Friday, August 21, 2009

Top Chef Masters - Who Reigned Supreme?

I feel good about the finale, because I like all of the finalists and LOVE at least one of them.

Rick, Hubert and MC are in a car going to the coast. They have no idea where they’re going. They arrive at The Getty Villa. It’s beautiful. Michael says the better the view, the tougher the challenge.

Kelly greets them in front of a beautiful pool. She congratulates them for getting this far and tells them this week it’s all about history, THEIR history as chefs. They will create the meal of THEIR lifetime -“Create a series of dishes based on your career as a chef.” Fabulous.

No tricks, no practical jokes, just fantastic cooking (so far). And how wonderful that each chef has such a distinct “culinary point of view” (to quote another food show) and that they are able to cook from their strength, rather than in a dorm room shower, as Hubert did when he rinsed the pasta.

The first dish, Kelly continues, should be inspired by their first food memory. They all like the idea A LOT. The second dish will be from the experience that made them decide to become a chef.

Rick tells us this doesn’t even feel like this is a challenge, but like something he’d love the opportunity to do anyway. MC has lots of ideas cooking.

The third dish should reflect the opening of their first restaurant. The final dish should represent where they’ll be heading in the future.

What a lovely challenge. Let’s hope they don’t ruin it with some dumb twist like having to do each other’s recipes. Or being blindfolded or cooking with one hand. Wait, they’ve already done those.

“Essentially, you’re on Biography with four dishes,” Kelly concludes. Michael says, “It’s a sweet spot for me. I’m a storyteller. I own each and every one of those emotions in my heart.” Awww, I like this…

We learn that the Top Chef judges will be joining the critics as will all five winners of Top Chef. And really is there absolutely no hokiness, no tricks, no trompe l'oeil? Could this be true?

The chefs sit and enjoy a beautiful meal laid out for them in the gorgeous poolside area, while they talk about they are going to do. Hubert says his memory is from Alsace, where he lived over his parent’s pastry shop.


1st course - “First Food Memory”

Baeckeoffe: Alsatian Lamb, Beef, Pork & Potato Stew

Hubert tells us that Monday was laundry day (down by the river) and that the town women didn’t have time to cook that day. Hubert’s father (the baker) would put 40 of these stews in his shop's oven for the ladies, so they would have a meal ready when they were finished doing their washing.


1st course - “First Food Memory”

Barbecued Smoked Quail With Hickory House Sauce, “Sour’ Slaw & Watermelon Salad

Rick thought barbecue sauce ran through his veins for the first 15 years of his life, because of his parents’ barbecue restaurant in Texas.


1st course - “First Food Memory”

Crispy Potato Gnocchi With Fonduta & Ricotta Gnocchi With Tomato Sauce

He remembers making gnocchi with his mother, standing up on a box to reach the counter. He says chefs tell stories through food.

I am NOT saying I feel this way, but I can see how MC-detractors would (perhaps) liken Michael’s constant reference to storytelling to Jeffrey’s “Cooking Without Borders” mantra. NOT that they belong in the same sentence…but I’m just saying.

Rick says it’s the story of his life on a plate. Hubert says memories are one thing, but they have to pull off the dishes.

They go shopping. Michael says he’s scrappy and that Rick’s Mexican food is amazing and Hubert is a master technician.

Hubert spends over a thousand dollars. We don’t hear what the others spend.

They have five hours to cook.

Rick says his biggest challenge is his second dish, which he remembers from a trip to Mexico when he was 14. It has 27 different ingredients and challenging cooking techniques.


2nd course - “Becoming A Chef”

Ahi Tuna With Oaxacan Black Mole, Plantain Tamale & Grilled Nopales


2nd course - “Becoming A Chef”

Polenta With Rabbit, Asparagus & Wild Mushroom, Grilled Duck & Rabbit Liver Spiedini

MC says his family loved to go mushroom hunting and they might see a rabbit and that would become the evening meal.


2nd course - “Becoming A Chef”

Salmon Soufflé, Royal Osetra Caviar & Riesling Sauce, Choucroute Flan

Hubert did his apprenticeship at L’Auberge d’Ile. He tells us that it’s the only 3 star restaurant in that part of France and that he first tasted this dish there. “One day I will learn how to make it.” It was a proud day when he did.

Michael says he wants to win the money for Latino immigrants and since his family also came to the United States as immigrants, it would be an honor to give back to Clinica Ole. Rick says anyone could win.

They come back the next day with 2½ hours to prep. Oy! Rick finds a note saying they have one final surprise for them. They have to watch a video. Hubert’s sous chef, Laurent Pillard, is there wishing him good luck. Nick Ritchie, Michael’s sous chef gives him a message. Brian Enyart, Rick’s sous chef, is so excited Rick is in the finals. THEN the doors open and all three walk in. (These guys are sous chefs for this challenge, but they are the Master Chefs’ chefs de cuisine in real life.) Hubert is totally surprised. That’s nice. Michael asks who’s running the restaurant?


