Tom Colicchio breaks down the finale competition course by course.
First of all, I want to thank everyone for their well wishes throughout the past week. Mateo is home, he and his beautiful mom are doing great, and we're all adjusting happily and well. Thank you all.
I wish you all could have been there to dine at our two finalists' restaurants for the finale. If anyone had any doubts whatsoever that Michael belonged in the finale, I certainly hope this put those doubts to bed, because his food was really incredibly good. I mean noteworthily outstandingly good. As was Richard’s. The food that was served by both of these contestants in this finale was so good that the guest chefs all remarked that they were shocked at how well these guys were cooking. And the finalists' fellow contestants –- the ones who had not been selected to serve as sous-chefs for the challenge –- were dining with the judges, as you saw in the episode, and while one might have expected them to be a bit snarky and judgmental, they were not. They were simply impressed and excited, because they were just blown away by what they were served that night.
As a result of how successful both contestants' efforts were, I was at first on the fence about it… until I'd had a chance to parse it for myself and really figure it out. I've said before that it's like in the Olympics, when a skier wins a race by a tiny fraction of a second… except that here there was no timer to instantly assess who had won the race by that hair. I was on the fence at first, Gail felt that Michael should win, and the other two thought that the day went to Richard. Here's ultimately how I think it broke down:
I'm not even counting Richard's amuse in the equation, by the way, because it was not part of the challenge. The challenge, as far as the food was concerned, was to create four courses. If anything, Richard's amuse could have harmed him, because it could have taken his time and focus away from the four dishes we were going to judge him on. Luckily it didn't, but he was not going to score extra food points for having made it. It lent to the overall restaurant experience, and it set the tone for the evening by establishing Richard's "tongue-in-cheek" theme, but that was all it did for him. And before anyone jumps all over Richard for copying Thomas Keller's Oyster and Pearl dish… no, he didn't. Richard's dish was an altogether different dish, and was in no way a knock-off of Keller's.As for the dishes:
The first course most definitely went to Richard. His hamachi dish was a terrific first course. It was a clever, effective, and elegant riff on vitello tonnato, reworked as a Hamachi and a nugget of sweetbreads. It didn't look like it had a lot going on…and then as you ate it, the complexities of flavor emerged. To me, it is always exciting when this happens; it is always the sign of a successful dish. Michael's first course salad was just OK. The best part of it was the chocolate vinaigrette, which was not too sweet. It had OK flavors and a simple presentation. It was fine, but not outstanding. If that were on the menu along with 10 other appetizers, that would be fine, but it wasn't the strongest choice for the first course of a tasting menu.
Both contestants' fish courses were fantastic. I commented about Michael's that it was the best fish I'd had on the show to date… though that was before I tasted Richard's. Now, Michael's was truly wonderful. The fish was poached perfectly, which is no mean feat. The crumbs added a nice texture, and the sauce was very good. That said, what Richard accomplished was quite simply amazing. His style was altogether different –- it was more of a roasted dish, and it’s impressive how he managed to get the crumbs on the fish, fry it, and then slice it. Gail said that she thought it was mushy, but I didn't find it mushy at all; I found it spot on. I think that what she may have perceived was just the nature of that fish. I thought it was earthy, the classic fish you'd pair with a light red wine and treat more like a piece of meat than of fish.
As between the two braised dishes, Michael's was the better dish, though there was lots and lots of flavor in both. Both dishes were nicely glazed. Michael made much of that fact. Usually, I think, the braised meats made in challenges tend not to be glazed well because the contestants don’t have the time to devote to doing so properly, so I was glad to see that both chefs had managed it here.
As for the desserts, they were both fine, but neither was great. Richard's bread was tasty –- he didn't need to rely on the gimmick of the foie gras ice cream. The challenge with that choice was that the foie gras was so fatty that when you put it through the cold ice cream maker, you got big blobs of fat. A Pacojet machine would have prevented that, but Richard didn't have one. With a Pacojet, the blade spins so fast that as the mixture is shot through, it's emulsified, creating a great texture. There's a lot less overrun that way. The overrun in the ice cream in a good restaurant is about 30-50 percent. In most commercial brands, it’s about 200 percent. And Michael's dessert was cooked too quickly at too high a heat, as evidenced by the bubbles around the edges. Whenever making a custard it must be cooked slowly in a water bath. Regardless, both desserts were fine, but not sensational. The other courses were what rocked us all.So as I see it, Richard took the first course, the second was a toss-up leaning toward Richard for his execution of a difficult dish, Michael took the third course, and the final course was a toss-up. So how do I determine that Richard won? First, by looking at the overall experience. Esoteric, yes, but that was part of the challenge. The overall experience was a bit better at Richard's restaurant. And second, by looking at the losses. Where each of the chefs lost a course, was it by a lot or a little? Richard's first course beat out Michael's by a mile. Michael's braised course beat out Richard’s by a much smaller margin. Overall, Richard’s four-course tasting menu, therefore, was the stronger of two exceptional tasting menus, giving him the gold and Michael the silver.
Overall, I think this was a great season Fine chefs with great careers ahead of them gathered and cooked with passion, creativity and skill. It was an honor to have worked on this season with them. And at the end of the day, while we may have thought that this chef or that might have made it farther, I have to say once more that the food cooked by the two chefs in this finale spoke for itself and showed that at the end of the day, we got this right. As I said right at the top of this blog, I wish you could have tasted it with us. It was great, and it kept us judges working hard, which was a pleasure. My thanks to our contestants and my thanks to you for watching and cheering them on. Cook often, eat well.