I’m very excited that our season finale is set in Napa Valley during “the Crush,” the time of year when the grapes are harvested and, literally, crushed to make wine. The aroma of crushed grapes actually hangs in the air, the community pulls together around this collective endeavor, and there are celebrations at wineries throughout the valley. Michael Chiarello was one of the first chefs to settle in Napa Valley and make a name for himself, originally with Tre Vigne … and now, thanks to his efforts and those of Thomas Keller and others, the region has become a leading destination for lovers of food and wine. In fact, I think it’s actually rated second nationally, right behind Disney/Orlando. And yet, as upscale as it’s become, it is still a farming community at heart and in practice; it still has those farming roots, which I think is what keeps it on an even keel. I’ve been going on and off for the past 30 years (I can’t believe I just wrote that); I love that it is one of the little pockets of our country wherein people are growing food to complement the wine.
I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that I thought the challenge – cooking two dishes, one vegetarian, one with a local protein, and both with all-local ingredients, was great. Our four finalists did, too – I’m sure you noted their exuberance while exploring the ingredients available to them to select from. Everything was grown and/or raised within 100 miles of where we were, and everything was exceptionally fresh. It was almost a hindrance, as the myriad gorgeous options derailed the chefs’ original thoughts but then it was hard to focus in that short time period on replacement dishes with so many ideas swirling about in their heads. This certainly happened to Jennifer.
This was the strongest group of chefs ever to going into a Top Chef finale. All four are highly accomplished. And it’s the first time that the four strongest chefs in a season actually made it to the finale – no one snuck in through a side door to get there – as evidenced by the fact that between the four of them, they always won the Elimination Challenges. No one made any excuses for their dishes at this Elimination Challenge, and everyone performed very well. At this stage, with these chefs, no one was going home for a bad dish; we knew that it was going to be about small details.