Just Desserts

Just Desserts

A Top Chef is named! Tom explains Harold Dieterle's win.

First off, I want to thank our faithful Board-ers for pointing out the contradiction in my last blog regarding the poker-snack Quickfire. While Tiffani's snacks were deemed complicated, my fellow judges reminded me they had actually beat out Harold's frozen fried food (with the exception of the chicken wings) for second place. Dave, as you may recall, beat them both.

And while we're on the subject of the Boards, it seems that last week's decision -- Tiffani over Dave -- was far from popular. After watching the episode, I could see why. It's an interesting phenomenon -- being present for an actual challenge, which takes place over hours, and then seeing the 48-minute demi-glace that makes it onto the air. What clearly didn't come across last week was the scoring system -- the guest judges rated the dishes numerically on scorecards. When tallied, the final numbers placed Harold in first place and Tiffani in second. Unfortunately, winning the poker-snack challenge wasn't enough to make up for Dave's low score on the high-roller challenge and forfeiture of the third, so Dave had to go. I guess a natural consequence of any filmed situation is the inevitable discrepancies between what happens in the flesh and what ends up onscreen.

I guess the best we can hope for is that our viewers ultimately trust that we, the judges, were there, tasting all the food off and on camera, making the best decisions we could given what we had to go on. In twenty-seven years of cooking I've hired hundreds of cooks and chefs and it has helped me hone my instincts about people. Hard as it may be to accept, (and even harder to represent perfectly onscreen), Tiffani and Harold really were the two strongest candidates for Top Chef, and I feel we made the right choice.

Nonetheless, I do get a kick out of the theories swirling around cyberspace about the decision process: There is the ever-popular "producers pick" theory that suggests Bravo's producers told us who should win, with an eye towards creating drama. If that were the case, Ken would have made it much further than he did (the man could single-handedly ignite WWIII), easy-going Harold never would have made it this far (no drama there), and the finale would be down to prickly Tiffani vs. arrogant Stephen. On one occasion that I know of, Bravo's producers were less than thrilled with our choice (OK, I'll spill -- they loved Miguel). But they never interfered with our decision to let him go, or suggested we change the outcome. If they had, I don't think I could have stayed with the show.

There's also the 'Judges-are-biased-towards or against-certain-people' theory which mystifies me. For one thing, Bravo kept us from mixing closely with the chefs in order to keep us as neutral as possible. The funny thing is, I learned most of what I know about our contestants from watching the episodes like everyone else, which was when I got to see those one-on-one interviews and much of the behind-the-scenes drama. If anything I may have grown fond of a few contestants because they struck me as good people -- Andrea and Lisa come to mind. And yet you'll notice I didn't hesitate to vote them off when their work didn't cut it. So much for that theory.

And my favorite theory of all: the "Tiffani-turned-down-her-opponents'-burners-and-that's how-she-got-this-far" theory. I hate to break it to the Tiff-haters, but there was a room full of crew and four cameras shooting simultaneously during the challenges, capturing everything. I seriously doubt anyone would have taken the risk of being caught on film blatantly sabotaging an opponent. The truth is Tiffani never needed to turn down anyone's fire to win a challenge -- when she won it was because she was good. Plain and simple. The same holds true with Harold, but thanks to his popularity, his integrity was never called into question.

Which brings us to tonight.

Watching the finale and reflecting back on that night in Las Vegas weeks ago, I was struck at how up until the last moment, the winner was really anyone's guess. The final competition was not a slam dunk, by any stretch.

Right off the bat, Tiffani impressed the judges with the sheer scope and ambition of her undertaking. I guess Tiffani realized that she needed to hit this one out of the park in order to win, and by choosing to prepare not one, but two distinct tasting menus, she threw all notions of safety out the window.

Love her or hate her, that took courage.

At times the strategy paid off. The judges really sat up and took notice. Tiffani's Artichoke 'Risotto' (actually a creamy, flavorful micro-dice of artichoke hearts) with Porchetta was fantastic -- one of the most memorable dishes of the entire competition to date. Her desserts (arguably Dave's recipes, but more on that later) were great. Both of her scallop courses beat out Harold's handily. And yet, by creating ten courses, Tiffani subjected herself to twice as much criticism. It was a risky choice, and ultimately it may have been her undoing. You see, if we had opted to compare only Tiffani's five best dishes against each of Harold's, she may have won. But that would have been unfair -- Tiffani made ten dishes, so she was judged on them all. Roughly it broke down like this:

First course -- While her Scallop Crudo was a bit too acidic, both of Tiffani's scallop courses were better than Harold's dish, which featured wilted greens and overly aggressive ramps (wild leeks with a distinctive onion/garlic flavor).

