I know you heard us say more than once in the episode that this was The Best Food We’ve Ever Been Served in a Finale. I want to reiterate right off the bat that it was. For all of you haters out there who kept posting all season long that you didn’t think Sarah was good enough and that you couldn’t understand why she was advancing… and then why she made the finale…and the final two… I trust that this episode made it completely clear to you that she’s a very, very good chef. This finale was as close to a tie as you’re ever going to get. Marco Canora and David Myers came away from the experience blown away by the level of cooking they saw and tasted. They’d seen the show and expected competence and even talent, but they never expected the brilliance they experienced in this finale.
When I eat out, I do not judge the food; I just eat. I would never have picked critically at either of these meals were they served to me at a restaurant. I would have been extremely happy with them both. My comments in the episode and here are because as a judge in this competition, I had to split hairs and determine a winner.
Let’s break down the two meals course by course:
Sarah’s pasta course was perfectly made, and, while surprising and playful in terms of the ingredients she chose, such as the coconut, was still a very Italian-feeling dish. For example, the chili? There are spicy notes in Calabrian dishes. It was not that far from what I expected to get from her. It was a really exceptional dish.I sorely wish that the other judges had had the same first course from Paul that I had. There were tons and tons of flavor in that chawanmushi, and the texture of mine was exactly right. On balance, since the other judges received slightly overcooked versions, I’d say that Sarah’s first course ekes it out over Paul’s by just a bit. Sarah: 1. Paul: 0.
As for the fish dishes: Sarah’s was nicely cooked, with lots of flavors, that good use of fennel… the flavors of the dish were really bright. The rye crust was great, though it was not unique to Sarah -- I first noted it about eight years ago. But then the beets got in the way. Ironically, Sarah probably should have listened to Tyler Stone when he suggested that she sous vide. She added the beets to the dish to give it some acid, but they weren’t pickled enough. The technique not only takes all the oxygen out, but also pressurizes whatever you’re sous-viding. The liquid in the ingredients gets removed… which would have paved the way for it to be replaced with the pickling brine. Pickling the beets raw was simply a straightforward mistake.
Paul’s sea bass dish, on the other hand, was flawless. The fish was perfectly cooked, and that clam broth was unreal. It was a great combination of earth and sea with the mushrooms and clams. I can’t say enough good things about it -- it was a remarkable dish. As terrific as Sarah’s dish was, Paul won that course by a wide margin. Sarah: 1. Paul: 1.
And here’s where it gets more complicated.
Moving on to the third course… Both Paul’s congee and Sarah’s veal cheeks were outstanding. I’m not normally a congee fan, as you probably noticed on the show, but Paul’s was really, really delicious. Gail didn’t see how the dish fit into the larger scheme of the meal, whereas Hugh felt it was perfectly placed in the progression. But there was no denying how good it was. Sarah’s veal cheeks were fantastic, though her sweetbreads were probably prepared a bit too far in advance, and the polenta she served to the first set of judges was problematic. But her flavors were great. So. Again, I give the course to Paul, while Gail might have given the course to Sarah.…which brings us to the dessert. As with all that proceeded it, both dishes were exceptional. The judges gushed about Sarah’s dish because it was gush-worthy. It was fantastically delicious, a truly wonderful dessert. For all that I loved her dessert, and despite the fact that there was nothing to cricitize about it, I personally would still give the win for the final course to Paul. His dessert was the more interesting of the two. It was really well put together, really smart, and really unexpected. That spicy chili foam with the coconut ice cream was sublime. I personally thought that the rice had just exactly the right amount of texture. This dessert showed that Paul was thinking it all out, the texture, the interplay between hot and cold, the play of flavors… utterly successful, and, ultimately, as delectable but a lot more interesting than hazelnut cake.
And so you see the challenge we judges faced. We had just been presented with two exceptional meals, both reflecting the personalities of the chefs who made them, both highlighting outsized talent and remarkable skill sets. And we were faced with as close to a tie as we’d ever been. At the end of the day, though, even if you were to score the courses 2:2, an “even match,” the details in Paul’s dishes were just a little better thought through and put together, and while I believe that he won three out of the four courses, even were you to decide that both he and Sarah won two each, he won his by a wider berth. It was very, very hard to deny Sarah the “Top Chef” title with the meal she served us that night in Vancouver… but at the end of the day, Paul’s meal managed to edge hers out. It was the better of the two phenomenal meals.
Now, if you were a Beverly fan, you’d probably be upset that Sarah made it to the very end, and no doubt are glad that Paul took the title, but we judges were never around for any of that “drama” and, frankly, would not have been interested in it had we been privy to it. We’re interested in the food they make in response to each challenge, and that’s all. Based on the food that Sarah served up in the finale, I completely stand behind her having reached the finale. She and Paul both worked hard all season to get there, and I for one will not soon forget the meals they presented.