3rd course - “First Restaurant Opening”

Whole Fried Ginger Stuffed Marinated Rouget, Mango Salad, Fresh Wasabi & Bottarga

This was a dish from 1984 from a progressive new American restaurant in Miami, Toby’s. It was Michael’s first chef job (I think he said). Food and Wine Magazine named him Chef Of The Year in 1985.


3rd course - “First Restaurant Opening”

Achiote-Marinated Cochinita Pibil With Sunchoke Purée, Crispy Pig’s Feet & Pickled Red Onion

In 1987, Rick and his wife opened La Frontera on a shoestring and he picked a dish from that time. This pork dish is so complex it’s difficult to tell you even what’s in it or how it’s made. It looks like squares of pressed-down meat chunks, fried in lard(?)


3rd course - “First Restaurant Opening”

Colorado Lamb Chop With Vegetable Mousseline & Blanched Garlic, Vanilla-Merlot Sauce

Hubert brings out the big guns – HUGE black truffles. He tells us he and his wife opened Fleur de Lys 23 years ago in SF. (Rick says truffles are just expensive, not special.)

He embeds a garlic clove in the center of the lamb. Hubert says he blanches the garlic cloves in 3 different changes of water to take away any bitterness.

Rick is really passionate about winning for his organization, Frontera Farmer Foundation.


4th course - “Where You’re Heading As A Chef”

Brined Short Ribs With 5 Onion Cavalo Nero & Essence Of Smoldering Vines

Michael is using the smoldering vines from his vineyard. That says something about “the style of life from Napa Valley”, NAPA STYLE (get it?) and putting that concept on the plate.


4th course - “Where You’re Heading As A Chef”

Arroz A La Tumbada With Lobster, Crab, Squid, Mussels & Shrimp, Tomato-Jalapeño Broth & Chorizo “Air”

Rick says this represents a new stage in his life. He takes dishes apart and puts them back together in a different way. His sous chef appears to have overcooked his seafood. That makes Rick rather discouraged.

I was just thinking his food is so complex, he really could win, but now we have a hint that there may be problems. I’m still going to say Hubert will win. But I think these are going to be three rather fantastic meals.


4th course - “Where You’re Heading As A Chef”

Pan-Seared Sweetbreads With Perigord Truffles On Scrambled Eggs & Spinach, Braised Wagyu Beef Cheeks & Celery Purée With Pinot Noir, Lemongrass & Ginger Sauce

Hubert thinks the future is cooking and serving affordable cuts of meat in this recession. I love Hubert speaking French to his sous chef.

Michael says that James from Saveur has often challenged his food during Top Chef Masters. MC takes pictures from Saveur and burns the edges. He uses them as doilies.

On to the actual tasting. Kelly is kinda gorgeous as she introduces the critics, the Top Chef judges and all the former Top Chef winners - Hung, Harold, Ilan, Hosea (ugh!) and Stephanie. Could Kelly be more stunning than Padma? Just maybe, but we have no idea what Kelly knows about food.

1st course

They love Michael’s gnocchi. Tom says his mother was Calabrese like MC’s family and he likes HIS family’s sauce, but that this one is great too. “Really well made.”

James says Hubert’s stew looks awesome, “You feel he’s been cooking this stew since he was a child.” Tom: “Wonderful.”

About Rick’s quail, “The barbecue sauce rocks.” Gael loves the sprouts. Hosea says as a food memory that would probably be his favorite. What does that mean? And what does HE know anyway?

2nd course

Rick says it’s taken 20 years for him to know how to make the mole properly.

Of Michael’s polenta, Hosea says it’s amazing. (Okay, so he gets one thing right.) Gail says there’s “a primalness” to it and she wants to bathe in it. (Alrighty then…) Jay says, “I could spoon that away until the cows came home, milk the cows and gone back for more.”

They love the mousseline sauce on Hubert’s salmon. Ilan or Harold (I don’t know the difference) is amazed by it and it makes whoever it is want to learn more about French cuisine.

About Rick’s mole, James says it’s very good. Gale: “I’ve never eaten mole so good.” James: “You can almost taste everyone of those 15 or 10 or 21 ingredients.” Tom: “If this is what inspired him to cook Mexican food, then it’s brilliant.”

3rd course

MC’s rouget: They love the crunch of the fish, but some Top Chef winner guy says it’s one dimensional.

