The finale challenge is always interesting: something personal and revealing about the chefs. Too bad they don’t do this throughout the season. But no, they rely on Grand Canyon scenery and hot chicks in bikinis. Is there really anyone watching TCM for the hot chicks in bikinis?
Write four letters:
A Love Letter
A Thank-You Note
A Letter to Yourself
Now translate these letters to four-course meal.
Since we’re dealing with chefs, the letters themselves are imaginary. Me, of course, I’d love to see them actually write letters, and read them as they serve. But I suspect they might walk at this point if that were required of them. It’s like Harold said way back in TC-1: “I’m a cook.” If they wanted to be writers, they’d be restaurant critics. Kerry doesn’t write letters: “Does texting count?” Um, no.
But we never see any letters, so it’s really a matter of, “Cook what you want, and make up stories to go along with it.” I’m fine with that.
The Critics’ Table will consist of, surprisingly, critics. Critics and only critics. A chef’s best friend. Ten of them. Jane Goldman, Alan Richman, John Curtas, Alan Sytsma, Karen Brooks, and Leslie Bargar Suter. Plus, of course, James, Ruth, Krista, and Francis. Oh, and Curtis. Can’t leave him out. Actually, we could, and no one would mind that much.
Shop and Prep:
Their assistants show up; Chris’s is his chef de cuisine, and Kerry is someone he works with on large events, “putting stuff together on the fly.” I’m confused. Kerry’s not cooking on a regular basis? Is not chef/owner of anything? Or executive chef? I don’t understand, just what does Kerry actually do these days? Besides fishing with Tom Colicchio? But you know, this finale is working on a special event, putting something together on the fly, so this could be an advantage for him.
They have six hours to shop and prep, dividing it at their discretion. Chris decides to spend his time shopping all over town at three different locations; Kerry focuses on time in the kitchen, so only goes to the usual joint for ingredients. So he has only himself to blame when he can’t find lobsters. But he does get an extra hour or so to cook.
Me, I’d like to know what happens to that one shrimp he has to put back because he was $.61 over his budget. I don’t want to be the customer who buys that shrimp after sitting around for another few hours after it’s toured the store and been handled by someone who’s been handling everything else in the store. I worry about things like this (no, I don’t, not really, at least not usually, but maybe I should). I hope the producers just bought the damn thing and threw it away.
R&R with Curtis:
After prep, they visit Curtis in the “Rain Man” suite (™ Kerry) for a home-cooked meal of shellfish and foie gras. You know, to relax them before the final day. I think it’d be a riot if they ended up with food poisoning. Not bad food poisoning, you understand. Just enough to make the news. They talk about critics. Curtis says is to make him mad the critics were judging his work when they know less than he does, they didn’t go to culinary school. But sitting with Ruth and James and the others over 10 weeks changed his mind: they have devoted their lives to food. May I reminded him that Francis did go to the premiere culinary school in the United States. Kerry says it’s a different art to deduce, as a diner, what a chef did. I’m not sure that’s exactly what a critic does; I think a critic describes the effect more than the cause. However, there are obvious similarities with writers and editors/literary critics. And writers are just as disdainful of those who get paid to judge their work.
(Note: I know three of the links are wonky; Bravo’s been like that the last couple of weeks. The recipes are there, the URLs are correct, you just can’t get to them that way – try searching the Bravo recipe finder for “jjigae,” “branzino,” and “boeuf,” and you’ll find them. And if you have any idea why the URLs don’t work, clue me in)
Scallop and Spot Prawn “Korean Jjigae”: His wife is Korean, and on their first date they went fishing, so this is his love letter to her. That’s a good a rationale as any, I suppose; “Jjigae” is a Korean stew and it’s got seafood in it. The critics find it muted for a Korean dish, but expressive for Kerry, which seems like a pretty backhanded compliment to me. One loves the smoothness and finesse; he’d get to first base with it. Which again, seems like a pretty backhanded compliment for a love letter. But maybe you have to want it.
Flan of Sugar Snap Peas with Prosciutto, Morels, and Chervil: Kerry apologizes to his family for waiting too long to come home. Alan thinks it’s the softest flan he’s ever had; they agree it tastes great. I can see flan as an apology: it’s soft and comforting.
Branzino with Clam Ragout and Mustard Greens: the thank-you note is to his family, and incorporates the traditions he knew growing up on Cape Cod. One critic says it’s the least expressive of his dishes; another loves it.
Dry Aged “Cote de Boeuf,” Short Ribs with Fennel Gratin: in his letter to himself, Kerry gives himself permission to revel in joy and express decadence without his usual reserve; he made all the stuff he loves. Alan loves the steak; one of the critics finds her short rib dry and tough around the edges and has no juiciness like the other components; Curtis thinks it’s great.
