I think it fitting that renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis was one of the esteemed guests at our Elimination Challenge dinner for this, our season finale, the meal that would decide who became Top Chef. Gathered were some of the most respected chefs not only in New Orleans but in the country: Ti Martin, owner of Commander’s Palace; the aptly named Susan Spicer, executive chef/owner of Bayona; John Besh, executive chef of Restaurant August, who has been a great spokesman for New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina; celebrity chef and author Rocco DiSpirito, and Hubert Keller, chef/owner of Fleur de Lis in San Francisco, as well as our usual band of judges and this season’s Fabio Viviani. And Branford, who is also a foodie and, like John Besh, an ambassador for and real force in the rebuilding efforts of New Orleans. I will come back later to why I find it fitting that Branford participated in our season finale.
But first, let’s examine this season’s finale. The twist of throwing in a last-minute appetizer, while distracting, should not have been that much of a problem. The finalists had an extra set of hands. And, in fact, while it may have rattled them, it didn’t seem to throw them too much off of their game. Stefan made the right choice to downplay the alligator in his, making it a minor ingredient in a very satisfying soup. It was a smart decision. All three apps were very good.
Although it would be easy to blame Casey for Carla’s loss, I’m afraid the blame lies squarely with Carla, for abdicating the decision-making and control. She may have wanted to be collaborative with Casey and respectful of her input, but at the end of the day, Carla needed to assert her vision, and the two times that she didn’t proved calamitous and put her out of the running for the title. Casey was right to make suggestions, particularly when Carla was as vague as she was (“I want to make meat and potatoes.” Um …yeah … could you be more specific? No? OK, I’ll start riffing, then). Richard and Marcel put out ideas as well, and you even saw Stefan reject one of Marcel’s outright; it just didn’t comport with what he wanted to accomplish. Come to think of it, Carla’s other spectacular loss, earlier in the season, was for similar reasons, when she let Eugene and Daniel run roughshod over their team meal, with disastrous results. Both times, Carla displayed a lack of confidence. If I can give her one piece of professional advice, it would be to stick to her guns.
Stefan went in very confident and, for the most part, he did nice food, but while his squab course was terrific, his other two fell short. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether the squab was the best course of the night (which is arguable, anyway). The challenge was to create the best overall three-course meal.
I didn’t love Stefan’s first course. The idea of taking fresh fish and freezing it to create an effect was a bad decision from the get-go. OK — Chef Stefan sees salmon, he sees halibut, he decides to put them together with microgreens and a vinaigrette. Fine. But when you freeze fresh fish and defrost it, you create cell damage. Water will seep out of the fish. As a result, the fish will be less hydrated (and, thus, lesser than it would have been), while everything else on the plate will be watered down with fishy water. How unappealing. Stefan did it for effect, and the food itself suffered for it.