As a Top Chef Masters judge, I'm not supposed to play favorites. But of the nearly 40 episodes I've been involved in over four seasons of the show, this last one may well be my favorite. I loved the energy throughout, the laser-like focus the chefs brought to the, um, stadium (and the Quickfire Challenge). But above all I loved that the episode was entirely, start to finish, about the chefs' skills at the stove. Sometimes, on Top Chef Masters, the challenges thrown at the chefs can border on being Fellini-esque. This episode, for me, was simply about who could cook and who couldn’t. It was a pleasure and an honor to be exposed to this pure expression of skill — so intimate, so rewarding.
First up: this week's Quickfire, which I hadn't seen until watching the episode myself. The structure was a terrific bit of foreshadowing for what the chefs would be facing in their elimination: it was all about mise en place, about thoughtful prep, and about working accurately at a breakneck speed. How fascinating it was to focus a macro lens on truly essential skills. It was also, entertainingly, a nice confirmation of my own dime store analyses of the chefs' personalities: Chris, for example, has an eagerness (or, OK, maybe cockiness) that's sometimes unbeatable but can occasionally do him in, as it did here — he may have finished the fastest, but quick work meant under-portioned filets… and disqualification. I wasn't surprised to see that the last two chefs standing were the (slightly) older Kerry and Takashi, with their calm dispositions and clear-headedness. It was a delight to see Kerry finally win something: he's an extraordinary chef. It's about time! His parmesan-encrusted steak looked like a total knockout.
Speaking of, er, knockouts, what a treat it was to spend an evening with the amazing Sugar Ray Leonard, a true icon. And what a great set-up for an elimination challenge! The whole deal — from the Jubilee girls (so gorgeous—I had feather-boa envy) to the boxing ring to getting to ring the bell before each bout (I gotta confess: I was more than a little nervous performing this task next to Mr. Leonard) — was a blast. The first round was fascinating: bacon is an easy ingredient, one with which both Chris and Takashi have great facility. But Takashi's plate of bacon steak with fruits and a fennel salad was a little too complex…it was overwhelming, particularly measured against the clean, confident, delicious Mexican-inspired bacon and eggs that Chris presented.When Patricia and Lorena took to the ring, I was fascinated. We didn't know then, at the Critics' Table, about the animosity between the two that had developed while shooting the previous week's episode; Lorena was giving off a palpable sense of nervousness and insecurity. But when the cooking began, she was in her element, and that was rewarded in her win. Both of the final dishes were excellent, and despite the differences between the two chefs, Lorena and Patricia wound up having a surprising amount in common: Patricia's exquisite leek reduction and Lorena's rich chowder echoed one another in texture and flavor. A surprising synchronicity, given the circumstances!
The battle for victory between Lorena and Chris was fraught from the get-go. My heart sank when I saw that the secret ingredient was sugar: for Chris, the king of all things cured, smoked, and fried, an ingredient that was outside his obvious skill set. I wasn't optimistic that he could pull it off, but he proved me wrong with an expert zabaglione, delicately flavored and beautiful in its simplicity. Unfortunately, the one-two punch of Lorena's flourless chocolate cake (phenomenal) and a dulce de leche-drizzled grilled pineapple was a hard one to beat. She gambled on a highly ambitious play, and won.
The final elimination round was tough -- both to watch, and to judge. I felt a certain level of insecurity from both Patricia and Takashi, who were put in the difficult position of, as Patricia put it, cooking for their lives. What undid Takashi here was quite similar to his downfall against Chris: his dish was so complex that it lost some of its coherence, the various elements fighting for dominance and canceling each other out. It was sad to see him go. Patricia won in spite of her inconsistently cooked chicken liver (I glanced at Jane's plate and saw that, in fact, hers was less rare than mine had been — I seem to keep getting the raw deal this season). Patricia’s dish told a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It looked beautiful, and it tasted even better.