Sunday, June 13, 2010

Top Chef Masters Finale - Did One Chef Get Robbed?

I’m not saying I think that (exactly), but I am wondering what you thought.

This post has taken me a long time to write, because I didn’t want to stop thinking about it. I didn’t want to put any final pronouncements down on paper (online…whatever), until I’d run quite a few things through my brain.

Top Chef Masters - Season Two Finale

From the top…

When I see the final moments of last week’s episode, it brings back just how disappointed I am that it’s not Jonathan standing there. And it makes me LOVE Rick’s ambivalence at being in the final. He’s happy that he’s there, but unhappy that Jonathan is not. Rick is definitely my pick to win Top Chef Masters.

With no Jonathan, I was not at all psyched to watch this week’s episode. And I can’t help wondering how exactly did they do this again? How did they rope me into, not only WATCHING, but being very touched by what I saw on the finale?

The three finalists are taken to LA’s Union Station. Interesting choice. Were they looking for one of Los Angeles’ few examples of public transport? I would have thought LAX was much more recognizable. I guess, though, they wanted to convey a more common touch, so there are the three standing in the train station. The truth is that LAX would have been supremely appropriate, which we will learn later after we hear some of the markedly affecting personal stories of these chefs.

We see a little snippet on each chef’s journey to the final. Then they are told what the final challenge is. It’s a 3 course meal celebrating their personal journey as a chef. First course - their first food memory; Second course - what made them want to become a chef; Third course – the dish that describes them as a chef.

Susur says it’s very emotional to do that, because he’s never reflected on that before. They’re told last season’s 3 finalists – Hubert Kelly, Rick Bayless and MC(!!!) will be at the table along with Tom Colichio, Gail, Jay and James. No Gael? (Here’s why she wasn’t there and what SHE had to say about the final challenge. Don’t read it yet, if you don’t know who won.)

Then the three are invited to have a little breakfast together, which is set up at the train station. Frankly, it LOOKS like train station food - croissants, big chunks of fruit and Danish. There IS champagne, but we don’t see if it’s decent. Not impressive at all.

Marcus talks about his beginnings. There is no way not be moved by his personal story. His mother died of tuberculosis and he and his sister were adopted by a Swedish couple. He says, in the course of a 6 hour plane ride, he became Swedish and that’s where his food journey begins. (He found out his father was alive only about 10 years ago.)

Rick says when he was a kid he went clamming with his father on Long Island. He still remembers the smell of the seaweed and the breezes of the ocean. Who knew Rick was so poetic?

He says no one in his family was into cooking and he went off on his own into this field. He says his parents would be extremely proud if they were alive today. I’M proud of you Rick!!! I’d give you a pat on the back.

Susur tells us about having dim sum as a kid and remembering the black bean sauce. We have no hint at this moment of the drama to come in his life.

They go shopping. They have one hour and $1500. Susur says being a chef is like being a ninja. “Your mind has to be very strong.” I agree with that.

They have four hours to prep.

I love Marcus’s story about his second course, which will be duck. He and his grandmother always made Christmas Eve dinner together. One year, when he was still quite young, she was sick and he had to do the whole thing himself. He made a whole roasted duck and the feedback from his family was so positive that he decided to become a chef. He says his grandmother passed away 20 years ago, but she’s still with him when he cooks. I love that.

Susur tells us about his first (who knew?) wife, who was from Canada. He says he was a COOK at that point, not a chef. It was just a job. One day she says let’s go have Japanese food and it was the first time he had ever had it. He was so entranced that he wanted to learn how to do cook like that and so much more.

Rick had next door neighbors in Flushing, Queens that served him mushrooms for the first time. He thought they were so exotic that he got to thinking that he really wanted to be involved in a food career. He's going to make gnocchi for his second course.

I’m worried about the gnocchi. So much can go wrong with them. When they’re good, they’re GOOD; when they’re not, they can sink a meal like a rock.

