The Big Showdown
Gail Simmons on Ilan Hall's big finish.
So that was it. The big showdown. The last hurrah. I'm relieved. Not because the season has come to an end, but because it culminated with an appreciation for the purpose of the game and focus on the ultimate prize. No backstabbing, no drama, no childish tactics. It was finally about serious cooking for the love of great food. What we all enjoyed most was the absolute dichotomy in cooking styles of our two finalists. It was very exciting to witness two young chefs at more or less the same stage in their careers take such different inspiration from the same choice of products and the same mission: to cook the best five course meal they possibly could.
One of the highlights of being on the Big Island of Hawaii was discovering its incredible produce. The farmer's market where Ilan and Marcel chose their ingredients was made up of some of the state's spectacular meat, fish, fruit and vegetable purveyors. While the two teams shopped for our dinners, Padma and I perused the stalls, tasting fresh hearts of palm, pristine wild mushrooms, spicy macadamia nuts, rich chocolate, fuchsia carrots and at least a half dozen tropical fruits we had never seen before in our lives. Many of these specialties made it onto our plates in unexpected ways. As one of the farmers told me that day, Hawaii's complex microclimates allow for year-round harvesting of foods that we on the Mainland associate only with summer. For example, Ilan's first course of Pan con Tomate with Angulas -- baby eels -- and Osetra Caviar may have been clever and pretty, but I was more excited to taste the ripe, sweetness of fresh tomato in the dish.
Although Angulas are a delicacy, which when served fresh can be a dramatic addition to a meal, the canned version was out of place on an island known for its exceptional seafood. I worried he was off to a rocky start. But his Pan Roasted Moi -- native Hawaiian fish -- with Macadamia Gazpacho more than made up for what the first course lacked. This was the same type of clever combination that had won him a place in the finale -- a thoughtful presentation of a typically Spanish dish, using unmistakably Hawaiian ingredients, elevating it to something even more delicious. It was our clear favorite of the whole meal.
The Grilled Squab and Shrimp with Foie Gras was equally rich and flavorful. The Beef Short Rib with Mushrooms and Romanesco was striking both visually and on the palate. It may have been tougher than I was used to, but the sharp color and texture contrasts served to spotlight Hawaii's revered grass-fed beef. Ilan's Tangelo and Vanilla Bean soup with Exotic Fruit and Fried Bay Leaf sealed the deal. It was sweet and tart enough to satisfy our dessert craving, but not too fussy that he had to worry about his lack of pastry skill.
Marcel made a few obvious mistakes along the way. We did not know the extent to which he forgot certain key ingredients, (or the lack of direction he seemed to have once they began their final preparation). His first course of Uni -- sea urchin -- in Vanilla and Meyer Lemon Gelee was a daring choice and we ate up the story of walking on the beach that accompanied it. It was an intricate starter with layers of flavor and texture, unlike anything I had eaten before.
His salad was clearly a disappointment. It was attractive and fresh but the simplicity of the dish gave his secret shortcoming away. If his original idea for the vinaigrette had worked, it could have been an entirely different conversation. The risk he took in serving something he hadn't yet mastered did not pay off in the end. Next came his Hearts of Palm with Maitake Mushrooms, Kaffir Lime Sauce and Sea Beans. As the saying goes, silence is a virtue. Had he not told us he was missing the kampachi, we never would have known. Sure, we were stunned that he chose to serve two vegetarian courses in a row, but we were also thrilled at how innovative this course was, regardless of who cooked it! The blend of flavors was outstanding and also unlike anything we had eaten to this point.
The Seared Strip Loin with Spring Garlic Puree and Taro Ball looked like a piece of art. The beef was well seasoned and cooked, but the taro was far too dry and difficult to eat without it falling apart. Marcel's dessert was almost as clever as Ilan's had been.
Where Ilan had kept to the simplest use of ingredients, allowing Hawaii's vibrant fruits to speak for themselves, Marcel took one last opportunity to demonstrate his scientific tendencies. His Caviar and Blini with Kona Coffee and Hawaiian Chocolate Mousse showed skill and (at last!) a sweet sense of humor. If only he had more time to make more coffee caviar. This is the kind of dish I have a feeling we will all see perfected in years to come, the type of instant classic conceived by a young chef determined to make his mark on the world.
I think it is clear why, of the two, we chose Ilan as our Top Chef. They both have the passion and drive to be successful in whatever they now decide to do. But at that meal, Ilan's food reflected not just a capable hand, but also the ability to direct a team in creating the exact meal he envisioned from the start. It was consistent, considerate and, above all else, really fun to eat.
After all, isn't that what it's all about? Thanks again to everyone who participated in our blogs, voiced their opinions and came along on such a wild ride. See you next season!