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The most fabulous thing about this season's final episode, and there were many fabulous things about it, was that the pairing of Chris and Kerry was an uncanny distillation of all of the contestants on this season of Top Chef Masters. In their eight dishes, the aesthetics of all the departed cheftestants was present, from Missy to Lorena and everyone in between. I had the sense that in some ineffable way they were all there beside Kerry and Chris as they cooked. For that we can credit a lot of things, including the camaraderie that developed among all the chefs and the subconscious ways in which, by the end, everyone was influencing and referencing everyone else. But chief among them was the way that Chris and Kerry embody the two extreme poles of contemporary fine dining.
It hasn't actually been that long since high-end dining in America has split. On one side is Kerry's sort of food, the variety that's been around (with the occasional modernist leap forward) for quite some time: rarefied, splendid, intensely theatrical on the plate, dogmatically French in technique, and global in spirit. It's fantasy cooking, not food you could cook at home on a weeknight or even a weekend, most likely, unless you had a few years of training, a slew of specialized ingredients, and a lot of patience. For the diner, it's an ivory tower experience, something elevating and rarefied, an exercise for the palate: the texture of a pate so smooth it has the quality of air, a wisp of tarragon passing through a sauce.
On the other side of the equation is what Chris cooks food that is, in truth, only a step or two removed from the sorts of things that Grandma used to make. It'scucina povera, classic in the way that a mother making dinner for her children is classic, but in its elevation to high-end dining it takes on an intellectual nuance, an electric amplification of the flavors, textures, and ingredients that verges on the audacious. It's the crazy torn-up raw herb salad with its intensely vegetal flavor; it's the charred roast that doesn't mask its ferric tang; it burns bright and hard and fast, the absolute opposite of that subtle wisp of tarragon. Plated, Chriss variety of food is raw and naked and casual the opposite of the kind of food that requires tweezers.What a transcendently great thing it was to have both of these styles of cooking represented in this showdown and what a great pleasure that with both sides the dining narrative was so assured and so centered. Both Kerry and Chris went at this challenge with a riveting intensity that they brought all the way to the critics' table, and because of this (and because of their formidable talents), it was, without exception, a joy to eat.
Kerry's food was remarkable. His subtle take on jigae, a classic Korean stew, was vibrant and pure, with a restrained heat that spoke of forceful Korean flavors filtered through French technique. His flan was the essence of who Kerry is as a chef -- you could sense the technical precision in that dish from ten feet away, and it was one of the best plates of food any chef produced all season.
In Chris' dishes, there was none of the subtlety and restraint that Kerry brought to the table: The volume was loud. And yet there was still evidence of the focus and control that Chris has behind the stove. His beef heart tartare wasn't nearly as scary as it sounds, but even before the first bite I knew it would probably be great, simply because I feel safe in Chris' hands. That's one of his truest gifts: his food is wonderful and shocking, often intimidating, but he has a confidence that makes the diner sure he won't deliver anything that's less than phenomenal. His tripe course was fabulous, that angry streak of charcoal on the plate a very delicious charred chile oil that brought a great energetic heat to a soulful, rich trippa napoletana.But it was the final course that won this season for Chris. A plate of blood sausage, poached oysters, herb salad, and a fried egg might seem at first prosaic, even unsophisticated, a nonsensical hodgepodge of elements and ingredients. In Chris' hands, though, it made perfect sense: It was a flawless sausage, an exquisitely fried egg, oysters that were the very essence of oysterness, and a bright green salad that spoke to everything else on the plate and brought it all together. Was it bold, was it a crazy leap of faith, was it a strange and potentially alienating last supper to serve to the critics? Yes, but I'll take it. It was perfect, and it was brave. It was the ideal finale to the finale.