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A Soft Spot

Gael Greene is happy she doesn't know much about why the chefs are really competing.

It’s good that we three judges of Top Chef Masters don’t get more than a glance at the competing chefs in the kitchen and can’t eavesdrop on their comments.  I practically wept myself when I saw the tears running down chef Wilot Benet’s face as he spoke of the children’s hospital in Puerto Rico he hoped would benefit from his triumph with offal street food.

Of course I did believe that for some of these established masters and star chefs the most compelling motivation in playing the game with the risk of looking foolish was the $100,000 they could win for their charity.

If I had known Graham Elliot Bowles' nephew was waiting for a heart transplant, could I have voted for anyone else? I could certainly have forgiven Wylie Dufresne his coffee-dusted granola if I’d heard his touching responses about autism.

All I can say is I’m so glad we could be mean or nitpicky or bemused or betwitched based on the food and the challenge alone.

I gave my top vote to Rick Bayless because his tongue tacos were delicious – easy to eat without spilling, zesty with bacon and chorizo – and they were an easy sell with the crowd at Universal Studios. On winning, when he blurted out how happy this would make poor farm families, I was touched. But I couldn’t get Wilo’s tears out of my mind.

His Puerto Rican pita pocket was lush with both spicy mayo and rich cheese melted into cream. Maybe he was too carefully slivering the beef heart and pretty much hiding it in among the other julienned meats, and yes, it was a bit messy to eat. But I loved it too. Still I stick by my vote.

I just couldn’t quite take Ludo seriously. Granted, he had the toughest of the meats to cook and sell. He started out as the classicly-trained French chef cooking the rubbery appendages in court-bouillon. But then he knew he had to hide them. Did he really think he could toss off dozens of quesadillas from a street food cart, one by one, with a couple of hot plates. I had no idea till I saw the show why he chose quesadillas to hide his pig’s ear. He seemed to think it would be a double triumph if he could best Bayless at a Mexican dish.

Listening to the chefs again last night, I was struck by their competiveness, that determination to win for themselves as well as the charity. Getting to see them for the first time in the kitchen and the supermarket, I was amazed to see how supportive they were, helping each other, without ever compromising that drive to triumph. As everyone pitched in to help Ludo get his dish out in time, I am guessing each thought their own dish would take the vote anyway.

I have to admit had a special soft spot for Cindy – of course soft spots are not permitted but there it was: she was a woman who had earned her chef’s cred at a time when no one wanted women in the kitchen and she was the oldest, trying to keep up. I thought turning her tripe into menudo was a great solution — clearly the passersby at Universal weren’t afraid of her “Yummy Tummy” at all but we judges agreed it lacked depth and needed more cooking while Rick’s solution to the challenge – unarguably much simpler – was quite perfect.

How to Watch

Catch up on Top Chef Masters on Peacock or the Bravo App.


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