Second course -- I liked Harold's Olive-oil Poached Bass, but he left the fish's unappetizing bloodline on Katie's plate and a couple of the other judges weren't impressed. Tiffani's fried artichokes were delicious and perfectly executed, but they fell more into the category of trattoria food than an elegant tasting menu dish. Her Artichoke 'Risotto,' on the other hand, was outstanding. Clear winner: Tiffani.

Third course -- Tiffani's two fish dishes were terrible. Both her Sea Bass with Deconstructed Ratatouille and her Bass with Fennel and Pasta were cold, the pasta was gummy and the flavors didn't come together. Harold's quail was slightly overcooked, but the flavors were good, so Harold took this one.

Fourth course -- Harold's Kobe Beef with Pureed Potatoes and Morel Mushrooms was fantastic. Lick-the-plate good. Tiffani's Saltimbocca with Primativo glaze and Veal with Minted Peas were decent, but Harold's dish was a clear winner over them both. I want to pause for a moment and point something out: In preparing her ambitious dual menus, Tiffani was handicapped by a nerve-wracking hurdle -- namely two drunk sous-chefs. Dave and Stephen straggled in late after a long night of partying, still drunk! We're not talking about a boost-the-nerves airplane bottle of gin (hell, we've all been there). These two were plastered. Dave told us he was taking the high road by giving Tiffani his all, but his actions proved otherwise. Stephen had raised condescension to a new level throughout the competition when faced with amateurs and here he was, acting less professional than any of them. Amazingly, Dave left a full wineglass on the line, a taboo that even a rank beginner is taught to avoid: A broken glass would have meant every last bit of mis-en-place had to be tossed and the night would have been over. Dave took issue with Tiffani's curt request that he move the glass. Why? Because of her tone? Given what she had at stake, I think it was justified. Tiffani soldiered through this handicap, but it couldn't have been easy working without the backing of a solid team.

Come dessert, Harold and Tiffani were in a dead heat. Harold found a way to work around his own acknowledged shortcomings in pastry, and opted for an elegant pairing of carefully chosen cheeses and a delicious fig tart. Tiffani's two desserts were sumptuous and flavorful. Frankly, this one was to close to call. So why did Harold win? Not because we credited Dave with Tiffani's desserts. Regardless of what Dave says about the panna cotta recipe being his, the finishes on both of Tiffani's desserts were consistent with her detailed and polished style. Tiffani clearly built on her coworker's original idea, but I think that is perfectly acceptable in this arena. (Harold acknowledged that he did the same, but neither Lee Anne nor Miguel made a big deal out of it.) A team is a team, and "ownership" of any one recipe under these circumstances is silly -- it boils down to interpretation and execution, along with the leadership to pull it all together.

At the end of the day, Harold won because here was the moment that Gail, Katie and I were asked to take the overall competition into consideration, starting at day one, and to weigh it against the evening's outcome. And overall, Harold had consistently embodied the qualities of a top chef. Over the weeks of competition, Harold pulled off round after round of arduous, high-stakes (and occasionally ridiculous) tasks, and managed to make friends in the process. He demonstrated creativity and spontaneity, and never lost his cool. At times I wish Harold hadn't played it so safe, but as he matures I think he'll find the confidence to take more risks. Tiffani showed talent and even growth, but Harold was also able to inspire a team, and at the end of the day a successful kitchen is a team. Harold truly is a Top Chef.

And what about Tiffani? I don't know what the future holds for her, but if she continues to work on her interpersonal skills she'll be a hell of an asset wherever she ends up. Who knows? She may yet surprise us all.

As for me, I learned a lot from this process. I've met some wonderful people, and gained a sense of how those of us in the insular food world are viewed by the real world; it was eye-opening and educational. I also discovered just how passionate and outspoken the fans of reality TV can be! I'm grateful to viewers of this show who tuned in week after week and gave us their input (some of which was hilarious) on the boards. I'll never be Tim Gunn, but Bravo and I are working out the whole mentor/judge issue. I hope we continue to learn and grow in our second season and beyond.

Cook often and eat well.

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