Listen, I get the rap on Top Chef Masters. It’s the antithesis of what reality shows are supposed to be: The contestants are uniformly professional and civil to each other (the only real drama came from mixing in Top Chef firebrands like Dale last week), the dishes never approach the sublime disasters on its sister show, and even if the chefs completely botched the job, the panel of critics were determined to let them down gently. After all, they’re playing for charity dollars and haven’t come on the show to have their well-established (and well-earned) reputations sullied. In other words, it’s too nice a show. There’s no drama.
But with all due respect to those who shrugged off Top Chef Masters as a dull facsimile of the real thing, I think tonight’s hour was a great argument in the show’s favor. It was, simply, a pure example of the sensual wonders of food—the rich and evocative flavors, the feelings and memories a wonderful meal can coax out of those who cook it and those who eat it, and the sheer aesthetic artistry that the best of the best are capable of putting on display. For me, watching the finale of Top Chef Masters was like an extended version of the “big night” sequence in Big Night. At one point in the judging, Jay Rayner suggests they just stop using their words and criticize using guttural “mmmmm” sounds instead. It was that good.
As with Top Chef proper, the last episode more or less gave the finalists a broad license to put out their absolute best dishes, with few limits and maybe a surprise or two. While still keeping the guidelines nice and loose, the concept of the final Elimination challenge was absolutely brilliant, and even kind of touching: The three chefs were to create a series of dishes based on their career. First course: Their first food memory. The second: What made them decide to become a chef. The third: Opening their first restaurant. The fourth: Where they’re going in the future. Basically, they were asked to tell the story of their lives through a meal. Pretty damned cool.
Of the four courses, the first was the one that was most inspired and bittersweet, since it brought the chefs back to their childhood, when they were living in a BBQ joint (Rick) or hand-rolling gnocchi with mom (Michael) or returning home for lunch on laundry day (Hubert). Hubert’s baeckeoffe—a stew that incorporates lamb, beef, and pork—was particularly interesting, reminding me of the eponymous dish that transports the critic back to his boyhood in Ratatouille. It looked like home on a plate.
There are too many highlights to go over them all—and even the near-misses, like Rick’s seafood dish with chorizo “air,” at least earned some respect—but the big standouts with the judges appeared to be Rick’s absurdly layered mole sauce (which I believed I tried in my one visit to his Topolobampo restaurant, a meal that easily ranks among the best two or three of my life), Michael’s brined short ribs, and Hubert’s aforementioned stew. Complaints were even more minimal than usual—Rick overcooked his fourth-course seafood, Hubert stuck a poorly blanched garlic clove in the middle of his Colorado lamb, et a.—but then, this was really an episode about celebrating food. There’s no reality-show tension in that, but there are other, more valuable compensations.
And a big congratulations to Rick Bayless, who not only cooked some fine-looking dishes—and brought respect to Mexican cuisine in general, which he shouldn't have to do—but was a fine ambassador for the profession and my beloved city. I had a feeling that Rick was going to take it down (you don’t start your own Top Chef Masters-related website—root4rick.com—if you’re coming in third), and you have to admire his passion for Mexican cuisine, his support of local family-owned farms, and his magnanimous nature with the other chefs. His enthusiasm and class helped set the tone for this underrated spin-off.
• Typical of Top Chef Masters: Rather than have the big final challenge twist be something backbreaking, like having to whip up another course, the three competitors get an assist from their respective sous-chefs. At least they could have been forced to swap sous-chefs or something, right?
• Funny observation by my wife, after the standard shot of the chefs filing out of Whole Foods: “There’s no way they have $1000 worth of groceries in those bags.”
• Didn’t realize until tonight that James Oseland and Michael had any bad blood between them. Interesting that Michael’s prankish gesture of serving his jarred dish on Saveur doilies did nothing to charm James into giving him a higher score at Judge’s Table. James’ relatively tepid 3 ½ star rating basically sealed the win for Rick.
• How did I spend my birthday? Writing up two different Top Chef blogs, that’s how. This is what I do for you people.