Padma Lakshmi

Padma Lakshmi maps out the finale dishes for you, one by one.

on Jan 31, 2007

Well, it's official.

Ilan has been crowned king of the kitchen. Let me start by saying what a great journey it's been this season. I loved coming to work and tasting all the strange and wonderful things the chefs whipped up for us. I felt great compassion for what they had to go through. It can't have been easy to be away from one's family and be slaving for hours and hours while keeping their eyes on the prize. But they did it. I am also grateful to Gail and Tom for making me feel so welcome, for helping me to find my way and helping to shape the show into what it has become with them. As you can tell from last week's episode and tonight, it was a highly emotional situation. But we had to make a decision, it's the nature of the game: someone loses, and someone wins.

Both these two chefs, and also Sam and Elia, are very skilled, talented, and passionate about what they do. I can't wait to see them grow and evolve as people, as well as professional chefs. I hope they learn from their shortcomings in and out of the kitchen this season, as well as take pride in their victories, great and small. In the end, we made our decision based on the food put forth that day, and the information we got about the chefs from the chefs. I feel comfortable with our decision and I think that Marcel will make an amazingly great and innovative chef one day. I think he'll reflect on how he could have changed some of his behavior as perhaps the other chefs will reflect on how they treated him. I can't wait to see what these guys are up to in a few years.

Now let's get to the food. Course one from Ilan was toast topped with canned Spanish Anguila eel and green tomato seeds he called caviar. Why would you start with something that came from a can when swimming all around you is the most luscious, abundant, and scrumptious seafood?

At Judges' Table, Ilan says he didn't come with set ideas, but I disagree. Gail points out that it's not a bad idea to come with a game plan, and okay, sure, that's true, too, but he'd just been walking at breakfast with Marcel and sampled with his very own hands and palate the gorgeous treasures that were all around him. (I do hope Marcel washed that hand before he went into the kitchen, by the way!) The toast/bruscetta was nice, similar to what I do with canned tuna when I'm in a rush. But to start out with that as a "secret surprise" was, well ...surprising all right. Don't get me wrong, it tasted nice, especially with the chili slice on top, but it did not by any means wow me. It's not the ingredients, it's what you do with them. Now, Marcel gave us a myriad of complicated flavors all on one plate: sea urchin with a Meyer lemon gelee and vanilla cream topped with caviar and calamata olive oil. There was a lot going on in one mouthful and it was very interesting as well as delicious. If it had one fault it may have been trying to do too many things at once. But the silky soft urchin and slightly sweet vanilla cream contrasted stupendously with the tartness of the Meyer lemon, and the caviar gave it just the right briny kiss of the ocean. Round one, in my opinion, went to Marcel.

Course two from Marcel was a very pretty and well arranged salad, with paper thin petals rosetted into a bundle with a yuzu vinaigrette; lovely but nothing to write home about. Had he managed to save his stunning piece of kitchen artistry from the humidity, that isomalt teardrop would have been a showstopper. I admire his ambition and bravery; he didn't play it safe, that's for sure. It's those kinds of culinary leaps that make him so compelling to watch.

Humidity is the death of isomalt -- a sugar substitute used mostly for cake art and other sculptural confectionary-spun creations. And all kitchens, not only ones in a tropical climate like Hawaii, are hot and humid. It can get hard like glass, and is glisteningly fragile and lovely to behold. But the humidity will cause it to become porous and collapse. He might have brought a portable, airtight, dry chamber where he could have stored it until the last minute, but I don't know if that would have even saved him, as he was unable to create them the way he wanted to, anyhow.

Tom made the point that vinaigrette is supposed to permeate and be tossed into a salad (this didn't make the edit), not be in a one big drop, but how amazing would it have been to shatter the spun glassy veneer over the salad yourself when that plate hit the table? Where Marcel failed was when Sam advised him to stop working on a futile project when time is of the utmost essence and he didn't listen. Ilan, on the other hand, did a pan-seared fillet of moi (fish) with macadamia nut gazpacho. This, I felt, was an ingenious idea: taking a Spanish classic, and using local ingredients to make something new out of something old. Most people don't realize that the base of gazpacho is actually bread (not just blended tomato and other vegetables), while white gazpacho is made of sherry and a puree of almonds and garlic. To use the rich, buttery, crumbly macadamia nut actually elevated the gazpacho from it's own roots. Round two goes to Ilan.

Course three: Ilan made us a very hearty middle course of squab with shrimp in a lobster sauce with seared foie gras. It was excellent, well prepared and succulent. I'm sure he had a lot of practice making this type of dish as there's a very similar version made of quail and langoustines on the Casa Mono menu. Hmmm. In fact, the thing I loved most all season, made by anyone, was the dish Ilan made in Santa Barbara with the fideos with chorizo and clams. It is also on the Casa Mono menu. No matter. Haven't all of us been inspired by things we've tasted or tried by another hand? He's so talented and soulful; I just would have loved it if he had free-styled it a bit more.

Marcel, on the other hand, had to free-style, because he did the unthinkable: he misplaced a vital component to his dish. Lucky for him, the dish was delicious anyway. The kafir lime and coconut sauce, drizzled over the hearts of palm and sea beans was so light and rich and yummy that I wanted to lick the bowl. (I couldn't, of course -- look who I was dining with.) He should have just gone with the dish and not said a word. Round three was a real toss up for me. Both chefs made tasty, beautiful food that was lovely to look at and delectable to eat. Bravo to them both.

Course four involved beef short ribs with romesco from Ilan, and Marcel gave us North Shore grilled strip loin with a fried taro ball, a spring garlic puree, and king oyster mushrooms. Both were noteworthy, but in the end, Ilan's dish, quite plainly, is the one I would order again. Course five, dessert. Both desserts were really good. I think Ilan's choice of using local fruits and making the Surinam cherry sorbet was wonderful. It was sweet and tart, packed with flavor, and had this brilliant vermillion color. It was also nicely refreshing after the short ribs. I felt he didn't need the tangelo soup, as it made the cherry sorbet run a bit, but the tastes were still glorious.

Marcel did a witty take on blinis and caviar. The little jewels of coffee caviar were marvelous, I wish I had a larger helping of them. Unlike chef Roy, I didn't mind the color palate of the dish, because I could see what I was going to taste, and I couldn't wait. The soft pillowy chocolate mouse melted in my mouth just as the slightly bitter notes of coffee burst in my mouth's humidity. Marcel finally found an outlet for all his mad scientist ways. So dessert was a draw as well. Ilan seems to be more practiced although less adventurous, while Marcel is very adventurous but not as seasoned. And in the end, it was a much harder decision than it seemed.