Hung says Hubert’s lamb is cooked perfectly, as well as everything else. Tom does not like the “raw” garlic. Hubert told us it was blanched. Padma says there is a little too much vanilla and it is too much “reminiscent of a dessert” for her. Oh good, so maybe Michael can pull it out OR Rick will triumph. Hmmm.

Hosea: “Rick is speaking my language here.” Gael says the sunchoke purée is much more sophisticated than she thought it would be. Padma says we don’t think of Mexican food as being sophisticated but there is nothing unsophisticated about Rick’s food.

4th course

Rick says his tumbado is like “a soupy paella”, with all different kinds of seafood.

Michael says the old part of the dish is the short ribs and the new Michael is looking to tell stories with food, so he uses Cabernet cuttings to give you “a walk through the air of the wine inside the sauce”. Okay, maybe I heard that wrong, but I get what he meant.

Jay doesn’t love Rick’s Tumbado: “This is not Rick’s greatest dish, which is summed up by the foam, which is like elderly granny at a wedding putting on a spandex hot pants suit.” Okay, we get it, he feels it’s an old-fashioned preparation trying too hard to be modern.

Tom likes it, but thinks it suffered after having to get 12 plates out of the kitchen. He says the mussel is dried out.

James says Michael’s short ribs are really good.

Padma says, “Michael just stole my heart and ran away with it.” WAIT JUST ONE COTTON PICKIN’ SECOND, PADMA! HE’S MINE. Okay, so at the beginning of this post, I didn’t think he would win, but I CHANGE MY MIND!!!

IT’S MICHAEL ALL THE WAY AND I CAN’T BELIEVE HE (and I) CAME THIS FAR AND doubted him. Forgive me, Michael. I don’t doubt him now. He’s going to bring it on home.

Ilan (Harold?): “I love the little basil on top and the sauce.” Jay bought into the whole story-telling thing, “He’s the preeminent story teller that we’ve come across. EVERYTHING has a story.” I think I’m in love all over again. Michael says whoever wins they’ll split it. Rick agrees. Really?!!

The critics are impressed by the amount of truffles in Hubert’s dish. But do they like it? Harold (Ilan?): “I thought the sweetbread was super undercooked.” James: “MY sweetbread was FINE!”

Tom: “All in all, (this was) an embarrassment of riches.” The critics leave, while the diners fill out the cards.

I think it’s Michael. I think it’s Michael. I think it’s Michael.

I got an email from him reminding me to watch this week. Why would he have sent that out if he hadn’t won? And the one week he was kind of pissy, there was no email alert.

The chefs appear in front of the critics.

Jay says to Michael, “Wow, what a piece of braised beef that was!” James: “I really appreciate the spare confidence with which you presented the dish.” Hubert looks worried. Michael says it’s a very complicated preparation, presented very simply. Jay: “There was a lot of cooking on that plate.” Gael: “Mine was perfection, amazing.” MC looks pleased, actually he says he’s ecstatic.

They do, however, have questions about the rouget. James says it may have been too literal an interpretation of the dish he did all those years ago. I thought it actually WAS the SAME dish. Jay asks about the power of the olive oil in the mango salad. Oh Puleez! Just give him the trophy and let’s crack open the champers. Michael explains that the mango salad wasn’t meant to stand alone.

On to Hubert’s stew – James: “I thought the dish was stunning… all that great fragrance”. Hubert says it is a homey dish and the smell of it fills up the whole house. Gael wants to know if, when he took it out of the oven, it brought back memories. Hubert answers, “Right away, it did.” Jay: “I loved it. It was dense and rich and luscious.”

Hubert explains that in the lamb dish, you blanch the garlic three times and when you’re eating it you barely know it’s there. Jay looks amazed. James says it was surprising to learn it was blanched that many times and that his piece was verging on raw. Kelly says the sauce has too much vanilla. Hubert says it was a risk. James does say Hubert was challenging his palate.

They get to Rick’s food and uh-oh! Gael says she’s prejudiced against air. James says the seafood was a bit overcooked. Rick looks crestfallen, but then James says HATS OFF TO YOU (he kinda yells it) for trying to take this homey classic someplace else.

Jay says Rick’s mole is “the most extraordinary dish. You can’t quite identify what it is, but it’s everything at the same time.”

Rick looks so happy and thrilled. Gael says it worked for her and that she was shivering all over from that dish. I’ll have what she’s having. James: “The tamales were killer.”

Jay: “I lost my mole virginity”. Hey, hold it! I don’t wanna hear THAT…from HIM! I hope he doesn’t mean he never had mole before. What is he doing judging Top Chef?

The chefs go wait in the kitchen. The critics discuss not loving Michael’s rouget. They say Hubert went right to the mother lode of his childhood, but the soufflé wasn’t quite there, even though the salmon was perfectly cooked. Gael thinks the lamb was extraordinary, but the garlic was too raw. James: “You feel so safe when Hubert is cooking for you.” Does he want a daddy or dinner?

