M: Well, Top Chef Masters sure finished with a flourish! The final three contestants, Hubert Keller, Rick Bayless and Michael Chiarello, were taken to the Getty Villa (the former home of Getty gas magnate J. Paul Getty, which is now a gorgeous museum that I have been fortunate enough to visit), where they are given the details of what the final challenge will be. Host Kelly Choi let them know that they would be cooking for her, the three usual critics for the show (Gael Greene, Jay Rayner and James Oseland), the host and judges for the regular Top Chef (Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons) as well as all of the previous winners of Top Chef (Harold Dieterle, Ilan Hall, Hung Huyhn, Stephanie Izard and Hosea Rosenberg). What they would cook for them, to me, is a good a challenge as they have ever done.
They were to cook a 4 course meal, and what each course was was pure genius. (E: BEST FINALE CHALLENGE EVER.) The first course was their first food memory. The second, the meal that made them want to become a chef. The third, the meal that signifies them opening their first restaurant. The last course is their “next” meal, representing where they are headed with their culinary skill. Taking in those four meals pretty much encapsulates the essence of a chef. The only other things I could think that they could even potentially add would be their signature/favorite dish, which they already did, and maybe the dish that was the biggest hit of their career.
And unlike what often happens in the finale of Top Chef, no one botched it. Each of the chefs hit on at least three of their four dishes, and all got really high marks. They also took us through their histories along the way, describing each meal and why they chose it, with the show throwing in pictures of them in their younger days to accent the stories.
The first food memories were very touching. Michael talked about his Italian mother teaching him how to make gnocchi when he was five, and he made an excellent plate of two distinctly different gnocchis. Rick told of how he grew up in Oklahoma with his parents owning a barbeque restaurant, mentioning how his clothes smelled so much of barbecue that he kept his “date” clothes in a separate closet to keep the smell off of them. He cooked barbecue quail with his family’s sauce, and complimented it with a spicy watermelon salad. Hubert talked about growing up in eastern France, and how on Monday, which was laundry day, the mothers didn’t have time to cook because they had to take the clothes to the river to wash them (!!!), so they put together a stew that his father would basically bake in the bread oven while they were washing the clothes. He made the stew, and all I could think of both listening to it, and seeing the diners gush over it, was the scene in Ratatouille where the seemingly heartless critic eats the ratatouille and immediately thinks back to his mother feeding it to him in his childhood. Its an animated movie and all, but that scene makes me want to try a dish that I don’t even like the ingredients of, and seeing the story of Hubert’s stew made me feel the same way.
For the dish that made them want to be a chef, Hubert made a salmon dish that he ate at a restaurant when he was young and said “some day I want to learn to cook that.” Unfortunately for him, this one was probably his weakest link. Michael made a polenta with wild mushrooms and rabbit, sharing that his whole community used to go mushroom hunting, and would catch rabbits or other game while out, come back and cook it up and eat together. In an interesting little bit, when he served this he used pieces of critic James Oseland’s magazine, Saveur, as the doily it was served on, while they showed a montage of Oseland giving him lower scores. It was pretty funny. Meanwhile, Rick told of going to Mexico when he was 14 and having a Oaxacan (wah-ha-can) black mole that changed his life entirely, and took him 20 years to perfect cooking, as it includes 27 ingredients and several cooking styles. His version of it for the finale seemed to be regarded by most as the best dish of the night.
The dish that represented their first restaurant were varied. Rick talked about starting his restaurant on a shoe string, and made a suckling pork dish where he almost baked the pork into a kind of meat-brownie, and cut it into squares and served it with the pan juice. Hubert mentioned that he and his wife opened a french restaurant in San Francisco 25 years ago, and made a lamb chop wrapped in spinach with a whole clove of garlic in the center and a vanilla sauce. The vanilla surprised a lot of the diners, who had never had it with lamb before, which made me feel better about thinking it seemed like an odd combination, but they seemed to think that despite their surprise at the combination that it worked well. Michael shared that his first restaurant was in Miami in the late 80’s, and that there were lots of different cultural influences. This surprised me, as Michael seems to be 1oo% about Italian cooking. He made a fried ginger fish that was the dish that basically put him on the map. On this night, however, it fell flat.
However, for their final course Michael shone, making a braised short rib that had the critics raving. He garnished the dish with some burnt vines, explaining that where he is going now is not only Napa Valley, but also about incorporating all the senses, so the smell of the vines added to the flavor and experience. Rick made a seafood stew that also mixed in chorizo, and “chorizo air,” which is apparently a foam-like version of the sausage. He explained that where he is now is about looking at dishes in his restaurant and taking them apart and seeing how they can be put back together and reinvented. Hubert talked about how the current climate is the recession, so people will be looking for inexpensive meals. With that in mind he made beef cheek with sweet bread, and claimed that it can be more tender than filet mignon if prepared correctly.
In the end, almost every dish was really well received. Each chef had one dish that drew criticism (Michael’s ginger fish, Hubert’s salmon and Rick’s stew), but their good completely outweighed the bad. Because of the one criticized dish each, no one got 5 stars from anyone, but most got 4’s and 4 and 1/2’s. In the end, Hubert ended up a half star below Michael, but Rick pulled out one more star than him (E: Sweet relief!), in part thanks once again to James Oseland giving Micheal a 3 and 1/2 despite the doilies. (E: I was surprised by that – from the comments they showed, I thought his view was more favorable. I’m not complaining, though!) For Rick it earned him the title as well as $100,000 for his charity, which helps family farms in the midwest. (E: Doesn’t that just make you like him even more?) He was humble in victory, and mentioned that he was amazed he beat these incredibly talented and classically trained chefs having had no formal training coming up. He ended his commentary mentioning that his father held the position referred to in barbecue joints as ‘pit master,’ and now his son was ‘Top Chef Master,’ and that he feels his father would be proud of him. It was touching.
And as you know from reading the preview, I was rooting for Rick. Well, the people I get attached to in reality shows tend not to end up winning, with Tara on the last season of The Biggest Loser being the most recent example. I seem to have turned a bit of a new leaf with the last two seasons of Top Chef, though, with Hosea (E:!) and now Rick. I like the trend, but even more so, I loved the food.