And so we’ve come to the end. What a season! The talent on display blew me away when I experienced it firsthand as a critic, and again as I’ve been rewatching the episodes as they’ve aired.
But I’ve also been moved—both as we filmed and upon viewing each episode—by the humanity of it all. For me as an observer, I hugely value how much this show is a fundamentally humanizing one for its contestants. Chefs, as pop culture figures, have taken on such iconic status that it can be hard at times to remember that under the pomp and posturing and embroidered-logo white jackets, they’re just real folks with quirks and foibles and dark sides and endearing weirdnesses. Over the course of 10 episodes, I—and we—have gotten to know them as people not just restaurant figureheads.
It’s been a particular pleasure to get to know the three finalists. On the surface, Douglas and Bryan have a lot of similarities as both people and cooks—they’re reserved, meticulous; they have a related culinary vernacular of precision and experimentation. But we now know that, in fact, they couldn’t be more different. Douglas can be so cerebral, so thoughtfully minimalist—his food is subtle in a visceral and alluring way, and it always feels rooted in tradition, be it French or Japanese. Bryan, on the other hand, is cooking new food, inventing his language as he goes, with only occasional (which is to say very infrequent) references. And then Jennifer is cooking in a different language entirely, an elevated cucina povera that is a form of emotional transmission, as opposed to Douglas and Bryan’s intellectual communication.
In retrospect, it’s clear that Jennifer was, for me, the great miracle of this season. After five rounds of being a critic, I generally feel confident in my ability to pick who the three finalists are going to be after a few episodes. Boy, was I wrong! But who can blame me? At the beginning of the season, Jennifer simply wasn’t cooking at the level she later demonstrated to us—maybe it was her close brush with elimination that brought out her fearlessness and elegance, because the food she served in the past few weeks was miles beyond what she’d started out cooking.
I thought I had a handle on Jennifer’s excellence as a cook, and then during the finale meal, she served us her paella gnocchi. My God, it was the single best dish I ate all season—so perfectly balanced, so beautifully executed, so lovely to look at. Unfortunately for her chances at winning the season, her other three courses—while very, very good—didn’t come anywhere near the glory of that dish. Still, if we’re handing out prizes for individual plates of food, this one is the season five gold-medal winner.
Bryan’s food for the finale was almost all as revelatory as Jennifer’s gnocchi. His first two courses, in particular, were startlingly good: the elevated “chicken Chesapeake” was a gorgeously refined riff on the original, and his black cod may have been one of the finest presentations of that fish I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. And, wow, that strange and amazing dessert: an all-white confection with a harmonious combination of aromas and flavors, it was as stimulating visually as it was on the palate. Regrettably, Bryan was hamstrung by an overly heavy third course—meat upon meat upon meat—that for me, as well as some of my fellow critics, was just too much.
It’s no spoiler to mention that it was clear to me as soon as this meal was over that Douglas was going to win. Throughout the season, he did not once produce a dish that was anything less than very good: he’s an absolute master of technique, with an uncommon ability to coax exquisite flavors and textures out of his ingredients. In the finale, the trajectory of the dishes he served was perfection. The white wine and mussel soup Billi Bi was the epitome of his style, so minimal as to be almost a cerebral conceit rather than a physical one. His sea trout was sumptuous and startling, not even needing its unconventional presentation (though it was certainly fun). The Gray Kunz-inspired tamarind-glazed duck was perhaps the least successful of his four courses, though it was still wonderful… but it lacked an ineffable Douglasness, maybe because he was hewing too closely to the instruction to make a “borrowed” dish.
And then there was his dessert, an utterly transcendent plate of food that brought together all the threads of his cooking and tied them together in a neat, fantastically delicious bow. This plate of food really didn’t visually translate well on your TV screen: it literally looked like a bowl of gray porridge with some bright confetti on top—a complete culinary cipher. But once you started eating it, you couldn’t stop. It was rich and light, sweet and savory—after Jennifer’s gnocchi, it was easily the second-best dish of the evening.
We had a lively dialogue around the Critics’ Table at the end of the meal about who should win, but ultimately it was an easy choice. I couldn’t be happier for Douglas -- he is a true Top Chef Master.
James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine and Saveur.com.