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Let's start with the answer to the important question: no, I don’t think I would’ve jumped. Given the choice that these contestants faced in their very first challenge—to skydive or not to skydive—I’d have chosen the path that allowed me to remain firmly on the ground. Let me be clear: this isn't a decision driven by fear—I’m not afraid of jumping out of a plane; in fact, I really want to do it!—it's about competition and control. I can't begin to imagine the rush of adrenaline that comes with a stunt like that, both the high and then the crash, and so I'd have no idea how my reaction would affect the real point of this challenge: how well I'd cook. Would my blood pressure be up to the ceiling? Would my sense of balance—both literal and metaphorical—be so thrown that I wouldn’t be as good a cook as I’d want to be on the very first episode of the season? I don't think I'd have risked that degree of awareness and control, not for the payoff of one extra hour of cooking time.
But I guess there's a reason I'm a critic on Top Chef Masters and not a contestant: all but one of our chefs chose to take the plunge (Douglas Keane, the lone holdout, gained immunity during the sous chef challenge, so his lost hour of prep time was moot), and my hat goes off to them, not just for skydiving, but for getting their crap together as soon as they hit the ground and cooking a truly magnificent dinner.
To my mind, those chefs who jumped got more than the extra hour; they also developed a sense of camaraderie, of belonging, of being on a team. (I guess the shared trauma of falling out of an airplane is as good as anything else when it comes to bringing people together.) Team spirit is a useful thing to have up one’s sleeves on Top Chef Masters.
This season of the show is its fifth—and mine, too, as a judge. It's always a pleasure to return to the Critics' Table; I've seen a lot in my years with this series, and whenever I think there can't possibly be anything else out there to surprise me, a new group of extraordinary chefs comes up with dishes and techniques that widen my eyes and make me feel reinvigorated about food. For every wonderful dish, though, there's generally a clunker—or a few. The bottom three dishes were a motley group: Richard Sandoval’s beef and salmon concoction was a strange mishmash of things, and with his lack of a chef's knife—not to mention the blustery Santa Ana wind keeping his cooktop from getting hot—there was no earthly way it was going to come together in a winning way. David Burke’s dish suffered from a similar problem: there was just too much going on; an unbalanced concatenation of flavors that, like Richard's, may well have turned out much better if he'd been able to use a real knife.
And then there was Herb’s dish. I think all of us at the Critics' Table wished that we'd have more of an argument among us about who deserved to go home this episode, but Herb obviated the need for any discussion. He served each of us an oyster shell—albeit with a delicious sauce in it. I’m sure he's still kicking himself for his time miscalculation, since his talent and food sense could have made him a real contender this season.
The winning dish, Odette Fada's chilled lamb, was a major surprise. When she’d explained it, I was skeptical: in concept, it didn’t sound particularly appetizing, and laid out on the platter, it didn't look particularly delicious. But then I started eating it and fell headfirst into its collection of homey, comforting, and classically Italian flavors. Tender and delicious chilled meat counterpoised against the luscious cauliflower salad (with bright and funky notes of anchovy)—it was exactly what I wanted to be eating out on that open plain.
James is the editor-in-chief of Saveur and saveur.com.