, even with its complexity of flavors—green tea, herbs, and spices-- it hit a bull’s-eye on my target of what a dessert should be. Sure, it may have looked like a Dixie cup full of foam, but from the moment it hit my palate, it was clear that this was a marvelous invention, a perfect balance of flavors and textures.
His companions in the top three also produced exceptional dishes. Bryan Voltaggio's take on chicken and dumplings had marvelous components: wonderful dumplings, lovely pieces of crisped chicken skin. But what blew me away (and the other judges, particularly Francis) was the broth. Chinese-style chicken broth involves cooking it for eight or nine hours, simmering it away with aromatics and herbs to produce a slightly bitter, slightly sour, slightly sweet flavor that's in perfect balance. And somehow, miraculously, Bryan produced this depth of flavor in just two hours, thanks to some ingenuity and some pretty spectacular pressure cookers.