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Watching this final challenge in Las Vegas, shot almost six months ago, I found myself breaking into bouts of chills alternating with moments of cold sweat. For the first time in six seasons of Top Chef, I also found myself brought to tears. I can still recall so clearly how nervous Tom, Padma, and I were when we sat down to eat that day. Somehow it felt as if we were being judged as much as the contestants. The table of diners who joined us, each person an active board member of the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, was in ways more daunting even than when Joel Robouchon paid us a visit. For me, this was perhaps because I have a very personal relationship with many of these talented chefs. Daniel Boulud is my former boss and still a great mentor of mine. In fact, this coming February I will host a gala tribute dinner in his honor at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Gavin Kaysen is the executive chef of Daniel’s Café Boulud, so I cannot help but consider him part of my former work family. He is also a former Food & Wine Best New Chef, as are Daniel, Thomas, Traci, and Alex. Together, this astoundingly gifted group represents what could be considered the past, present and future of modern American fine dining. By inviting them to help us judge a Bocuse d’Or–style challenge on our show, we were declaring our belief that these final five contestants were up for such a prohibitive task. What if they failed? And in front of this intimidating group, no less? It would have been our own reputations, as much as the contestants’, at stake.
Here’s just a little background: Often referred to as the “Culinary Olympics,” the Bocuse d’Or is held every other year in Lyon. Founded in 1987 by one of France’s greatest chefs, Paul Bocuse, the competition aims to broaden the public’s understanding of, and appreciation for, the exceptional skill and precision required to be a master chef of haute cuisine. Each national team—chef and assistant—must present to a panel of judges (who, I assure, you are MUCH more critical than we are) two classic platter-style dishes, one fish and one meat. Each platter must include three elaborate sides or garnishes. The guests at our table in Las Vegas make up a portion of the group that selects, counsels, and coaches the young chef chosen to represent America. Chefs from every corner of the world train year-round to have the chance at being the one chosen by their country to compete in the culminating Lyon event. 24 countries are represented in what is considered the most difficult and rigorous culinary challenge in the world. And we gave our cheftestants just four measly hours....
Knowing all this, you can imagine the pride and great relief I felt at witnessing them produce dishes of that magnitude and skill in such a short amount of time. Obviously, there was no way they could create anything as precise as is presented at the actual Bocuse d’Or finals, but every one of our chefs reaffirmed for me why they are so worthy of being in the top five, and how devoted they all are to their craft. It is vital in watching this specific episode to actually understand that there were in fact two simultaneous challenges on which they were being judged, which makes their accomplishments even more impressive: first, to succeed at giving us a Bocuse-inspired platter of meat or fish, and second, to remember that at Judges' Table we would be evaluating them on their dishes within the confines of Top Chef. Our fellow diners, for the most part, assessed the meal from within their rarefied paradigm, which explains why they were all so incredibly meticulous in their judgments and may have appeared slightly too stringent with their commentary. Tom, Padma and I, on the other hand, needed to keep in mind our own agenda for the show, which was, above all else, who would be moving onward to our Napa finale.
Our final decision was painstaking. It is possible that both viewers and contestants alike may feel frustrated by the fact that Kevin won. It was clear that his presentation was the simplest. He did not deliver a platter as complex and technically demanding as those of his competitors. If this were the real Bocuse d’Or, he would no doubt have been at the bottom of the heap. But let’s not forget that this was, first and foremost, a challenge to determine who will be Top Chef. Here is a prime example of when cooking simply and realistically, but with a sense of urgency and attention to detail, is best. Kevin acknowledged his own capabilities and weighed them against the time he had to execute the challenge at hand. He knew if he tried to overreach there was a serious chance he would fail. There was already too much on the line for him to suddenly try to cook beyond his personal level of integrity and means. His was the only platter we tasted that day in which at least one key element was not severely overcooked or underseasoned. Kevin gave us a dish composed of beautifully poached and caramelized lamb loin with sherry-glazed golden beets, baked asparagus with sunchoke cream and buttered toast. Although simple in design, each component was flawless. Eaten together, they were balanced and cohesive.
Saying goodbye to Eli was a little devastating for us all. At such a young age, he stood his ground week after week against fierce competition. I know the other chefs were very close with him and at this late stage it was difficult to let him go. Again, we were truly blown away by what each of the chefs cooked for us. In judging their food, we forced ourselves to split hairs over which dish was the least successful. We loved the concept of Eli’s pistachio-crusted lamb loin wrapped in lamb sausage with arugula and tarragon coulis. His ras al hanout and carrot puree with yogurt foam was bright and full of flavor. The tomato and piquillo pepper marmalade over a brioche crouton was also a lovely idea. But the sausage had just too many pieces of fat within it that had not been properly rendered and its caulfat lining could still be detected around the meat, making the focal point of the dish almost impossible to eat. In addition, the brioche under his marmalade was dry and bland, an elementary mistake we could not overlook. Eli did an extraordinary job and I am confident that none of the contestants eliminated before him could have done as well. I know he has a long and exciting future ahead and I cannot wait to see how it all unfolds.
Phew! After re-experiencing how intense that last Las Vegas challenge was, I am a little exhausted myself and could use a drink. Thankfully, our next stop is the Napa Valley, where I can assure you there will be no shortage of wonderful wine and even better food from our much-deserving final four. Cheers!