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History on the Plate: The Top Chef Masters Season Finale

I really enjoyed this season of Top Chef Masters, which came to a close last night with a heart-stopping final showdown between three of the strongest chefs in the competition.

It was only fitting that the season finale ("Top Chef Master") would ask each of these master chefs to reflect back on their lives and their careers and pull together a final three-course meal for the critics that reflected where they had been and where they were going.

Happy childhoods, struggles, and painful memories--as well as creative awakening--were all demonstrated on the plate as Marcus Samuelsson, Susur Lee, and Rick Moonen faced off for the title of Top Chef Master and a substantial donation to the charity they were playing for.

So how did they do? And who walked out of the Top Chef Masters kitchen as the ultimate winner? Let's discuss.

At this point in the competition, I'm glad that we didn't see a final Quickfire Challenge and instead the time that would have been used focusing on that challenge was spent getting to know the backstories of the final three competitors.

Hearing about Samuelsson's adoption to Sweden as a child, Moonen's childhood spent clamming with his dad, the death of Lee's first wife, all of these things brought me closer to knowing--and therefore understanding--each of these chefs, their creative inspirations, and the source of their culinary passions.

For their final challenge, each of them would have to prepare a three-course meal that reflected three pivotal moments in their lives: where they came from, when they realized that they wanted to be a chef, and where they're going, their culinary journey displayed in three dishes that encapsulated their collective experiences.

So what did they prepare? Let's take a look.

  • First Course: lightly smoked char with sweet horseradish-shellfish broth and mashed root vegetables
  • Second Course: Salt cured duck with foie gras ganache, sour tomato jam, and aged balsamic
  • Third Course: Berberre-flavored hamachi meat balls with sea urchin broth and wild mushroom couscous

I thought that Samuelsson offered a real variety of tastes, flavors, and textures as well as a global perspective that captured both his African heritage and his Swedish childhood.

The most successful dish of the three had to be his second course of duck as the critics were blown away by the foie gras ganache (really a masterful presentation) and the the salt cured duck. Just a beautiful plate that was well conceptualized and well executed and which didn't fall into one of the traps that Samuelsson has all season long: he didn't overload the plate or gild the lily. Instead, he presented an accomplished dish that showed great skill and creativity.

His least successful dish did seem to be that final dish, a traditional African presentation of tartare that didn't quite win the critics over, thanks to its dry texture. I commend Samuelsson to sticking to his guns and not catering to Western appetites but I also think that sometimes there do need to be baby steps involved with introducing a culinary tradition into a new area. There isn't a lot of exposure to African cuisines within the Western world and there are certain preconceptions about taste and texture that have to be overcome. Could he have cheated it a little and still get his point across? Sure, especially as I keep coming back to Gail Simmons' critique about the texture of the tartare.

  • First Course: glazed kushi oyster with American sustainable caviar, hamachi, and live sea scallop crudo
  • Second Course: "Bacon and Eggs," with braised pork belly, poached egg, truffles, Sardinian gnocchi, and turnips
  • Third Course: New Zealand venison with matsutake mushrooms, pear butter, stuffed cippolini onions, Brussels sprout leaves, and natural jus

I have to give Moonen credit for trying something different here, veering away from fish to only present one seafood-focused dish of the three and absolutely nailing his final course, a succulent and perfectly cooked loin of venison that had me salivating on the television screen. Pairing the venison with matsutakes and that amazing pear butter was inspired, picking up the subtle flavors of both to create a dish that captured the essence of the forest and the magic of those wild, woodsy, and fresh flavors. It's a dish I'd gladly eat every day.

Likewise, his oyster was stunning. I'm not an oyster fan but I would have devoured that kushi oyster in a heartbeat. Exquisite presentation, amazing flavor profiles, and a plate that could only have come from a chef's chefs, a true master in every sense of the word. Less successful, however, was Rick's second course, with some critics taking exception to the firmness of the gnocchi, while some criticized him for using pork belly and not allowing it to crisp enough to impart the bacony flavor the dish promised. Still, Simmons praised the perfection of the poached egg on the dish, which lusciously oozed out its yolk to create a silky sauce for the gnocchi, turnips, and truffles...

