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Autobiography in Four Courses: Past, Present, and Future on the Season Finale of "Top Chef Masters"

Our lives can best be described as the sum of all of our experiences leading up to this specific point in time.

The same was true for the three master chefs--Hubert Keller, Rick Bayless, and Michael Chiarello--facing down the gauntlet on last night's season finale of Top Chef Masters ("Top Chef Master"), in which the trio squared off against one another in a perfectly fitting final challenge.

This series is after all called Top Chef Masters, so I wanted to see what these incomparable master chefs could do when the gloves were off and there were no vending machines, microwaves, or mise-en-place relays to get through. In other words, I wanted to see what they could do with larger budgets, limitless imagination, and unfettered ambition to draw upon.

Their challenge: to prepare a four-course meal that best represented their entire careers thus far (and into the future), with each of the courses representing a specific crucial turning point in their lives. For these masters, this was the ultimate challenge, an opportunity to showcase their culinary styles, their unique history, and serve up a series of dishes that were completely personal and individual to them.

So how did this talented troika do and which one was named the winner? Let's discuss.

As I mentioned before, I thought that this challenge was entirely fitting with the message and motivation of the series. Whereas Top Chef showcases up-and-coming chefs, Top Chef Masters has given us chefs who are at the top of their game, with multiple restaurants and awards under their belts. In many cases, they are household names with clearly defined personal brands behind them.

So it made sense then that the final showdown between Keller, Chiarello, and Bayless would be one in which they would have to call upon their personal histories, the key moments in their lives that defined them as chefs, and create a series of dishes that reflected their identities at their most personal.

Each of the courses therefore would represent a very specific moment: the first course represented their first food memory; the second the moment they realized that they wanted to become a chef; the third course a reminder of when they opened their first restaurant; and the final course a glimpse into their present and future. In other words, where they are today and where they'd like to go next.

Given that this was the season finale, there was not only $100,000 on the line for charity but also some steep pressure. Joining our esteemed panel of critics for the judging were the Top Chef judges themselves--Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and Padma Lakshmi--along with the five winners of the previous seasons of Top Chef: Harold Dieterle, Ilan Hall, Hung Huynh, Stephanie Izard, and Hosea Rosenberg.

Personally, I thought it was a great twist to have not only the Top Chef judges there (a nifty bit of network and brand cross-promotion, given the launch of Top Chef: Las Vegas), but also the winners of the previous cycles. Chiarello didn't quite see eye-to-eye with me on this and seemed almost insulted that these chefs would be critiquing his food as though they were beneath him, an attitude that landed him in trouble (and rubbed me the wrong way) in last week's episode.

So what did the master chefs offer up for their four-course autobiography? Here's a look, chef by chef, at the four dishes they served the judges:

Hubert Keller:
  • First Course: "Baekeoffe," Alsatian lamb, beef, pork, and potato stew
  • Second Course: salmon souffle with Royal osetra caviar and riesling sauce, served with a choucroute flan
  • Third Course: lamb chop with vegetable mousseline and thrice-blanched garlic, vanilla-merlot sauce served in a hollow potato
  • Fourth Course: Wagyu beef cheeks and celery puree with pinot noir, lemongrass and ginger sauce; pan-seared sweetbreads with Perigord truffles on scrambled eggs with spinach

It's no secret that I was rooting for Hubert Keller to win this competition. To me, he is the living embodiment of a true master chef, a visionary in every sense of the word who is not only technically adept but also inherently creative and whimsical and enjoys teaching his craft. His Baekeoffe made me drool with envy; it looked absolutely heavenly and, despite it being summer here in Los Angeles, I wanted to dive into that Le Creuset Dutch oven and eat every last morsel of that dish. It was such a personal dish to him, represented his roots, his memories, and his family so well and was such a specific regional specialty to boot.

Sadly, his salmon souffle wasn't quite as awe-inspiring as it should have been; I think the judges were more taken with the perfectly cooked salmon and the caviar and riesling sauce than with the souffle element itself. Keller's third dish with its nearly-raw stud of garlic in the lamb should have been heavenly but it was that sharpness of the garlic--surprisingly not dulled by thrice-blanching--that overwhelmed the palate. Which was sad as the lamb was cooked so beautifully, the spinach still green and verdant, and (despite Padma's distaste) the vanilla-merlot sauce sounded gorgeous. I think his Wagyu beef cheek and sweetbread duo was more on the mark and I applaud him for using cheaper cuts of meat and then cooking them efficiently and thoughtfully in order to render them smooth and supple. But would it be enough?

Michael Chiarello:
  • First Course: duo of gnocchi: crispy potato gnocchi with fonduta, peas, and summer truffles and ricotta gnocchi with tomato sauce
  • Second Course: polenta with rabbit, asparagus, wild mushrooms, grilled duck, and rabbit liver
  • Third Course: ginger-stuffed rouget with mango salad, fresh wasabi, and bottarga
  • Fourth Course: brined short ribs with five-onion cavalo nero, served with the essence of smoldering vines

I was a fan of Chiarello's until the last few episodes where his ego and arrogance completely turned me off. I believe he's a talented chef but he tends to get sidetracked by having to constantly assert his authority. Last week's "young man" comment to Dale completely undermined what he has attempted to accomplish as a master chef. I also didn't appreciate his Saveur-pointed jest in last night's finale. Yes, it was tongue-in-cheek. Or was it? Despite the laughter around the dining table, I felt that it was in poor taste. But perhaps I'm biased against Chiarello at this point.

