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There is no exact science to choosing a winner of Top Chef each season. No scorecard or mathematical equation, no list of checks and balances. And no, our producers do not dictate our decisions (trust me, after six seasons, they know better than to interfere too much; we get pretty grumpy after 12 straight hours of shooting). I wish I could tell you the big secret as to how we determine these things, but the truth is, each season our decision-making process is a little different. Sometimes, we are able to judge the chefs’ dishes course by course, one against the other, and assign a winner based on whose dishes came out on top the most. Sometimes, one of the three finalists clearly falls short and the judging gets narrowed down, which helps streamline the deliberation. But more often than not, it is a process of taking apart the entire meal— bite by bite, chew by chew — to understand not just each chef’s intention within each course, but their overall success vis-à-vis the arc of their meal. We expect that by this point the contestants’ menus will tell us something about them and how far they have come in the competition. With a little luck, they will also give us a glimpse as to where they are going in the future.
Never before have there been three such equally matched finalists. Going into our final dinner, there was no way of predicting who would prevail. Between them, Kevin, Bryan, and Michael have won 12 of 13 Elimination Challenges over the course of the season and have each delivered some pretty incredible food. For me, what made this dinner so exciting was that while they are all so talented and clearly on the cusp of huge careers, they have extremely different cooking styles: Kevin with his deceptively simple Southern flavors and heavy (often genius) use of pork, Michael’s über-modern aesthetic and risky flavor combinations that constantly amaze and delight, Bryan’s refined classicism and graceful attention to detail. They all, I may add, have been true professionals every step of the way. They have supported each other, leaned on each other and applauded each other at every turn, save for a little sibling rivalry on occasion, but that is expected and was certainly fun to watch! All three deserved to win, which made our jobs that evening harder….
Now let’s get down to business: For the first course, which was thrown at them the morning of the dinner, they were to cook a dish inspired by their moms—each of whom came to Napa for a surprise visit—and evocative of their childhoods. Bryan’s Sardine with German Butterball Potato, Heirloom Tomato and Panko Bread Crumbs was a clever play on his mom’s tuna casserole, but most of us found it underseasoned and a little lackluster. Michael served us a Santa Barbara Spot Prawn with Cream of Dehydrated Broccoli, a bold statement that was just a little off balance, but creative and flavorful nonetheless. Both brothers gave us great stories and skillful presentations, but it was Kevin’s Southern Fried Chicken with Liquid Squash Casserole and Tomato that won me over. It was a rich, delicious and truly heartfelt ode to his past.
In another plot twist, the following course was to be created using ingredients provided from a mystery bag, allowing us to judge the chefs head-to-head in the most straightforward way. Using rockfish, Dungeness crab, kabocha squash, Meyer lemon, matsutake mushrooms and anise hyssop, our chefs produced three radically different plates of food. It was here, once again, that Michael’s ability to pair unusual ingredients in an intelligent, spontaneous way shone through. Every element was balanced and unique in his dish of Glazed Dashi Rockfish, Sweet and Sour Crab Salad with Squash & Meyer Lemon. Although delicate and elegant, Bryan’s preparation was far less original, while Kevin’s tough matsutake mushroom made his dish’s overall execution problematic.
The third course gave the chefs an opportunity to really differentiate themselves from one another, as they were able to cook whatever they wanted. Their choices reflected for me so much of what I have learned about them all season long. Kevin gave us a Slow Roasted Pork Belly with Brussels Spouts, Broccoli & Caramelized Ham Jus. In theory, this dish couldn’t have made me happier; the concept exemplified so many of the qualities we have come to love about Kevin’s manner of cooking, specifically his knack for simple and rustic presentations, usually backed by an awe-inspiring punch of flavor. What it lacked was that exact depth we knew he was capable of but, for one reason or another, was not able to muster when he needed it most. The broth was thin in texture and taste, the belly was tougher than it should have been, the broccoli was unimaginative. He knew it. And we did too. On the other hand, the Voltaggios both delivered in a big way. Bryan’s Venison Saddle with Puree of Sunchoke & Orange Juniper Sauce was as pristine as any main course I have seen. Each element complemented and enhanced the next. He showed us multiple preparations using the same ingredients and no bite felt redundant or forced. It was totally beautiful. Michael’s dish was cause for some debate. Although we all agreed that his Fennel Scented Squab Breast was impeccable, I was not crazy about the texture of his Pistachio Cassoulet or that of the molded mushroom mousse he served with it, created more for show than for sustenance. But no one could deny how well the plate was executed and how creative it was.
Then we made them all cook dessert. In finales past, choosing to prepare a dessert has been many a chef’s downfall. But since we have never made them do it, there has been much discussion as to the fairness of how it was judged. By insisting they all give us one sweet course, we were able to see, once and for all, just how well-rounded they could be. Bryan’s Dulce de Leche Cheesecake with Fig Sorbet & Poached Pear was subtle, skillful, and balanced, while Kevin’s Roasted Banana, Toasted Peanut with Chocolate Bacon Mousse & Bacon Brittle was bold in taste but clunky in comparison. Michael’s Chocolate Caramel Coulant with Butternut Squash Brûlée & Butternut Ice Cream was a perfect middle ground between them: at once a terrific combination of luxurious fall flavors and an impressive show of technique. If only he had taken that coulant out of the oven just two minutes earlier, it would have been perfect. Its only flaw being that it was a little dry.
So that’s the play-by-play. Now, you may ask, how did we choose? Why did we name Michael Voltaggio the winner of Top Chef’s sixth season? Will I be attacked if I say that for me, the answer was more in a feeling I had when we talked it over together a few hours afterward, having been given little distance from the meal (rest assured, Judges’ Table took us until 6 a.m. the next day; we were more than thorough). Michael stretched his capabilities a little more than the others. He showed us so many dimensions of himself and his cooking abilities and confirmed with each course how diverse a chef he is. Not to mention the fact that it all tasted really, really good. I cannot wait to see what all three of these chefs do next. No doubt it will be delicious!