Going into this season of Top Chef Masters, we judges knew ahead of time one of the challenges was going to take place at the Grand Canyon — but I never could have imagined it would be as special as it was. The meal we had this week, eating masterfully prepared indigenous foods alongside members of the Hualapai nation, the spectacular plunge into the Grand Canyon just a few yards from our table, truly was one of the most memorable of my life.
The day we shot the challenge was maybe my favorite day ever on the Top Chef Masters set. While the contestants took scenic helicopter rides to our destination, Ruth, Francis, and I drove from Las Vegas in a Lexus SUV, a multi-hour trip that let my excitement and anticipation build — plus we stopped along the way at an amazing roadside joint, where Francis had a burger, Ruth bought lottery cards, and I put my head through a tacky put-your-head-through-this-piece-of-plywood-and-it-will-appear-as though-you-are-being-abducted-by-space-aliens mural and multiple snapshots were taken. (I may seem like Mr. White Tablecloth on the show, but in truth I'm most in my element in locales more than a little bit kitschy.) By the time we arrived at Grand Canyon West with a bit of time to go before filming, I was nearing a state of bliss: I've had a special relationship with desert my whole life; in my 20s, when I lived in Los Angeles, I used to take off for the desert to camp out alone every chance I got. For this episode, I was so immediately smitten with the breathtaking landscape that I set off hiking the beginning of the descent virtually the second I was out of the car — the producers had to practically drag me back to the table when it was time to eat.
The elements were working against the chefs this week: after a brutal, weeks-long heat wave, arriving canyonside to face a squall of rain came as a bit of a relief, but it also posed some material challenges. Struggling to regulate the temperatures on their grills and griddles surely took attention away from tending to the food itself; while everything turned out relatively beautifully on the table, some teams fared better than others. Perhaps surprisingly, the chefs with the more difficult assignments were the ones who shined: Chris and Patricia, two of this season's powerhouses, made a nearly unstoppable team when it came to their exquisite dish of rabbit and squash. But Takashi and Thierry, working with the very challenging ingredients of venison loin and banana yucca, produced something of astonishing balance and grace, with flavors entirely evocative of the beautiful setting in which we were eating. Their win was well deserved, particularly in light of the last-minute wrench thrown by Thierry's yucca not being the starchy ingredient he'd originally thought it was.
This week's losing team — Kerry and Clark — were the ones working with the most familiar ingredients, beef and corn. This didn't come as a surprise to me: I disagree with Ruth's assessment at the critics' table that their task was easy; I have a hard time thinking even now of a corn and beef preparation worthy of a Top Chef Masters win, one with the creativity and agility all the best food on this show exemplifies. In many ways, their ingredients' familiarity made their burden much greater than it could have been. Sadly, that difficulty showed: despite Kerry's extraordinary elegance and sophistication as a chef, his beef with two sauces was doing all the work on that plate, overwhelming Clark's delicate ragout of grilled corn and chiles. Like his partner Mark last week, Clark took a risk by making something minimalist, and then didn't quite pull it off, and he was sent home for it. It was sad to see him go, but he'd made a strong attempt.
Still, in that beautiful setting, even the weakest link was something special. I said it on camera, and I'll say it again: Being in that place, with those people, was one of the greatest dining experiences of my life. I didn't want to go home.