I do think that his gnocchi looked incredible and he wisely offered up two variations on the classic Italian dish, a combination of textures and flavors that were balanced and complementary. I thought his choice of Mason jars for his serving vessel of his second course was odd until I saw that he composed these almost as one would rillettes, a decision which paid off when the judges tasted the creaminess of the polenta offset by the exquisitely prepared rabbit and duck. Third course, however, was a major misstep for Chiarello with his crispy fried rouget. Yes, the fish was cooked perfectly and scented with ginger but he didn't elevate the dish or take it in a new direction; it was so completely ripped out of the 1980s that it seemed out of place with the rest of his dishes. Finally, there was his melt-in-your-mouth short ribs with cavalo nero (a favorite of mine); I'm not sure you needed the smoldering vines there as well but they clearly added to Chiarello's overall "story" and seemed to lend itself to Chiarello's claim that in the future we will be eating with all of our senses... But don't we already do that now?

Rick Bayless:
  • First Course: barbecued quail with hickory house sauce, "sour slaw," and spicy watermelon salad
  • Second Course: ahi tuna with Oaxaca black mole, plantain tamal, and grilled nopales
  • Third Course: achiote-marinated cochinta pibil with sunchoke puree and crispy pigs' trotters
  • Fourth Course: arroz a la Tumbada with tomato-jalapeno broth, and chorizo "air"

I've grown to love Rick Bayless over the course of these ten episodes; he seems to be the polar opposite of his officious appearance as a guest judge on Top Chef a few seasons back: calm, cool under pressure, a true master in very sense of the word. These last few weeks have won me over into Bayless' camp and his passion for Mexican cuisine is evident in every dish he prepares, demonstrating his belief that the culinary tradition deserves to join that great pantheon of Italian and French cuisine.

Like Keller, Bayless pulled off a regional specialty for his first course that also defined his background as the son of a barbecue pit smoker, offering up a luscious quail with his family's hickory house sauce, a sour slaw, and a piquant watermelon salad with sprouts. It was a dish vastly different to his typical Mexican approach and spoke volumes about where he came from. His second dish, the Oaxacan black mole with ahi made me want to jump inside the television and wolf it down; the tenderness of the ahi was balanced by the sweet sharpness of the plantain and the crispy bite of the nopales (prickly pear cactus); a gorgeous and inventive dish that spoke volumes about the twenty years it took him to pull off the complicated Oaxaca black mole. Well done, Rick. The sunchoke puree of his third dish, a duo of suckling pig "cake" and crispy trotters, elevated it to spellbinding heights as it transformed a humble peasant's dish into haute cuisine. Bayless was a little let down by his final dish of arroz a la Tumbada, but that could be because the dish sat out a little too long before getting served, with the mussels drying out somewhat. I loved the use of the chorizo "air," which is a molecular gastronomy technique that Bayless doesn't usually turn to.

All in all, twelve amazing dishes from three extremely talented master chefs. But like Highlander, there can be only one. I would have been chuffed if Keller or Bayless won but I was surprised to see that the critics and judges ranked Keller in third place, bumping him right out of the competition, a mere half-star behind Chiarello. But I had a feeling that in the end the dazzling talents of Chef Rick Bayless would win out and he did manage to pull off an incredibly inventive, stirring, and beautiful selection of dishes that took us on a journey through the inner backstory of this remarkable chef.

No surprise then that Bayless walked away the ultimate winner, with $100,000 for his charity and bragging rights. I'm curious to see just what Bayless and the other chefs do next and I'm more than excited about hopefully getting to taste one of Bayless' signature dishes one day.

Do you agree with the judges? Who do you think should have won and why? Discuss.

Comments

Amanda P. said…
I was very sad that Keller finished behind Chiarello, as Chiarello really, really turned me against him last episode...but that's another comment.

I'm not a fan of Mexican food, but Bayless' performance in the series makes me want to give it another shot. Plus the food looked fantastic!

I would have been glad with either Keller or Bayless winning (as long as it wasn't Chiarello - yes, I thought last episode's behavior was THAT bad), but I am glad to see Bayless, and Mexican food that doesn't involve being wrapped in a tortilla, getting the win.
Hadley said…
Like you, I was not a big Bayliss fan at first. He just didn't seem to fit the chef profile and, next to someone like Hubert Keller, he kind of seemed uptight and nerdy.

Boy was I wrong. Over the course of Top Chef Masters, Bayliss has proven himself a true chef, pouring his heart and soul into his dishes and delighting both the judges and viewers at home with his creativity and passion.

I was sad that Hubert Keller did not take home the top prize but cannot deny that Bayliss was certainly worthy of such an honor and just wish that he and Keller could have both won!
Brad said…
Something about Keller's last dish didn't quite make sense to me: why did he pair cheap cuts of meat with costly truffles? That seems to undercut the economical future of cuisine he was predicting.

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