Beef Heart Tartare, Foie Gras, and Puffed Beef Tendon: this is his love letter to his wife. If I were his wife, I would be worried. Nothing says love like puffed beef tendon? Jane loves it conceptually, her heart loves it less. Krista calls it steampunk state tartare. As a chef, Curtis loves that Chris went for beef heart. I do too, I’m just glad I don’t have to eat it.
Scallop, Pancetta Piana and Sea Urchin: it apologizes to his wife for working so much, and serves her favorite things; he actually tears up when describing it, which is a little over the top to me. One critic calls it makeup sex for the sensuality, but Jane thinks, like many apologies, it went too far. To Ruth, it’s the sexiest plate of food ever; apology accepted.
Trippa Napolitana: Chris thanks his great-grandmother for making him a gut man with a nice plate of cow’s stomach lining. They’re skeptical of the brown smear on the side of the plate (pictured above); they debate what it is, and someone guesses charcoal (it’s onion charcoal, per the recipe, but he doesn’t say how to make it. Burn some onions to powder, I’m guessing.). Yeah, edgy is one thing, but putting an unidentified brown smear on a plate of tripe is probably a little much. They decide it’s what Chris left when he peeled out of the house. That’s better than some things it could be. But they do declare it an extraordinary dish.
Blood Sausage, Poached Oysters, and Egg: Chris’s letter to himself is his last supper (hey, that was TC-5), covering air, land, and sea. John calls it “embarrassingly bad;” he’s had better blood sausage, and Chris should’ve brought his A-game. Ouch. I wonder if they asked him to say that, so it wouldn’t look like a runaway. Someone else thinks its bold, and engages the diner in every element. Francis (who, before he went to culinary school, studied English at the University of Michigan) says it’s like taking a swim, basking in the sun from the sky, and a pig comes along and gives you a back rub; it’s the best thing he’s eaten in thirty years.
Overall comments: Kerry’s letters are about himself as a cook, where Chris’s are about him as a person. One meal is going to nurture you into a blissful coma, the other is daring you eat it. Brain vs. palate: which one wins? Do I want to chef who pushes me, or coddles me? To me, this is a lot more interesting than a discussion about who the first course, etc. But if you don’t know who’s going to win by now, you don’t watch much Competitive Reality Television.
They talk to Kerry. He says he do a few tweaks, but like Mitt Romney, he can’t come up with an example. Psst – Kerry – the mustard greens, not getting lobster, remember? James had personal relations with the dishes (really, James, right there at the table?). Francis asks, “What about the letter-to-yourself dish is you?” Kerry mumbles something about unctuous and rich and enjoying something.
Chris’s in the hot seat next. Did he cook for the critics? No, he had to cook for himself. Of course, they’re not letting them off that easy: “Are you more important than the diner?” Curtis questions serving raw cow’s heart as a love letter; Chris says his wife was blown away. She must be a very interesting woman. Ruth was amazed to see something she hadn’t had before, and felt like she’d been missing out on something all her life. Ruth says he went for it; Chris says, “That’s what you asked for.” Kerry looks sulky.
The judges discuss privately while Chris and Kerry assure each other in the kitchen the other has won. James calls it a different worldview. I wouldn’t go that far, but yeah, it’s a different approach to life. Francis recognizes Chris’s dishes are about a deep philosophy as a chef, and who he is. Ruth asks the question: “Do you want to be comforted or thrilled?” And the companion question: “Is there such a thing as too thrilled?”
Now come on, you’ve got to admit – this is the most interesting judging table since that Irish guy talked about throwing plates.
Extraneous Fun Stuff:
Jenni Pulos looks like a Stepford Wife in those “how to decorate your bedroom” spots.
Chris gets 85% of the viewer vote.
No matter what, a decent charity is going to get a lot of money. Maybe fans of the losing chef will be inspired to make contributions to even things out (though that might be difficult; I’m not sure one of them actually has fans). It won’t affect either of their careers at all. So let’s quit talking about the high stakes.
My first post for this season featured a picture of Chris holding guts; did I call it or what. Sure, I had a brief affair with the boys from Maine – I had to – and a little flirtation with Thierry (not to mention some serious ideas about Takashi) but Chris has been around television a long time; he knows how to play it.
Chris wins. That’s a total of $141,000 for The Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
We’ll meet again on November 7 for Top Chef Seattle. They promise it’s back to basics – I hope that means no bicycles or shooting ranges. And aren’t you glad they’re now naming the seasons by location instead of numbers?