I said that last week’s challenge, to cook in the kitchen of chef Eric Ripert’s four-star Le Bernardin and recreate his subtly perfect seafood, would scare the chef-pants off of any chef. I can only imagine what it must have been like to face this week’s table, at which luminaries of the cooking and restaurant world had gathered to eat food that held emotional content for them: the food each would have chosen as his or her last meal. No, no pressure there. The cheftestants were, indeed, nervous, their jitters outweighed, I was glad to see, by their excitement to be cooking for these culinary giants.
I will say, though, that awe-inspiring as they are, the individuals in this particular group of greats are also among the nicest folks in the field. Lidia Bastianich is the closest thing we have among us to a Mother Chef. She has a really motherly quality, always warm and inviting. Her work on PBS showcases her generosity of spirit — she lets the world into her home and shows how she works, with the intention of truly sharing her craft and helping the viewer. Lidia is a great cook, and both her work and her son Joseph’s have been a huge influence on our restaurant community. Marcus Samuelsson is impressive on many levels. He has modernized Swedish food, transforming that cuisine into something that is right at home here in NYC. Also impressive is the fact that he is a UNICEF ambassador. His formidable accomplishments aside, he is just a great guy; he always has a smile on his face. He’s one of the nicest guys in the business.
Wylie Dufresne is another. Nice, articulate, smart, and talented. He spent years with Jean Georges as a sous-chef, first at Jean Georges and then at Prime, and opened 71 Clinton Fresh Food, before becoming influenced by Ferran Adrià and doing more avant-garde food. When looking at the earlier work of a “modern artist,” people commonly say, “hey, s/he can actually paint!” Similarly, here, Dufresne was already a very good, very accomplished traditional cook. My advice to anyone interested in going in the direction of molecular gastronomy or the like is to make sure you have a strong foundation in the basics first. You can see where Wylie’s heart lies, when his choice for a final meal is something as simple as eggs Benedict.
While not a chef herself, Susan Ungaro has brought great decision-making and her own dose of creativity to the James Beard Foundation, implementing great programming and stabilizing that fine organization. She was a pleasure to dine with. And, of course, there was Jacques Pepin. In my career, I never really worked under anyone long enough to consider them a mentor. The closest I have to a mentor is Jacques and his great book, LA TECHNIQUE. Yes, I know I chastised Ariane early in the season when she claimed not to need to explore the cuisines of the many great culturals living in her own backyard because she had cookbooks. But first of all, nothing replaces tasting foods firsthand (and a chef should be driven to do so — I was shocked at Ariane’s lack of curiosity). And second, and more importantly, LA TECHNIQUE is not a cookbook; as it promises in the title, it’s a book about technique. The book taught me that cooking is not about recipes (as so many people mistakenly believe) but, rather, about technique. This was a watershed realization for me. And it’s why I treated my working my way through that book as an apprenticeship. Jacques is a genuine, wonderful guy, and an amazing cook. Every year, on the final Sunday of the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, chefs participate in “Ready, Set, Cook”, a mystery-basket cook-off. Jacques hasn’t lost once. Aside from being truly funny and charming, he is a remarkably good cook.
As you can imagine, it was a delight for me to spend time with and dine with these colleagues. This is a group of people I respect highly. Whenever you go to a dinner party, you hope that the guests will be interesting people, and here Top Chef had brought together various generations of chefs and food personalities, all of whom are bright and interesting.
It was equally great to be judging the food with a table of people who all spoke the same vernacular. There was an accord at the table. Even taking into account generational differences, we all agree on seasoning, flavor, technique. Despite having selected menu items that had emotional content for them, no one was judging from an emotional place. These judges were assessing whether the chefs had accomplished what they themselves set out to do, using a consistent set of criteria. For example, Carla instantly admitted that she was aiming for medium rare squab but got it medium. OK. It was still excellent, as were the peas A small aside about Carla: While early on, I didn’t think she’d make it half-way through this competition, she grew stronger and stronger as the season progressed and has made some very, very good dishes.
Fabio’s dish in this challenge was stronger. Viewers may be cynical and state that we gave him the win because he broke his finger. No. It just happened that Fabio’s dish was the best of the evening … and he happened to have a broken finger. I’m impressed that he managed to make the best dish of the evening under the circumstances. It showed his desire to win this competition. But had his been the second best dish, he wouldn’t have won, no matter how many fingers he broke. Both Carla and Fabio kept it relatively simple, which is why they were successful. Carla could have done many things with the directive to make peas. She could have made a tortelloni, a sauce … it was nice to see her prepare her elements very simply and let them shine. By far, this is the best that not only she but all of the chefs cooked this season. I think this is because they had been given a direction: “Cook X, Y, and Z” and they didn’t have to think and overthink. Often, when there are parameters around a task and when you have to do less, you can actually focus on doing more, on doing a great job. This is not to say that I’m not a fan of complex food but when, as with this competition, you have to plate the food yourself, and you choose to get complex, there’s often just too much to do to get it all right. Here, the chefs had less components to be responsible for, and they were able to focus more on each and get it right.
…for the most part, that is. As for the bottom two dishes, Leah undercooked the egg and botched the hollandaise, essentially messing up both of the principal components of her dish. With Stefan’s dish, on the other hand, only the salmon was overcooked; everything else was really good. So the choice for elimination was clear.
We have our Final Four. On to New Orleans! I’m looking forward to a great finale, and may the best chef win!