This is the way Top Chef Masters ends, not with a bang but a whimper. Albeit, a nice, polite whimper that looked damn good on the plate. No surprises here for the finale, which was pulled directly from the first season with only a minor change. Instead of preparing four courses based on various stages of their lives, the masters were asked to cook only three courses: the first based on their first food memories, the second to commemorate the moment they decided to become chefs, and the third to encompass the chefs they are today. (Last season, the fourth course was aimed at the future.) It’s an excellent ride to be on, personal enough to really resonate with the chefs, and vague enough to really let them put forward their best work.
Each of these chefs remembered fish from an early age, with Marcus pulling from a childhood of smoked char and salmon in Sweden, Susur reaching back to dim sum with his father, and Rick thinking back on going clamming on Long Island. These remembrances were sweet but mighty staged; I nearly cringed at the awkwardness of them leaving the table with a stilted awkwardness that could only have been learned at the hand of Kelly Choi.
Back in the kitchen, the producers gave us a ton of Susur, and rightly so. (Rick’s annoyance at him only sweetened my appreciation for Susur’s giant mess and utensil-throwing antics.) He also managed to yank the heartstrings back from orphaned Marcus, speaking about his first wife, who was shot down in a plane in Russian air space. Badass and pitiful at once. Poor thing. And who wouldn’t love that he was so pissed at the suggestion of a twist that he refused to stop preparing his dish long enough to give Kelly Choi his full attention? Of course the “twist” this time was a helpful one; the show had flown in their sous-chefs to help with the final meal. (Perhaps had Susur seen the show before, he might have guessed.)
But on to the food. The chefs scored highly across the board, with few real complaints. Rick ’s been yapping all season about being the seafood guy, and yet, here during the final challenge, he goes with venison. And while he promotes sustainability, he uses venison flown in from New Zealand. I was typing this question in my notes when Jay asked it at critics’ table: How do you reconcile the two? Rick’s defensive response—“I’m not a tree-hugger; I’m a chef”—doesn’t correspond too well with the mission statement of his restaurant. But perhaps this really does embody him as a chef, or at least as Bravo would portray him with the constantly repeated shot of him declaring himself to have attention deficit disorder. Political correctness aside, everyone seemed to think the venison was damn good, with equal props given to his first oyster dish.
Susur’s three courses unfortunately failed to take the win, owing mainly to a thickly sliced, overly large tuna pouch. (Again with the pouch! Did he learn nothing from the Surf & Turf episode?) For my money, though, Susur’s dishes looked and sounded the best; in my house, each time close-ups of his food appeared on the screen, they drew firm vows to visit his restaurant. But in the end, Marcus walked away Top Chef Master for his journey from Africa to Sweden and back. The win was somewhat of a surprise—each of the critics called the final dish weird, unfamiliar, but eventually bought into the idea that their palates just aren’t accustomed to taste what they’re supposed to be tasting. Or perhaps the strength of his ganache alone pushed them over the edge. Either way, Marcus won by a half star, with Susur and Rick Moonen tying it up behind him.
-- James assessment of Susur’s dish: “It’s so punk rock!” Sigh.
-- Marcus to his sous: GIMME NOW.
-- Gravely disappointed at the lack of Hubert screen time.
-- Susur’s parting words: “I bullshit to you.”