Jay says, “Rick took us to the place that has basically inspired everything he has ever done since.” Gael: “It’s only when he tells you that its taken him 20 years to perfect that sauce that you realize how complex that dish it.” Jay wants to just make “guttural noises” to express his pleasure. They didn’t like Rick’s seafood stew, but Jay says Rick did show them that you can put chorizo and seafood together. He showed how layers of flavor work.

Back in the kitchen, Rick tells Hubert and Michael that it was a pleasure to cook with them. They all agree. MC says next time he’d like to do it without the cameras or the clocks.

After the break they show shocking results of the poll on who should win: Hubert 42%; Michael 15%; Rick 43%. That is only because Michael had that one little spate of being a tad difficult and know-nothings think that completely defines him. AND he was absolutely right to ask the chefs to show him their chopping skills. So there!

And the results:


Diners 4

James 4½

Gael 4

Jay 4

Total 16 1/2


Diners 4½

James 3½

Gael 4½

Jay 4½

Total 17

Hubert is NOT the winner. THAT would have been a surprise last week.


Diners 4½

James 4½

Gael 4½

Jay 4½

Total 18

Rick wins. I’m surprised…not shocked…but surprised. He gets hugs from his fellow chefs. He’s thrilled because he has says he has no formal training. Hubert is happy because he’s walking away with the $20,000. (What happened to splitting it?) Rick says his father was a pit master and now HE’S a Top Chef Master. He’s such a nice guy, you can’t help but be delighted for him.

If editing is everything, they certainly led us to believe that Michael was going to win at first. Then they switched that to make us believe that Hubert had the inside track to winning. THEN during THIS episode, they absolutely contrived the editing to make it look like Michael had it. When Padma had palpitations over his food, it was clear he would triumph, as it was clear from Gael’s remarks about being fed up with foam that Rick would lose.

What we saw at the dining table was not reflected by what we heard at critics table. The critics gave far higher marks than one would have expected from their comments. I don’t disagree with their choice, but just as the challenge itself had no ridiculous dumb twists and turns (just for the sake of drama or p’ing off the chefs), so the final result shouldn’t have looked like a huge surprise. In a way, that denigrates Rick’s incredible meal. If they felt his masterful mole was really the tour de force of the night, they should have made that clear throughout.

Ah, but these are small points. I loved Top Chef Masters. I loved seeing chefs I admire in different, sometimes crazy, situations. I wish MC hadn’t had a momentary meltdown, just because folks that were not acquainted with him now may have a bad impression of him. But, overall, it was a great concept and a great show. Regular Top Chef can’t be anything but a disappointment after this.


Phyllis said...

Fabulous recap, Sue! I loved this show so much that I taped it and am going to watch it again tonight. I honestly would have been happy no matter who won - watching Rick Bayless, Hubert Keller and Michael Chiarello throughout the competition was such a pleasure. I really hope they do another season of Top Chef Masters. And MC sure showed everyone that he's more than just a TV chef (and I still love him despite the meltdown)

Lys said...

When it started, I would clap furiously when either Hubert, Michael or Rick won. To see these three make it to the finals made me happy. I was praying that Hubert would win, however seeing Rick win was also great. I think Top Chef Masters this year was a huge success and future TC Contestants should learn something from these TCM participants. They worked collectively, not against each other. Really refreshing

Emily said...

Great recap! I enjoyed the show a lot and would definitely watch it again. I learned more from Masters than regular Top Chef.

I was very pleased that Rick won. His food looked delicious and he seems like such a nice guy. I'm very surprised Hubert didn't take it.

Harold and Ilan are actually the same person. I don't know if you knew that or not.

Nat said...

I'm still pouting that MC didn't win. He just has that something something.

Sue said...

Thanks Phyllis,
I agree that any of them could have won and I would have been okay with it. Michael is so great, isn't he?

You're funny. I was really happy with the finalists too. And you're right, the chefs all had such cooperative attitudes. Even when Michael was difficult, it wasn't directed at the other finalists. It was to give himself a decent chance at winning.

Hi Em,
Hubert not winning was kind of surprising. I felt that the actual judging didn't match what we had seen. They were obviously trying to keep us guessing.

THAT explains why I couldn't tell the difference between Harold and Ilan.

Sue said...

I'm with you!!! Michael does have real star power and his food didn't let him down.

In fact, as I think about it, I still can't figure out why he didn't win. It only came down to one judge. When I looked back, I saw that Rick's and Michael's scores were identical, except for James. He gave Rick a full point more than Michael. The mole did sound extraordinary and I guess 27 ingredients and 20 years of experience took the day.