Before I get into the final challenge of Top Chef, I wanted to say a word about last week's episode. Many viewers seem upset at the outcome and are questioning our decision. Please understand that so much of what you see has been edited a great deal to fit into a one-hour time slot. As much as we all like Dave and know he can cook, he lost two of the three Room Service Challenges fair and square. After hours of discussion about their work that day (only a few minutes of which viewers get to see), we came to the unanimous conclusion that he was just not at the same level as the other two finalists. We were not counting who won the most, but who lost the most, as this was an elimination. We set specific standards for each challenge, and he simply did not measure up this time. It was not an easy decision, but we stand by it.
On to the Grand Finale:
Now, I have been known to eat my fair share, but consuming two five-course tasting meals, complete with wine pairings, in one morning (we had to film dinner in the AM to allow enough time for Judges Table that evening) was definitely a record. Our fellow diners made up the perfect round table of industry experts, starting with my Editor in Chief Dana Cowin, our fearless leader in all things food, style and trends for over a decade. Restaurateur Drew Nieporent, creator and owner of Myriad Restaurant Group, which operates many of the best restaurants across the country including Rubicon in San Francisco as well as Montrachet, Tribeca Grill and Nobu in New York. Michael Mina, chef of Restaurant Michael Mina in San Francisco and Las Vegas, as well as Nobhill and Seablue among others, completed our celebrated chef contingent with Tom and Hubert. Finally, Lorraine Bracco lent her newly imported wines and passionate knowledge of viticulture to the finale -- what a thrill to hear her food and life stories. Suffice to say we had plenty to talk about between courses.
Judging the meals dish for dish, it was very difficult to determine a winner. As Tom explained, Harold was more consistent overall, but Tiffani took greater risks, resulting in more innovative flavors. She took twice the amount of chances by cooking twice the amount of courses required, and we all applauded her ambition. But this decision also made her more vulnerable to criticism. I have always believed that the culinary world needs food conquistadors, people willing to see past the horizon to the next great flavor combination, technique or texture. It is those scientists and artists who move our industry forward by testing the boundaries and pushing the limits on how we think about food. But for every experiment that succeeds, there are usually many more that do not. A number of times in her meal one of the two dishes was much stronger than the other. Her Steamed Branzino with Ratatouille, for example, was delicate and flavorful, while its counterpart, the Crispy Branzino with Olive Pappardelle, was bland and overcooked. A Top Chef needs to know when to take those chances and when to showcase what she knows she is capable of executing perfectly. This was one of those moments.
Meanwhile, at Nobhill, Harold never strayed from his tried-and-true approach. Throughout the show we criticized Harold for his weakness in the front of the house. We discussed several times how connecting with customers is one aspect of being a chef that cannot be ignored. I found it fascinating that in this particular challenge Harold made his aversion to speaking at the table actually work to his advantage. Inadvertently, that he chose to hand-write menus, to avoid coming out of the kitchen between courses, drew attention to why menus were invented in the first place. We all had descriptions of each dish in front of us to refer to throughout the meal and did not have to waste any time listening to a long explanation of each course while the food got cold on our plates.
Overall, I found these two "last suppers" very telling of how both finalists preformed throughout the entire competition. Tiffani never sat on her laurels, always reached for the unexpected and excelled because of it, beginning with her signature Pumpkin Lasagna. Harold stuck to his straightforward treatment of food, letting the ingredients shine through classic combinations and refined skill. Sure, he played it safe at times but he also proved he knows when to use restraint, a lesson just as important as risk-taking in the kitchen, think Steamed Thai Snapper with Squash Sauce. He showed in this challenge, once and for all, his talent for giving customers what they want to eat, as well as what they want to drink with it. Lorraine agreed that his wine pairings were more appropriate and balanced than Tiffani's for each course. If I had to pick a favorite dish from Harold's menu it would have to be a tie between his Beef Duo and the foie gras and spaetzle from his squab. Both embodied his character and reminded me how talented he really is.
Naturally, leadership and inter-personal skills come into play as well. After all, a Top Chef should be a mentor, a teacher and an inspiration to others. As much as we knew Tiffani's track record for controversy among her follow chefs, we thought perhaps things had changed by the time she made it to the finale in Las Vegas. Speaking to both sets of sous chefs, it was striking how wholly everyone admired Harold and how Tiffani still did not command the respect of her peers. While Harold made those around him feel valued, Tiffani's inability to delegate and manage others was her ultimate loss.
So when it came time to choose the Top Chef, we were thrilled to select Harold Dieterle.
I just booked Harold's flight to Aspen for the Food & Wine magazine classic. Little does he know what we have in store for him...another outrageous cooking challenge? Yes. More mystery ingredients? Absolutely. But this time, Tom and I will be on his side every step of the way. Be sure to check out the July issue of Food & Wine for more on Harold and Top Chef...
Before I sign off, I want to add how thrilled I was to be part of this show. It was an incredible experience from start to finish, and I hope our second season will be as well. Thank you so much to all those who read our blogs each week and battled out your heated feelings and opinions on the message boards. You may not have liked what we had to say, but it kept you talking, writing and watching each week. I hope it whet your appetite too! This enormous respect, fascination and constant admiration for the dedicated and talented people in the food industry is why I love what I do. "If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams." (Life of Pi, Yann Martel 2001) Always Hungry, Gail