  • First Course: royal of steamed scallop with Cantonese black bean sauce, dim sum shrimp and crab croquette
  • Second Course: tuna with wasabi mousse, picked cucumber and artichoke with charred sea bream
  • Third Course: Lamb Thailandaise with Chiang Mai sausage, peanut and green curry sauces, mint chutney and polenta

I fully expected to be wowed by whatever Susur Lee would be preparing for this final battle and he didn't disappoint, though I was confused--as were the critics by that mount of tuna, inexpertly cut and studded with pickled cucumbers. It resembled nothing less than an alien creature and did not exactly look particularly inviting, especially as it stole the eye away from the true star of the plat: that charred sea bream, which had all of the critics raving. Sometimes less is more and sometimes you have to be able to step back, edit, and look at a plate with a critical eye. Could he have done better by thinly slicing the tuna into a sashimi? Likely yes.

However, it was a rare misstep in a three-course meal that was otherwise absolutely stellar. That scallop in black bean sauce looked amazing as did that crispy croquette of shrimp and crab with its web of fried tendrils. But the true star was that Thai lamb and Chiang Mai sausage, a stunning display of Thai cuisine infused with modern, pan-Asian asthetics and flavors. Some questioned the polenta, but I bought his explanation of lightness there. A masterful dish that offered multiple sauces, multiple flavors, and a true understanding of Asian cuisine.

Who would win? Which of these three extremely talented chefs would take home the title and bragging rights to the title of Top Chef Master? I actually believed that it would come down to a showdown between Lee and Moonen, as Samuelsson had nailed the second course but his other two dishes didn't seem to be as strong as Moonen's or Lee's in the first and third course categories.

So I was extremely puzzled and a little confused when Jay Rayner gave Samuelsson five stars, the highest of any of the chefs, when the editing hadn't exactly showed the critics to be that bowled over by all three of Samuelsson's dishes... to the point where I actually thought that he was the least likely to walk away the victor. Did I miss something? Were the judges that much more pleased and blown away by Samuelsson's three dishes than it initially appeared?

But despite having few criticisms for either Lee or Moonen--both of whom looked shocked--it was Samuelsson who walked away the victor, entirely on the strength of that five-star rating from Rayner. Odd, no? While I think Samuelsson is a super-talented chef, I didn't think his performance this season had him tipped for the winner, nor did I think his overall meal this week quite matched up to Lee or Moonen.

What did you think? Did the right chef win? Who would you have given the title to? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Top Chef Masters may have ended, but a brand-new season of Top Chef begins next week on Bravo.


greebs said…
Pretty ridiculous result. That five star rating from Rayner tilted the entire thing, and it seemed from his comments he liked Samuelsson's STORY more than his FOOD. Um, that's not what the competition is all about.

Bring on the real Top Chef, please...
Unknown said…
I actually got the vibe that the judges liked all of Samuelsson's dishes. My fave going in was Moonen, but I felt Susur had the advantage. After the dishes were presented, I felt Marcus and Rick were the top two and that Marcus may have the slight advantage. Although Marcus' third dish was the least successful of his three, I fealt the judges liked his creativity and that it edged Rick's least successful dish in second course. Marcus seemed to calm down as the season went on and became more confident in his own cooking.
Hannah Lee said…
I was really hoping that Susur or Moonen would take home the prize as they have both been consistently amazing through out the competition. Samuelsson is, obviously, extremely talented but I felt that his final dish was the weakest of the three and that his overall performance was certainly not as strong. That said, I would have loved to have been at that table to experience the amazing final meal these three chefs put together!
rockauteur said…
Boring season. Rick should have won, especially with James Oseland's marriage proposal. Didn't like that Marcus won; he's been inconsistent all season, having not won a single challenge until last episode.

Bring back the drama! I think I'm getting burned out on Top Chef...
Anonymous said…
Not a huge fan of Asian cuisine, but I think Susur should have won. He truely is an artist and his skill level is rather exquisite. Yup, I didn't quite understand the result either! Marcus always seemed to talk big but not quite deliver especially early on in the season.

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