If you’re left scratching your head after the finale, you’ve come to the right blog. I was actually there in Napa in October, at the table eating the food, discussing it there and at the Judges’ Table, and yet based on how the episode was cut, it had me wondering up until the end whether my memory had failed me or not. It hadn’t. I think that what we have here is a classic case of building drama, of not tipping one’s hand, of leading the viewer (or misleading the viewer!) to keep the suspense till the final moment. Allow me to share a bit of what didn’t make the final cut:
I want to start by reiterating something I wrote last week, something that Kevin actually echoed in this week’s episode. This year’s finale put to the test four outstanding young chefs. None is a finer chef than the others. On any given day, any one of the four could have beaten the others; it was just a question of to whom the day would go that particular day.
You’ll notice that in keeping with their high degree of professionalism, the chefs all helped each other where necessary. For example, Michael pointed out to Kevin when something was starting to boil over. He just couldn’t help himself: When you’re in the kitchen, whether you’re a chef or a cook, and you see something – anything – going amiss, it’s your responsibility to point it out. So these chefs couldn’t stop for the sake of the competition. They helped one another all the way through. And while they did so habitually, I believe they also did so because while they each badly wanted to win, they wanted their competitors to do their best as well. They wanted to beat their competitors on the strength of their own dishes rather than through errors in the dishes of the other two.
In our first season, when there were only two finalists in the final episode, the judges sat down for each contestant’s meals separately. With three chefs, this would take far too long. Nonetheless, I do wish the contestants’ dishes had been staggered this season, even by five minutes, rather than presented all at once for each course. Also, I don’t believe four courses are enough for a final challenge; I think they need to be asked to make a fifth.
That said, though, we had four courses to compare and contrast, so let’s.
Kevin’s first course dish was remarkably flavorful and told a great story. To all of us it seemed more like an amuse or a canapé than a full first course, but the puree was really great, the chicken skin was crispy, all the elements were truly wonderful. (I could get more technical than “great” and “wonderful” but those are the terms the dish inspired.) So while yes, he could have worked chicken into the dish as well and made it more robust, in my opinion, it was hands-down the best in terms of flavor of the three dishes presented.
Bryan’s sardine dish was very bland. Apart from the sardine itself, nothing seemed to have a lot of flavor. And Michael’s first course was not his strongest. He tried to stay true to the idea of making a likeable dish of something he hadn’t liked as a child, but the prawns were overwhelmed by the broccoli, and the dish needed acid. I disagree with those at the table who felt the prawns were undercooked – I actually thought they were cooked perfectly, and the broccoli was properly crispy. Everything was well seasoned and well-executed, but conceptually, the dish didn’t quite work. So, for me, Course One went to Kevin.
As for the second course, Kevin’s matsutake mushrooms were a bust. They were far too tough to eat. You must slice a matsutake thin. In fact, it’s often served raw. But other than that, the broth was beautifully done and the rest of the dish was very good. Bryan’s dish looked beautiful and used everything inventively, but there was not a lot of balance. Everything was one-note and very soft, texturally (when you sous-vide fish, it tends to be soft). Nothing really sang out. It was a solid dish, but it wasn’t exceptional.