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Several weeks ago when he was feeding wedding guests or tailgaters and hanging on by the flick of a paring knife I could not have imagined Marcus Samuelsson would be the triumphant Top Chef master and take home the $100,000 prize. What a shock it was for me. Indeed I thought everyone seemed surprised last night. Susur seemed shaken. Rick was rocked. As Jay noted, as I am sure the critics agreed, it was a difficult decision because it was based solely on the final challenge – a dinner that expressed each chef in three courses. As for me, I had been forced to tear myself away from the Critics' Table for that ultimate judgment because of an earlier obligation to appear at a benefit for Citymeals where I was listed as the host.
As caught up as I was in the competition – watching the finalists as they mastered one moment and fumbled the next over the first eight challenges – I felt I had no choice. It was painful to tear myself away.
Did I think there was nothing more to know about Susur Lee? Bristling with confidence, moving like a warrior, fiercely competitive … I had no idea that he had lost his beloved first wife in a plane crash nor that he had left a comfortable life in Toronto for the Far East so that his half-Asian children with his second wife could learn about their heritage. That Marcus grew up with an adoptive family in Sweden is well-known … but the details of the poverty that he had escaped became more vivid on this episode. As for Rick, he had been defeated in earlier segments by too much ambition and the inability to improvise so it was amusing to watch him trying to calm himself and stay focused.
The challenge forced each of the chefs not just to cook brilliantly but to get in touch with who they are and how they came to be in this Top Chef Masters kitchen. It’s not an assignment you can just leap into: A three-course meal with the first plate reflecting a early childhood food memory, the second tied to an experience that made each realize he wanted to be a chef, and a final dish that sums up who he is and where he stands as a cook right now. Freud on a plate. And no time to brood on the couch.
If one chef had served three completely successful and revealing dishes, the judges’ jobs would have been easy and there would not be the amazing suspense I felt at the end as I listened to the crtics’ questions and comments. But each chef had made one inexplicable miscalculation. Susur’s too bulbous tuna blossom that unbalanced his plate. Marcus’s authentic African dish that puzzled the palate, incredibly emotional but possibly not that delicious. The texture of Rick’s gnocchi and his undercooked pork belly. I’m not sure if my fellow critics were impressed or disappointed that Rick had so boldly stepped out of his comfort zone to cook the excellent venison.
But in the end, the judges seemed swayed by the complexity and perfection of Marcus’s smoked char and the duck stuffed with hamachi tartare in a sea urchin broth.
In the end I found Marcus’s victory very moving. He wanted to win. He kept saying how he needed to win. But deep inside I don’t think he believed he would win. It was a triumph of youth and emotion and imagination over vast experience and professional high wire performance.
Everyone involved in the show seemed delighted by his surprise and joy.
Gael Greene www.insatiablecritic.com