A Grain of Salt
Tom explains how the smallest of details can either win you or lose you the title of Top Chef.
I’m very excited that our season finale is set in Napa Valley during “the Crush,” the time of year when the grapes are harvested and, literally, crushed to make wine. The aroma of crushed grapes actually hangs in the air, the community pulls together around this collective endeavor, and there are celebrations at wineries throughout the valley. Michael Chiarello was one of the first chefs to settle in Napa Valley and make a name for himself, originally with Tre Vigne … and now, thanks to his efforts and those of Thomas Keller and others, the region has become a leading destination for lovers of food and wine. In fact, I think it’s actually rated second nationally, right behind Disney/Orlando. And yet, as upscale as it’s become, it is still a farming community at heart and in practice; it still has those farming roots, which I think is what keeps it on an even keel. I’ve been going on and off for the past 30 years (I can’t believe I just wrote that); I love that it is one of the little pockets of our country wherein people are growing food to complement the wine.
I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that I thought the challenge – cooking two dishes, one vegetarian, one with a local protein, and both with all-local ingredients, was great. Our four finalists did, too – I’m sure you noted their exuberance while exploring the ingredients available to them to select from. Everything was grown and/or raised within 100 miles of where we were, and everything was exceptionally fresh. It was almost a hindrance, as the myriad gorgeous options derailed the chefs’ original thoughts but then it was hard to focus in that short time period on replacement dishes with so many ideas swirling about in their heads. This certainly happened to Jennifer.
This was the strongest group of chefs ever to going into a Top Chef finale. All four are highly accomplished. And it’s the first time that the four strongest chefs in a season actually made it to the finale – no one snuck in through a side door to get there – as evidenced by the fact that between the four of them, they always won the Elimination Challenges. No one made any excuses for their dishes at this Elimination Challenge, and everyone performed very well. At this stage, with these chefs, no one was going home for a bad dish; we knew that it was going to be about small details.
It may not make sense to you but it was clear to us immediately that it would be Jen who would be going home. What it came down to was that both of her dishes were way too salty. Jen’s overseasoning of both her dishes stood out to the judges like a sore thumb. We had our conversation at Judges' Table about whom to send home, but it was pro forma; we already knew and were in complete accord.
There was more of a discussion about who was going to win, where each of the remaining three made excellent choices and also made minor mistakes. With Michael’s egg dish, he did not take care that the whites of the eggs were perfect, and the balance was off as regards the size of the egg (too big for the veggies). And the proportions were similarly off in his strange-yet-good foie terrine in turnip soup with pear. Gail felt there was not enough foie to soup. I liked it a lot, though. He took a risk and created a dish where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
Kevin’s braised meat was not braised enough and was stringy, but it was still really, really tasty, and the polenta he served with it was really good. As for that little radish and carrot dish of his, it was pretty amazing for such a simple dish. We unanimously marveled.
Bryan’s dishes were both strong. One was slightly underseasoned but still well-conceived, well-executed, and good. He had the most minor of mistakes made that day and presented two strong dishes, garnering him the win.
Jen is a great competitor, who is her own worst critic and as a result, at times, her own worst enemy. She made a good call to switch gears when the coals weren’t hot enough. It was hard to see her go, as it would have been to see any of the four. As with any one of the four finalists, Jen could have won the title of “Top Chef” – it really came down to how things went on a given day. As with an Olympian who can lose the gold by one-one-hundredth of a second, when you get to this point you can have a great day or a bad day, and it can come down to a few extra pinches of salt.