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Our fifth finale, our fifth fabulous location, our fifth tough decision. And at the end, a fifth winner to make us proud. How fitting that this season’s last episode took place in New Orleans, a city as diverse as it is historic — recently overcoming enormous challenges to rise from adversity wiser and more triumphant than before. In some small way, I feel the same about all three of our final contestants (even Stefan seemed to have lost some of his arrogance). Reflecting on the entire season, I now realize how much pressure they were under in New York, how exasperated they all became and how much they had changed — reinvigorated and ready for the tests ahead — when we faced them one last time. For our New Orleans final dinner we certainly threw them a few curve balls, and they in turn served us food we could never have anticipated, both to our delight and dismay.
Sazerac cocktails (a New Orleans specialty made with whisky and absinthe) and three flavorful hors d’oeuvres started our meal off on the best possible note. This was the surprise course thrown at our chefs at the eleventh hour. We were all impressed with how sophisticated and subtle they were, from Stefan’s creamy Alligator Soup to Hosea’s Blackened Red Fish on a Corn Cake and Carla’s Blue Crab with Chayote (or, in New Orleans, mirliton, as explained to me by world-renowned musician and my new favorite foodie, Branford Marsalis). We were hard-pressed to pick a true winner among them, as they were all so strong.
I hope it is clear from what you saw of Judges’ Table just how painstakingly difficult it was to reach our verdict. As much as we were rooting for dear Carla, her last two dishes were not of her own inspiration, and for this reason lacked the balance and simplicity we had come to expect. Her Sous-Vide New York Strip Steak (Carla cooking sous vide???) was totally off in texture and her Blue Cheese Soufflé did not even make it to the table. She relied on the advice of sous-chef Casey, and second-guessed her original plan. I was so incredibly sad for her, not just because these errors put her out of the running, but because it was clear how disappointed she was in herself. If only she knew how very proud of her we are. Although she did not win, we all agree her soulful food and colorful, generous personality will take her far. Once we all agreed that Carla was no longer in the game, the real deliberation began. And it lasted long into the night. How do you devise a fair method to judge two completely different meals against each other? How do you not take into account how many challenges Stefan or Hosea won, bringing them to this point? Did the choice to prepare dessert or not work for or against each of them? These are the questions we tackled for hours on end, while the sun set and began to rise again over NOLA. We agreed that although beautiful to behold, Stefan’s Smoked Salmon and Halibut Carpaccio, because of its watery consistency, finished slightly behind Hosea’s Trio of Black Bass, Tuna, and Hamachi with Fennel Oil and Citrus. We were divided on the middle course, as we all enjoyed both a great deal. Hosea’s Seared Scallops with Foie Gras on Pain Perdu was playful and decadent, rich and inviting. I could have eaten it at any time of the day or night and been entirely satisfied. That said, Stefan’s Pan Seared Squab with Braised Red Cabbage was the perfect expression of his European roots: comforting, classic, and deceptively complex, prepared with his well-established and exacting technique. After some discussion, we agreed that the squab took the lead in that round. So it came down to the final course of the night. Stefan’s Stracciatella Ice Cream, Chocolate Mousse with Vanilla Syrup, and Banana Lollipops on the side, although prepared with attention to detail and a competent hand, was lacking in presentation and in fact came off as outdated and somewhat generic, as if prepared for a banquet in a hotel ballroom. There is no question that Stefan is exceptionally talented, but as the last thing we tasted from him in this grueling competition, his dessert left us wondering if he had given up the fight somewhere along the line. A disappointing finish, to say the least.
Although I did not care much for those crazy little Carbonated Blackberries, Hosea’s Pan Roasted Venison Loin on Chestnut and Celery Root Puree with Mild Mushrooms tasted like a walk through the Colorado woods — earthy, robust and bold — just as we hoped it would. It proved that he not only has the skills required to be Top Chef, but indeed has that rare and vital ability to read his customers and cook exactly what they want to eat; no ego, no excuses. Just good, honest food. Congratulations, Hosea! I cannot wait to show you off at the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen and beyond!