When I first heard we were taking a multi-month break from the Top Chef shoot after filming the ninth episode, and resuming in Las Vegas for the finale, I was a little distraught. Tom, Katie and I were having a good time together, the crew was terrific and the remaining contestants were starting to cook really delicious food. I doubted the decision of our producers to stop the momentum we had built over the last several weeks and lose all of that great energy.
I often wondered what our three finalists had done to prepare for the challenges that lay ahead since I saw them last. Had they spent the last few months slaving over a hot stove, searing meat, blanching vegetables, and shocking pasta? Had they been timing themselves to see how quickly they could whip up a variety of dishes using the most exotic ingredients they could find? Had they memorized recipes for every possible occasion? What would I have done if given time to regroup before my last hurrah?
The moment they all walked into the service kitchens at the MGM Grand, I could tell they had done none of this. Instead, it was clear that they had all taken the opportunity to actually relax. Harold was all smiles, boisterous and casual. Tiffani seemed reflective and just slightly softer in her approach. Even Dave had learned some new breathing techniques and assured us that he was focused on staying calm. They also had gotten some much-needed sleep. I think they sensed they would be needing it. I now understood exactly why taking that long break before filming the finale was such a good idea: It gave them all a chance to recuperate and restore their culinary juices.
We were thrilled to have Chef Hubert Keller back at the Judges Table too. Not only was he a favorite of everyone on the set from the first episode we filmed in San Francisco, but for such an unassuming, understated chef he also happens to be a Las Vegas legend, with two excellent restaurants (Fleur de Lys and Burger Bar) and a secret talent for hitting the turntables when you least expect it (yes, he is an amazing DJ!).
The Room Service Challenge was a concept I initially loved. A hotel and casino like the MGM Grand operates not unlike a small city, with tens of thousands of people playing, working, eating and demanding everything and anything under the hot desert sun, all at once. It is also a huge maze of intricate underground pathways and long corridors that connect the cavernous kitchens to the world upstairs, making this challenge not only about meeting a client's desires, but also about transportation and efficiency.
One flaw in the execution of this challenge was that we as Judges did not have an opportunity to taste each contestant's food. On the other hand, it ensured that the people tasting the food had no preconceived notions of who was cooking. Each dish was judged on taste alone and not on its creator's personality or cooking history. It also allowed Tom, Hubert and I to experience what it might be like watching the show as a viewer and having to rely on someone else (i.e. us judges) to make the best, most educated choices without knowing first-hand what the food is really like.
I was assigned the Poker Room. The order our chefs were given was to prepare four types of snacks that could be enjoyed by a few serious players, headed by Phil Hellmuth, co-host of Celebrity Poker Showdown. Considering the time constraint of 30 minutes, I think they did a decent job. Harold went with straightforward, simple ideas like mini pizzas, fried chicken wings (out of a frozen box, no less), grilled cheese sandwiches and beer-battered onion rings. His food looked appealing, was perfect for sharing and easy to eat with one hand while the guys played poker. But besides the wings that he barely could call his own (smothered in a tangy honey-Dijon sauce), none of Harold's food stood out as especially interesting or innovative. Tiffani did the exact opposite. She made very creative dishes using ingredients a few of the players were not even familiar with, such as the Quince and Goat Cheese Napoleon and the Pancetta Wrapped Gracini. Although they thought some of it was tasty, it was far too difficult to share as a snack, let alone eat easily at the poker table. Dave's food was just right! The players totally loved his spring rolls, fried shrimp and salami panini. They even loved his chocolate covered strawberries, which I must admit I questioned when I first saw them on the cart. So Dave won my portion of the challenge. But he clearly lost the other two.
The High Rollers (ie Lee Anne, Miguel and Stephen) saw right through his peel-and-eat shrimp and we had to disqualify him from the challenge, since he only completed two dishes where three were required. Sadly, the two he did complete were cast favorites. Who knows what he could have made as a third if he had paid a little more attention when the order came in? It was bittersweet watching Dave leave. I almost had to hold back my own tears and could not believe he did not cry! I guess that is another thing about giving us time to breathe before the finale. In the end, Dave came back stronger, if not in skill, then in spirit. And maybe that is more important...