A not-so-famous person famously said, in regard to the Best Actor category in the Oscars, “[i]f you want to know who the best actor is, let them all play Hamlet. Otherwise, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Makes sense to me. And so Eric Ripert and I hit the food markets at the crack of dawn to pick proteins for the chefs to play with in this final challenge. We wanted a whole fish to feature in the fish course. The rouget was small and very fresh. We selected the slipper lobster because it’s a crustacean that most Americans have never cooked with. Of course, there’s nothing all that different about how it needs to be cooked, so it was a bit of a red herring (metaphorically!!!). I was hoping someone would pair the cuttlefish with the duck, but no one did. The duck was the most interesting of the proteins –- one could roast or confit the leg and roast the breast. Or one could make a stock, if he chose to remove it from the bone. The pork could have been used with the second or third course (but Angelo’s choice to use it with the first shifted the focus to the pork, featuring it instead of a vegetable, a poor choice). So there were plenty of options with these proteins, and plenty of opportunities to be highly creative in designing the courses, much as three different actors could have delivered three entirely different –- and equally valid and interesting –- interpretations of the Danish prince.
Let’s break it down course by course: As I mentioned above, Angelo’s first course did not actually complete the challenge. I liked that he made the noodles, but no matter how you slice and dice it, pork belly and noodles do not a vegetable course make. Ed’s corn dish was good but not great. Whereas Kevin took a relatively standard dish and gave it a lot of flavor. It was extremely well made, and hands down the best of the three, with Ed’s in second place.
So, the first course standings: First place: Kevin. Second Place: Ed. Third Place: Angelo.
The second course also went to Kevin without a doubt. He prepared the rouget perfectly, used the clams well to flavor the broth, and employed an interesting technique with the tagliatelle of cuttlefish (Michel Richard was the first to use this technique, by the way). Kevin even used the ink of the cuttlefish in his dish. Angelo used the veggies in a nice way in his dish but it didn’t rise to the level of Kevin’s. And both the slippery lobster and the rouget were slightly overcooked in Ed’s dish.
Second course: First place: Kevin. Second place: Angelo. Third place: Ed.
Though Kevin’s duck was slightly better cooked, Ed’s creativity in creating a sausage of sorts from the duck neck gave him a slight edge in this course. The dish showed skill, talent, and ingenuity … and it was simply delicious. Angelo’s shooter was just weird –- it should have been a sauce. The marshmallow was too sweet for the dish, even though the cinnamon worked in the larger context. nd the whole dish came with far too many instructions, which is antithetical to a relaxed dining experience.
Third course: First place: Ed (by a nose…or a neck). Second place: Kevin. Third place: Angelo.
Angelo’s dessert was good, but was bordering on savory. Ed’s dessert might have gotten him by mid-season but was by no means a winner for a finale, where the chefs are supposed to be cooking the meals of their lives. Kevin’s, on the other hand, was sensational. He hollowed out the base of the dragon fruit and placed a perfect panna cotta there, he made a gorgeous sorbet of the dragon fruit, he diced the other exotic fruits small and served the whole thing ice-cold. It was really, really great.
A word about desserts: I simply cannot understand why, season after season, chefs like Ed do not arrive at the finals with a dessert up their sleeves, ready to be pulled out, not requiring much in the way of pastry skills, and second-nature enough not to require much thought. Even something as simple as a great chocolate soufflé, something they know they’ll be able to execute well. I believe that Kevin did exactly that – he arrived with the know-how to dash off a great panna cotta and found a way to integrate it into a dish, allowing himself to be inspired by the fruits he found. It was smart. In fact, it was sensational.
Fourth course: First place (by a landslide): Kevin. Second place: Angelo. Third place: Ed.
Need I tally the results? They’re clear. And it was clear that night, too. In fact, the winners of the prior seasons all said that they knew as the evening progressed that Kevin was the clear winner.
Now someone is sure to gripe that perhaps working with Michael Voltaggio gave Kevin an advantage. No. Kevin got lucky in being paired with Michael because they knew one another and had enjoyed working together in the past, but that’s the extent of it. One could just as easily argue, for example, that Angelo got lucky in being paired with Hung, who worked quickly and efficiently while Angelo was flat out. Folks will also argue that Angelo was disadvantaged by being sick. Surely. But would he have won had he been well? I don’t think it would have made a difference. Kevin’s food was the best we’ve had in any finale. It was exciting.
Truly. All three of these chefs won some challenges and lost some along the way. Perhaps this is because they were the strongest among weaker contestants and were playing to the level of the whole crowd. Maybe it was gamesmanship. I don’t know, but clearly they stepped up their game coming into the finale. I’ve nitpicked here to explain why certain dishes succeeded over others. But they were all great dishes, well prepared by talented chefs. It’s just that Kevin’s dishes edged out those of his competitors that night.
Remember: It’s a game. People think there’s some perfect way to determine “the best chef,” whatever that means. If we just wanted to ascertain who was the best chef, we could simply go to their restaurants. That’s not the goal here. The goal is to determine a winner to a game, and we’re playing according to the rules of the game at hand. In this game, one dish will send you home. It’s a game that includes cooking skill, creativity, gamesmanship…and timing. You might have the weakest dish on the winning team one day and stay, while a stronger dish is the weakest of the losing team, so the chef that made that one goes home. You might have an off day – oh, say, perhaps, that your mussels freeze and they were a key component in the dish you’d planned –- and you go home. That’s the game. All three chefs cooked their hearts out at the finale, but everything came together for Kevin, and he won the game.
After a season in which the cooking perhaps was not as consistently high caliber as that of last season, this was an incredibly exciting finale, and, I’ll say again, Kevin’s food was the best we’ve had in any finale ever. Congratulations to our three finalists and an extra congratulations, Kevin.