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. Ditto, the ice cream in his dessert course. Stefan’s interest in creating something visually appealing was at odds with his coaxing the best flavors and textures from the ingredients. While one certainly does not wish to serve unattractively presented food, a chef should never select presentation over taste, as Stefan did twice. If one needs to be chosen over the other, pick taste. But I’ll go a step further and say that a top chef needs to find a way to solve that dichotomy and achieve both. And aside from my comment, above, about the ice cream, don’t even ask me about Stefan’s dessert course. I don’t even want to discuss that train wreck.
Hosea, on the other hand, did not go into this challenge with confidence. He sweated it out and gave it his all. While diners commented that his first course was a bit bland, it just lacked salt. It was a fresh plate, not overly messed with, and I appreciated it. Carla’s deconstructed bouillabaisse worked well, but I actually liked Hosea’s dish the best of the three first courses. We know Carla’s tough meat wrecked her second course. Hosea’s second course was terrific. Yes, we’ve seen scallops and foie gras before, but we’ve seen Stefan’s squab course before, too. Both dishes were strong, and it was a close call between the two.
Of course, Hosea’s venison blew both Carla’s nonstarter dessert and Stefan’s dessert course away. Hosea’s was not the most inventive, but it was a solidly executed, very good dish. And while some of the diners wished for a dessert course, we expressly stated that the chefs did not need to do one, so there was no penalizing Hosea for his choice to showcase another savory course.
End score: All three made good appetizers; Carla made one strong course and self-destructed with her other two; Stefan made one strong course and two problematic courses; Hosea made two extremely strong courses and one that would have been great with more salt. Of the three cheftestant finalists, the winner was clear.
Some people have expressed indignation at the result, insisting that Stefan was clearly the stronger chef. Perhaps, perhaps not. Irrelevant. This is a competition, and Stefan blew it. Were it about who is the stronger chef, they needn’t have cooked anything for the finale — we could have sat around and discussed the merits of their work and just handed one of them the win. In last year’s Super Bowl, the New England Patriots, with their 17-0 record, were clearly a better team than the Giants, but do you stop the game in the third quarter and just hand the trophy to the Patriots or do the Giants need to win by 20 points to win the Super Bowl? No. The team that plays best in the Super Bowl wins. Plain and simple. And often the sportscasters comment on how one team did not play up to their potential and actively lost the Super Bowl. Here, people can be as upset as they like, but Stefan blew it. He didn’t earn the win. Even his guy Fabio clearly commented that Stefan did not cook up to his potential. No one will argue with the fact that Carla actively lost this challenge. Well, so did Stefan, regardless of how he played the rest of the season. How you played the rest of the season might get you to the Super Bowl, but if you lose the Super Bowl, you don’t bring home the trophy. If you are one of those who are up in arms at Stefan’s loss because you believe he is the finer chef, by all means, please go patronize Stefan and enjoy. One of the things I truly appreciate about Top Chef is that it provides great exposure for all the cheftestants and connects food lovers with chefs they have come to appreciate.So — back to Branford. Branford is not only a jazz musician, he is also accomplished at performing classical music, pop, R&B, hip hop … you name it. This type of versatility is rare, even among world-class musicians. I’m making this point for a reason. Most musicians, even the most brilliant, are not as multi-faceted as Branford; they have been trained as befits their genre and have honed those particular skill sets their music requires. As with musicians, some chefs are stronger at “improv”-ing on the spot, while others are stronger at planning out a menu, testing it and tweaking it. As with classically-trained musicians, the chef that needs prep time to create fine dishes is not a weaker chef than the one who, like a jazz musician, is more comfortable creating on the fly. I love to do both, personally, but I also know that however successful it might have been, a dish that I created quickly can almost always be improved with more thought.
Our season finale, in which they have very limited time in which to create a three-course meal, asks of our chefs that they be jazz musicians. If you recall, in our first and second seasons, we narrowed the field down to two finalists, who prepared five-course meals. I, personally, think that the suspense is more heightened and interesting when viewers choose between only two contestants. Season Two’s finale ratings were the highest of any season’s finale — clearly, we were doing something right. Whether we return to the two-finalist model as I, for one, would prefer, or keep it at three, I would love to try to find a feasible way for us to challenge future finalists to create a five-course meal. I’d require that one be a dessert (I have always believed that one of them should be a dessert. These aren’t my rules; I just play by them!) And I’d permit them to plan and prepare two of the courses in advance. It would be great for viewers to see them in their home/restaurant environments developing those two courses. I think this would provide a great balance between the “classical” and “jazz” chefs among the finalists and would even the playing field.
Congratulations, Hosea, on your Season Five win. Congrats, too, to Carla and Stefan for making it to the finale and for all of their hard work and fine dishes. And thanks to you, for watching with such enthusiasm and for your heartfelt and thoughtful comments.