Who will be the master of Top Chef Masters? It’s all boils down to this: Kerry against Chris, calm technical perfection versus brash cooking, brains versus guts, sometimes literally. That’s the narrative we’ve gotten the past few seasons, and it has gone a long way from turning Chris into the Guy Fieri-wannabe he appeared to be in the beginning to a chill dude who happens to have a taste for offal. Kerry, the dark horse this whole time, is a quieter but no less worthy contender. He’s ignored the hoopla, or whatever passes for hoopla on Masters, to churn out tasty-looking jewels of dishes.
But for a short and adorable interlude in which Curtis cooks dinner for the two contenders, the finale was based on the big elimination challenge. The chefs had $600 and six hours to prep and shop for a four-course meal. Each of the courses had to be a kind of culinary letter: an apology, a love note, a thank you note, and a letter to the contestants themselves. (Luckily no one thought to put “RSVP” or “Awkward break-up missive” on there, though those would have been interesting too, I suppose.)
Chris calls himself “the gut man,” and in case you didn’t get the double meaning that Bravo repeatedly extrapolates, this both means that he prefers the weirder cuts of meat available at Whole Foods and cooks from his heart. His dishes are bold and imperfect, but have that brashness that the critics treasure. He’s emotional, and this challenge particularly plays up his softer side. He’s also a “focus on the ingredient” guy—one of those tail-to-trotters butchers—whereas Kerry is a “use what’s here cook” who could probably whip up a convincing gastrique from pink Starburst and your wilting parsley plant.
One of the interesting things about the finale is that the chefs had a choice of whether to spend the majority of their time prepping or shopping. Chris did a whopping three stops in Las Vegas traffic, placing him about an hour behind Kerry, who was already steadily chopping. But Chris’ ingredients were unusual enough that they seemed to pay off. For his love letter, dedicated to his wife, Chris made a beef heart tartare with foie gras, a dish unusual enough that Ruth Reichl had never had it before. The judges he served it to were 10 of the top food critics in the States, which also meant that everyone was trying to out-describe each other. “It’s a steampunk version of steak tartare,” says Krista Simmons. James Oseland out-cutes everyone at the table with his tale of the birthday breakfasts his partner makes him.
For the apology, Chris makes another dish for his family, a mea culpa for working too much. It’s pancetta and scallop, and Ruth thinks it’s the “sexiest plate of food” she’s had. The thank you note, meanwhile, is to Chris’ great-grandmother, who introduced Chris to the wonders of tripe. The only misstep is the final dish, a letter to himself composed of blood sausage and a fried egg. Such a simple meal is a controversial move, but Francis effectively goes nuts over it. “It’s like doing the backstroke and then getting a backrub from a pig,” he enthuses. That wins the medal for best critic’s remark on this episode, at least.
As is his modus operandi, Kerry keeps his head down and sticks to a plan. He does a single run to Whole Foods, giving up on lobsters and substituting shrimp in his first dish. His love letter is the first meal he made his wife, a Korean Jjigae that may be a little less spiced than the version in South Asia, but, as Alan Richman puts it, “It’s about love, not kimchi.” Several of the women critics inform Kerry that his dish would get him to first or second base. Take note, food critic seduction team!
Kerry’s apology is the most intriguing dish of his four courses, a pea flan that he describes as “a warm embrace.” Though the editors paint Chris as the innovative one and Kerry as a straight shooter, this is a risky dish as well. And the critics lap it up—a few of them literally. His thank you note is a branzino with clams dedicated to his parents. His only confusing note was his last dish, a short ribs and cote de boeuf arrangement that didn’t seem to have any actual connection to who Kerry was.
The deliberation is based on the minutest of detail. The judges ask themselves whether Kerry’s nurturing comfort is more interesting than Chris’ slap-in-the-face deliciousness, and of course, it’s not really a question. Chris wins, and Kerry shakes his hand.