Top Chef Masters Recap
By Jason Lee
June 15, 2010

Now -that- is the stance of a reality show winner.

The finale is finally here.

After ten weeks, we’re about to have a new Top Chef Master crowned. It’s been somewhat of a rocky season, with some extremely likable chefs going home ridiculously early. We’re now left with group of three Masters comprised of one loud-mouthed braggart (Rick Moonen), one Asian immigrant with little knowledge of American pop culture (Susur Lee) and one Ethiopian who immigrated to the U.S. from Sweden and made it through eight episodes without winning any money before sweeping the Quickfire and Elimination challenges in the penultimate episode (Marcus).

As the Masters enter the beautiful Union Station building in Los Angeles, they each reflect on their journey to the finale. Rick says that he’s had fun, Marcus is proud that he stayed true to his culinary style and Susur admits that in the early episodes, he really didn’t understand the rules.

Kelly meets them for their final Elimination Challenge. Just like last year, the chefs will have to create three dishes that tell their own story. The first dish will be based on their first food memory, the second dish will be based on the experience that made them want to become a chef, and the third dish will describe them as a chef in the present.

The Masters are invited to have breakfast together at the Old Union Station restaurant to reminisce and plan their dishes. Marcus describes his life as an orphan growing up in Sweden, Rick dwells on his childhood growing up with an immigrant father, and Susur tells a heart wrenching story about his travels to the United States.

He had initially traveled to Toronto with his first wife for a cooking job – not because he was particularly interested in becoming chef, but because it was a job. His wife landed a position as a professor back in Hong Kong, but on the way, her plane was shot down in Russian airspace. Susur starts to get choked up as he thinks about how abandoned he’d felt in Canada, not knowing anyone. He focused on his cooking skills as a way to adapt to his new life and ended up becoming a world-renowned chef.

The chefs head to Whole Foods for a quick shopping expedition before getting their hands dirty in the Top Chef kitchen. Before we know it, Kelly strides into the room. There’s a general sentiment of “f*ck” in the air as the Masters prepare for yet another twist.

“We’ve brought you some help,” Kelly announces, as the sous-chefs of each of the Masters enter the kitchen. The Masters momentarily bask in the knowledge that there’ll be an extra set of hands to help out, but quickly get back to work.

Meanwhile, in the dining room, our three critics (Gail, Jay, and James) and our host (Kelly) sit down with Tom Colicchio plus the three finalists from last year (Hubert Keller, Michael Chiarello and winner Rick Bayless. It’s an intimidating panel.

The three Masters bring in their first courses. Marcus remembers eating a lot of starches in his childhood, presenting a smoked char with sweet horseradish, shellfish broth and apples. Susur, like every Asian kid, remembers going to dim sum with his family, presenting steamed scallops with Cantonese black bean sauce and dim sum shrimp with crab croquettes. Rick recalls his times going “clamming” with his father, but strangely serves a glazed kushi OYSTER (not a clam) with sturgeon caviar, hamachi and a live sea scallop.

The panel digs into what looks like an AMAZING spread of food. According to the diners, Rick has displayed true artistry with his perfectly cooked oyster, Susur’s black bean sauce is absolutely amazing (“dim sum taken to the next level,” says Rick Bayless), and Marcus’s char is spectacular. Sounds like three hits.

Next up, for the “dish that made you want to become a chef,” Marcus recalls the time he cooked Thanksgiving dinner for his family, presenting a salt-cured duck, a foie gras ganache, sweet potato jam and some aged balsalmic. Susur remembers his first time eating Japanese food and presents tuna with wasabi mousse, pickled cucumber and artichoke, plus a charred sea bream. Rick has fond memories of when a neighbor cooked bacon and eggs for him, serving up a braised pork belly with a poached egg, truffles, gnocchi and turnip.

Only Marcus seems to have hit the mark here. The foie gras is roundly praised as “genius,” with Jay demanding that one of the chefs in the room explain to him how it was made, and Rick responding with, “I don’t know but I want this technique.”

Meanwhile, Susur’s tuna needed to be sliced thinner and with greater precision, while Rick’s gnocchi is chewy and his pork belly wasn’t braised long enough.

Finally, we have the dish that represents the Masters as they are today. Marcus wants to bring African cuisine into the fine dining world and serves berbere-flavored hamachi meatballs, a sea urchin froth and porcini mushroom couscous. Susur has a lamb Thailandaise with chang mai sausage, green curry and polenta. Rick is not doing fish (a surprise) and presents venison with matsutake mushrooms, pear butter and stuffed cipolini onions.

This time, it’s Susur and Rick that have impressed the crowd.

“Oh my god, wait til you taste it, it’s so good,” gushes Rick Bayless about Susur’s dish. He compliments the Chang Mai sausage, Tom loves the sauces, and Michael proclaims this dish to be his favorite that Susur has cooked.

As for Rick, his venison is perfectly cooked, Gail loves the pear butter, and Rick Bayless praises him for stretching outside his comfort zone.

Meanwhile, most people are perplexed by Marcus’ dish. Rick Bayless says that it has an odd texture, saying that it’s not his favorite dish, though admitting that this could be due to the fact that he doesn’t understand African cuisine.

It’s back to the critics table for the last time. Rick gets major kudos for his oyster from Jay, who calls it the best he’d ever had. James criticizes his gnocchi for being chewy in the second dish, while Jay complains that the pork belly hadn’t been braised long enough. They all loved his third dish, though.

For Susur, Gail loved his black bean sauce in his first dish, James knocks his tuna dish for being large and wieldy, but Gail absolutely adored the sausage in his third dish, saying that the layers of flavor showed different aspect of his personality.

Lastly, Gail was wowed by the broth in Marcus’ first dish, the ganache in his second dish is (again) roundly praised, but James questions the texture of the fish in his third dish.
There were a lot of highs and lows from each Master, but I’m thinking that Marcus has the edge. Sadly, if I had to guess, I’d say that Rick probably secured second place. I was pulling for Susur - but I’ll be happy if Rick doesn’t win.

The scores are ready to be read, and Susur goes first (which means he won’t win). He gets 4 ½ stars from Jay, 4 from Gail and 4 ½ from James. The diners gave him 4 stars for a total of 17. Sigh, that’s not enough to win. Nope.

Marcus gets 4 ½ stars from Gail, 4 stars from James and 5 stars from Jay. The diners gave him 4 stars, so he has 17 ½. Just half a star better than Susur.

So it’ll either be Marcus or Rick as the Top Chef Master. Rick gets 5 stars from James, but only 4 from Gail and 4 from Jay. He needs 5 stars from the diners to win . . . but he only gets 4! His total of 17 is not enough to win. Marcus has the title, and Rick and Susur tie for second.
It’s amazing how close this competition was – only half a star separated the winner from third place. I guess it just goes to show how good these Masters are. I’m sad that my favorites like Jody and Susan weren’t able to participate in the finale, but we nevertheless saw some great cooking.

Onto Top Chef DC!