Oh my, listen to this – Susur’s story. He “came from Asia to start a new life in Toronto with (his) first wife.” Then she got a job as a professor in Hong Kong. She suggested he stay in Toronto for a bit to make some more money and she would go on to Hong Kong and they’d meet up later.

“There was a lot of dreams of how we wanted to take on the future,” he says.

She was on the plane that was shot down in Russian air space. 269 people were killed.

Susur tells us, “Suddenly, the dream is gone.” OMG. I did NOT see THAT coming. He says he realized he had to focus on what he did very well – cooking. He says his first wife would be very proud of him. How can you not root for the guy now? I'm really in shock, actually. HOW do you survive that?

I don’t have long to think about it before Kelly comes into the kitchen with a surprise. The chefs don’t look happy. They shouldn’t have worried, the surprise is the sous chefs from their restaurants have arrived to help them. They’re thrilled. Too bad they didn’t know about it before.

Marcus says, “My largest goal is to bring Africa into the food dialogue.” He mentions the recognition that Latin American and, of course, Asian cuisines have, but it’s true there ARE just a smattering of African restaurants around. I hadn’t really thought about that before. Obviously, the entire continent of Africa has a lot more to worry about than fine dining (the World Cup for one thing), BUT cuisine is one way to bring about positive attention.

Susur tells us he met and married a Caucasian woman, after losing his first wife and that they have 3 “mixed” children. He always wanted to bring his kids back to Asia to learn about his heritage, so they travelled to Thailand and his final course reflects that trip.

Marcus mentions his sister Ashu from his Ethiopian village and how she has to wake up at 3 am to get clean water. That’s why the charity he’s competing for, the UNICEF Tap Project, is so important to him.

The judges - Jay, Gail and James join Kelly at the table with the other diners - Rick Bayless, Michael Chiarello (HI!) ;-) and Hubert Keller, last season's finalists. The current three finalists come out to explain their first courses.

Rick’s First Course

Hamachi & Live Sea Scallop Crudo; Glazed Kushi Oyster; American Sturgeon Caviar

James: “Stunning presentation. True artisty on the plate.” Rick Bayless: “The clarity is right there…perfectly cooked oyster.”

Susur’s First Course

Steamed Scallop With Cantonese Black Bean Sauce; Dim Sum Shrimp & Crab Croquette With Chili Sauce

Gail: “That black bean (sauce) is amazing.” Tom:”The combination…was just great.” Rick: “It really reminds you of being in a dim sum place…taken to the next level.”

Marcus - First Course

Smoked Char With Sweet Horseradish & Shellfish Broth; Mashed Root Vegetables

Tom: “The fish…it’s amazing.” James: “Spectacular tasting.” MC: “It’s like a glimpse into a friend’s childhood.” (I like that.)

Rick - Second Course

Bacon & Eggs With Gnocchi, Parmesan & White Truffles

Gail: “Is the gnocchi a little underdone?” OY, I was afraid of something going wrong with the gnocchi. Tom (or was it Rick?): “Chewy.” Jay: “I don’t think the execution is there. The pork belly hasn’t been braised for long enough.” Hubert: “When you keep it so simple, zee risk is much higher and I think he pulled it off pretty well.”

Marcus - Second Course

Salt Cured Duck With Foie Gras Ganache; Sour Tomato Jam & Aged Balsamic

Tom: “The liver, I think, is genius.” They all agree that it’s exceptional.

Susur - Second Course

Tuna With Wasabi Mousse; Charred Sea Bream; Artichoke, Asparagus & Daikon Salad With Ginger Flower

They do not like the large hunk of tuna that’s sitting on the corner of the plate. MC: “The broth was extraordinary, but I would go back for that bream…each and every time.” Tom says he’s not seeing Susur’s usually very precise work on this plate.

Marcus introduces his last dish by saying that he wants to try to bring Africa into the fine dining scene. It’s a “responsibility” that he believes he has.” HOW can anyone argue or vote against that? Saving an entire continent? THIS will be tough.

Susur - Third Course

Lamb Thaïlandaise With Chiang Mai Sausage; Green Curry; Polenta

Rick: “Oh wait till you taste that! It’s sooo good. I love the flavors. I’ve HAD the Chiang Mai sausage in Chiang Mai and he nailed it!” (How many people can say that?) Tom: “I think the sauces are well done and I also love the story he told.” (I don’t know if the diners know the entire story of his life. Tom may not have heard the half of it!) MC says he’s been impressed by every dish from Susur.

Marcus - Third Course

Berbere Flavored Hamachi Meat Balls; Porcini Couscous; Sea Urchin Froth

Rick: “It’s a bit odd in its texture.” I guess he can’t say he tasted this in Ethiopia, like he did with the sausage. James: “It sort of falls apart more than you want it to.” Gail: “The sauce is very briny. I think it’s beautiful, actually.” Rick Bayless says this wasn’t the strongest dish to him. He asks the others if it’s because he doesn’t understand the food. Hmm.


Third Course

Venison With Espresso Salt; Stuffed Cipollini Onions; Matsutake Mushrooms & Brussels Sprouts

Hubert: “It’s a perfect dish. I LOVE it.” Gail says his pear butter is insane.

I think Rick’s going to take the big prize. Please let him win.

Tom likes that the spices in the pear butter also echo the spice that you get naturally in the matsutake mushroom. Wow, this is high falutin stuff. He’s gotta take it. Rick: “Rick has really reached outside his box for this which I don’t expect in this part of the competition. But he’s really stretched.” I think that’s a good thing.

Rick should win, although I do love it when Susur says, “I told my story in three plates. I hope they got it. I hope they understand, because I felt I have delivered.” Honestly, I get choked up just thinking about Susur’s past. I think it’s remarkable that he went on to achieve what he’s achieved.

On to the Critics Table. They thank the chefs for their incredible meals. Rick gets A LOT of praise for his first course. They also say that Susur’s first course was beautiful and that Marcus’s was perfectly cooked.

James says Rick’s gnocchi wasn’t chewy, but perfect. Jay has a problem with the pork belly. Gail loves his egg yolk.

Susur tells of being opened up to Japanese food by his first wife. He agrees that the tuna could have been smaller.

They all rave over Marcus’s foie gras flan.

They were surprised and thrilled with Rick’s venison. James says it was minimalist. Jay says, being the sustainable guy, how did he feel about the venison arriving on a plane. Rick says he’s “not a tree-hugger”, he’s a chef.

Susur explains going to Thailand with his 2nd wife to see “that part of the world’s spices”. Gail loved that it showed where he was as a chef.

Marcus says it’s challenging in the West to present real African cuisine and that it can be very rich. Marcus says we’ve just hit the beginning of the journey, when James asks if the fish texture was how he wanted to be.

I’m thinking it’s Rick. It could be Susur, but I’m thinking it’s Rick.

They say such great things about all of them, but I still think it’s Rick. The envelope please.


Jay 4½

Gail 4

James 4.5

Diners 4

Total - 17 stars


Gail 4.5

James 4

Jay 5

Diners 4

Total - 17½

Marcus beats Susur. Really? That’s kind of a surprise that Susur loses… Sad music plays. Okay, here it comes. What does Rick get?


James 5 YES!!!

Gail 4

Jay 4 Oy, he needs a FIVE from the diners to win. Can it happen?

Diners 4

Total - 17

Marcus WINS…what a surprise. What a shock. Half a point decided the winner! I’m not sure what to think. I’m happy for Marcus, but I feel bad for Rick. I really do.

The three chefs share a glass of champagne with the judges who screwed Rick. Interestingly, James, who I felt was so unfair to Jonathan (he actually addresses that here), gave Rick a five, so clearly he was rooting for Rick to win.

What happened here with the others? Does analyzing the scores by judge help?











17 stars






17 stars






17½ stars

What do we learn from this table? Well, both Gail and Jay put Marcus at the top, while, as I said, James gave Rick the highest score possible. Jay did the same for Marcus.

The average of the DINERS’ scores (the diners being the chefs that really know stuff) rated each chef EQUALLY. Had they rated one chef a full point better than the others, THAT would have made the difference. At the end of the day, ONE HALF POINT chose the winner.

WHY didn’t Rick win? He seemed like a shoo-in.

Jay was one reason he didn’t win. Only read Jay’s blog post if you want to be incredibly confused. He makes so many outlandish statements that I’m willing to give James the crown as fairest judge of the group. AND, you know, I don’t really believe that.

If they were giving prizes for the loftiest goals, then, of course, Marcus would have taken it by a mile. He wanted to highlight an entire continent’s cuisine and, by bringing it into the light, bring the people right along with it. Plus who could vote against bringing clean water into poor villages?

If there were a prize for coming back from the worst tragedy you could ever imagine, then surely Susur would win first prize. I’m in awe of his strength and his ability to start a new life after his old one was shattered. I will always think of him in certain light now, as a survivor who doesn’t ask for sympathy, one who just gets on with it. Maybe that’s why we didn’t learn about all this until the finale.

BUT if they were handing out 100,000 dollars AND the title of Top Chef Masters for the chef who presented the best food on that given day, then someone PLEASE tell me WHY it wasn’t Rick. I don’t get it. I’m thrilled for Marcus, but sorely disappointed for Rick.

I loved the task they were given - to cook a meal to reflect who they were, how they got where they wanted to get and who they are now. This is so much of what cooking is about - the memories, the family connections and the big events that are held together by the glue that is great food.

Even if I’m unsure of how I feel about the outcome, all of these chefs deserved to be in the race for the big prize as they told their moving stories on the plate.


Phyllis said...

Great post Sue, loved re-living this finale, play-by-play. Even though I was rooting for Susur, and Kris was rooting for Rick, we both cheered like crazy when Marcus won! I was teary-eyed throughout the entire episode, all of the chefs cooked their hearts out that night, and I was so touched by all their personal stories, and all the amazing dishes inspired by those stories. Even though it was a close race, I am so happy that Marcus' Tap Project charity got the $100,000, I can't think of a better use for that money. And I love the fact that Marcus could have altered that last dish to suit the Amercian palate but didn't because he wanted to stay true to the African influence. His story about being orphaned and adopted into a Swedish family was really amazing and inspiring (especially the part about his grandma). And how awesome that he's finally getting back to his Ethiopian roots through his cooking. I've always wanted to taste Marcus' food but I have a feeling it'll be hard to get resos at Red Rooster for the next little while! Susur is a total rock star and I can't wait to try Shang in NYC. And Rick Moonen is a sustainable seafood hero to me, so we're definitely going to RM Seafood the next time we're in Vegas. So are you getting excited about the new DC season? :)

Sue said...

Thanks so much. Phyllis,
Marcus's life story and charity were both so admirable. And I agree...I'd love to go to ANY of the three chefs' restaurants.

I like Top Chef Masters SOOO much more than regular Top Chef, but each season seems to get better, so hopefully that will be true this time.

Anonymous said...

Sue, you continued to comment on Marcus' statement regarding introducing "African" cuisine and referring to the entire continent. I think that to be no different from chef's referring to "European" cuisine or fare. Yes, Africa is diverse having over 50 countries, but I am in agreement that African cuisine is very much overlooked in the culinary arena. There are many ingredients and spices used in other dishes that are native to Africa and it would be a gift to the world to introduce the way those ingredients and seasonings are used by Africans.

Sue said...

You're exactly right. Africa has many varied cuisines, just as its cultures differ from North to South. I agree African gastronomy is relatively undiscovered in the West, no matter which country we're talking about. And I'm just reporting on what Marcus himself says. I mentioned Ethiopia only when he did, otherwise he talked about bringing the cuisine of "Africa" to the west.