Hours. That's how long it took for us judges to decide the winner of this season's Top Chef Masters. In the final cut of the episode, we deliberate for what seems like a few minutes; in reality, Ruth, Gael, and I spent a very, very, very, veeeeeery long time discussing, arguing, cajoling, and sometimes talking in circles about which of the three extraordinarily talented finalists - Mary Sue, Traci, or Floyd - should take home the title of Top Chef Master.
At the outset of our deliberation, each of us thought a different chef should win. For the final elimination challenge, as with all elimination challenges, our job was to assess the chefs not on their past successes, but on the meal they'd just prepared for us. In the end, after the back-and-forth, the three of us decided that Floyd had earned the title. Any of the three could have landed it, really, but I'm elated, absolutely elated, that it went to Floyd. Of the three dishes he prepared that evening, every single one was a stunner, something that couldn't be said for Mary Sue's or Traci's offerings.
I knew I was going to have a strong emotional connection to Floyd's third dish, a version of the Sumatran braised dish rendang that he cooked to realize my own culinary memories of being a 19-year-old traveling in Indonesia. And what a plate! Floyd had never made rendang before, and he pulled it off beautifully, serving us something soulful and generous, and flawless in its technical execution (in spite of the reduced cooking time!).
What I wasn't expecting was a similarly moving experience with his first course of upma, a traditional South Indian wheat porridge, typically eaten for breakfast. I lived in South India for a year not that long ago; my best friend there is a tiffin cook named Vijayan, and upma made up a good percentage of his menu. Floyd took an almost absurdly simple food and, thanks to the inclusion of coconut milk, chicken broth, and pan-seared mushrooms, elevated it to something sublime. He nailed it with his fish course as well, even if the puffed-rice coating was a bit texturally jarring. The rasam broth that formed the foundation of the dish was dynamite, the vegetables were cooked perfectly, and the overall experience was intensely pleasurable. It was a fabulous dish; I could eat it every day of my life.
While Floyd delivered with all three of his courses, Mary Sue and Traci struggled. Sure, Mary Sue's lemon souffle was astonishing (it's one of the single best dishes she's made all season, and was a delicious reminder of her technical proficiency outside of Latin flavors) but her other two courses failed to make the Earth move. I was surprised to see that she served a tartare; her Asian-accented version didn't wow. And her duo of shrimp dishes lacked coherence, with the shrimp-stuffed rigatoni far too literal an interpretation of her 1970s-era culinary memory.
Traci's cooking didn't (as usual) suffer from any technical issues; her shrimp Creole and her quail and sweetbread salad were both exquisite, evocative of a past time and place yet so modern, so intelligent. But after those two terrific dishes, her take on Gael's duck was, well, eh. Just eh. Perhaps there were issues with the interpretation: Traci was obviously flummoxed by Gael's request for fried, breaded duck with sauce béarnaise and tried to compensate by pairing Gael's duck with a more traditional preparation, which muddled the plate. It was an unfortunate miscommunication.
But at the end of the day, Floyd won. And, I think, rightly so: He is an amazing chef and an amazing guy, and I suspect I'll remember his Top Chef Masters finale meal for the rest of my life. Which leads me to...
Throughout this season, I've been continually impressed by the quality of the competition, and I don't just mean the often breathtaking talent that each one of the cheftestants brought to the table. I've loved watching the chefs get to know each other, learning from one another's styles and strengths, and using that knowledge to produce ever-better food. This season saw a flowering of camaraderie and mutual dedication, which was a wonderful thing to be in close proximity to. It's my hope that the chefs are able to take some of that feeling into their own daily lives. I know that I have. I hope you have, too.
PS: I was in Brazil last week and wanted to share some photos.
James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine.