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So there you saw it -- the two chefs left standing, cooking off in a head-to-head competition, course by course. Live. Before the judges, of course, but also before the nine previous Top Chefs, in the hopes of joining their ranks before the night was out.
I can imagine that the format of this final challenge placed new pressures on our two remaining chefs that they hadn’t had to contend with before, as they cooked in front of an audience, had to juggle speaking with the judges while overseeing the preparation of their dishes, and served the audiences (including their own families and friends, come to cheer them on), the judges and the nine Top Chefs. They also had the pressure of getting feedback on each course right on the spot, which could provide a shot of endorphins after cooking a winning course and a shot of nervous adrenaline after a loss.
Because we were giving Brooke and Kristen that immediate, individual judge-by-judge feedback, we judges did not discuss the dishes among ourselves to reach a consensus…which, in turn, means that you the viewer were not let in as much on what exactly we were tasting and what our thought processes were in the judging process as you normally are. And so here is my more in-depth assessment of the dishes placed before us:
I find it interesting that they both decided to start off with salads. Both were good dishes; Brooke’s was a more interesting dish. Its big flaw was that the ears were overdone -- they were fried too much. We thought at first that CJ was erring in how he was cooking them, but it turns out that no, this was actually how Brooke wanted them cooked. Curious. At this stage of the competition, you first look at the dishes to see if they’re even good ideas, then you look to see if the dishes were executed the way the chefs wanted them to be, and were seasoned well. If so, then you look to see whether there were flaws. Was the salad overdressed? Underdressed? Kristen’s dish was flawless, but Brooke’s pig ears were overfried. You can see that we all thought so, which is why the course was handed to Kristen.
Scallops. The course went to Brooke, though I myself actually preferred Kristen’s scallops, and I’ll tell you why: I think that Brooke had too much going on in her dish. The scallops themselves were beautiful -- as good as they get -- and I think that a lot of what she did distracted from that great product. Kristen, on the other hand, focused on the scallop and the beauty of the scallop, which was very lightly marinated with some acid to bring out its flavor. I would have liked the opportunity to discuss this course with the other judges to hear why they were selecting Brooke’s dish over Kristen’s -- perhaps they would have convinced me. Likewise, I would have liked the opportunity to have made my point about allowing the scallop to shine. When the dishes are both very good, as they were here, making the decision between them very close, the judging can benefit from discussion.
I honestly don’t know what Brooke was thinking here. It was anyone’s game -- each chef had one course’s win under her belt -- and she handed this course to Kristen before she even began cooking. Why, oh, why did she choose to make fried chicken? Before you get your ire up, thinking I’m being a food snob, hear me out: as evidenced by the fact that we had pig ear’s on the premises, our chefs planned their menus well in advance and the ingredients they needed were preordered for them. Brooke didn’t decide on the spot to make that fried chicken for her third course, she planned it in advance (along with the rather uninspired sides she put with it). For the title of “Top Chef” she was tasked with planning the five very best dishes she could make, not to redeem herself from a prior challenge that took place quite a bit earlier in the season. I had little doubt going into this finale that Brooke could make good fried chicken, despite how the earlier challenge went, and I didn’t need her to prove that to me. I needed her to create for us one of the very best dishes she is capable of doing. Don’t get me wrong -- I like fried chicken. I serve it at Craftbar. But if I were going head to head in competition, I would never have made the dish Brooke made -- it was a nice little dish one might find at a bistro, a corner restaurant. You cannot win Top Chef with that dish. And as you saw in the episode, all the judges had the same view of Brooke’s choice that I did. They were all a bit mystified that Brooke was serving them the dish she placed before them, and the course went unanimously to Kristen, whose velvety bone marrow dish was complex, elevated, nuanced, and really beautifully prepared.
Red Snapper two ways. Again, these were two good dishes. At this stage in the competition, it’s the tiniest of errors or gradations in quality that can make the difference between a win and a loss. For the judges, it’s also a subjective feeling, when tasting dishes side by side, about which one was fresher, in which dish were the flavors brighter? If served both in a restaurant, which would compel the taster to return? Here, Brooke’s pork cheeks were a little on the dry side, and as Kristen’s dish was perfectly executed, the slightly dry pork was enough to place the win for this course squarely in Kristen’s column.
…which gave her win, overall. And we never got to taste their desserts.
A word about desserts, while we’re on the subject: we are often asked why we even bother with desserts, why we are judging savory chefs on their ability to make them. I’ll acknowledge that there’s a point to this argument. But here, the assignment was simply to prepare five courses -- a dessert was not required. And yet both Kristen and Brooke planned to make a dessert as their final course. I wonder if the chefs think they’ll be marked down in some way if they don’t plan on making a dessert as their final course. They wouldn’t be. Were I competing, I would make five savory courses without giving it a second thought. I’d think it a better bet to do a savory dish unless I had a dessert up my sleeve that I knew was just spectacular… though that would be unlikely, because with a busy career as a chef, there’d be little chance to have cultivated that.
What we didn’t get to do within this week’s format (because we weren’t discussing the food in private among ourselves) was look at the courses in relation to each other, by which I mean two things: 1) We didn’t get to take into consideration whether a chef won one course by a narrow margin while the other chef won another course by a mile; and 2) We didn’t get to look at the arc of the meals planned by each of the chef, to see how one course related to and led to the next. Overall, though, I think that Brooke’s decision to make that fried chicken course made it very difficult for her to win enough courses overall to take the title (imagine your teenager leaving an entire section blank on a test and hoping to get a higher score than a classmate who filled out all the sections), and I think that would have been the case whether we filmed the show live or not, and no matter what the judging system.
And so we began the episode with two very talented chefs facing off, and ended with one very talented new Top Chef, who had doggedly cooked her way back into the competition through Last Chance Kitchen to take the big prize. Congratulations, Kristen!
In general, I was very happy with this season. I was really pleased with the decision to focus on the food and, in general, to only present drama inherent in the kitchen, as opposed to any drama that might have been unfolding in the house. I thought that where personal stories were highlighted, they were rich and meaningful, such as the interaction that transpired between Roy and Emeril at the home of the Governor of Alaska. Lots of people have been reaching out to me to say that they really liked the season and how food-focused it was. Looking forward to more of the same in Season 11! As ever, thanks for watching and reading.
Editor's Note: Tom's new documentary, A Place at the Table, tackling the issue of hunger in America, comes out in theatres, on iTunes, and on Demand March 2nd. Find out more about the film from Tom himself HERE.