Spoiler alert: That leak about this season’s winner turned out to be true! Top Chef Masters aired its not-so-thrilling finale last night, leaving us to shake our heads in disappointment as we entered the five stages of grief (though we skipped denial and went straight to anger). But before the winner was revealed, it was shaping up to be the finest episode of the season: no Quickfire gimmicks, no mid-challenge twists, no weird ingredients, and no chafing trays. For once, they let the chefs cook whatever they wanted, however they wanted, but of course they had to tell a story. In three courses, the men structured a culinary narrative that started with their earliest food memories, explained how they chose their profession, and finally described them as the chefs they are today. But which chef did best, and who really deserved to win?
Backstory: Recalling his childhood in Hong Kong, Susur thought of eating dim sum with his father, which he reproduced here as a steamed scallop with Cantonese black bean sauce and a shrim-and-crab croquette. Memories of eating sushi for the first time in Toronto, where he decided to become a chef rather than a cook, inspired an otherworldly orb of tuna served with wasabi mousse and charred sea bream. He wrapped up the night on a high note with his lamb Thailandaise with Chiang Mai sausage, green curry, and polenta, a nod to a family trip he took to Thailand, but also an indicator of his ability to work with a variety of Asian cuisines. Unrelated to his dishes, but important to his personal history was the devastating revelation that his first wife had died in a plane that was shot down in Russian airspace in 1983, leaving Susur alone in Canada, where he knew almost no one.
Should Have Won: The breakout star of this season, Susur seemed like the chef to beat in the finale. Unforgettable presentations, high concepts, and classical techniques were the trademarks of his plates, and his are the dishes that linger in the mind longer than the other chefs’. Will anyone ever forget the Marge Simpson pork chop? And considering his wife’s death, an experience that would have crippled lesser men, it’s inspiring to see the chef he’s become today.
Shouldn’t Have Won: He got the top number of stars in only one elimination challenge this season (albeit a near-perfect number), so he didn’t have the winning momentum of his competitors. Aside from that, the judges were just weirded out by his alien-looking ball of tuna, even though they liked the taste of everything on that plate.
Backstory: Once again, we were subjected to the orphan tale, in which Marcus and his sister find themselves in Sweden after being adopted by a family. Somewhat sadly, Marcus has no food memories from his childhood in Africa, so his upbringing in a Swedish fishing town resulted in a first course of smoked char with horseradish and shellfish broth. His second course of salt-cured duck and foie gras ganache was a tribute to the time he cooked Christmas dinner for his family and realized he wanted to be a chef. He finished up with an unfamiliar dish of hamachi meatballs and porcini couscous with sea urchin, a nod to his Ethiopian heritage and his goal as a chef to bring African influences to Western cuisine.
Should Have Won: He swept the semifinals last week and was riding on steam in the finale. His dishes were bold, memorable, true to his vision. Meanwhile, his foie gras ganache had the judges and chefs raving all night.
Shouldn’t Have Won: It was only recently in the competition that Marcus got the hang of things, because prior to that his dishes were constantly criticized. In truth, he probably shouldn’t have lasted this long, but it somehow made sense that he did, since the three finalists were also the most competitive chefs of the season. And though his Ethiopian dish may have been true to his vision, no one liked it very much. Strangely, Jay and Gail Simmons rushed to defend the dish, focusing on his refusal to sacrifice the dish’s “integrity,” which suddenly became more important than making food that tastes good. And on top of all that, he was plainly the least likable cheftestant of the whole bunch.
Backstory: We learned that Rick and his father would go clamming together on Long Island when Rick was just a boy who donned some unfortunate eyewear. His memory of eating that first clam, and the taste of the sea, inspired his opening course, a crudo of hamachi and live sea scallop, served with a glazed oyster. His culinary awakening took place at a neighbor’s house, when he ate eggs and bacon with mushrooms for the first time, an experience he attempted to replicate in a serving of gnocchi with braised pork belly and white truffles. Though the final course was meant to describe the sustainable-seafood master as a chef, he went for New Zealand venison served with espresso salt, stuffed cipollini onions, mushrooms, and pear butter, a decidedly non-sustainable dish that judge Jay Rayner took the chef to task over.
Should Have Won: Rick’s journey this year was about redemption. Following his embarrassing defeat last season, he worked hard to save his reputation and ultimately did so by winning the most challenges of the three finalists. Though he often did stick to his trademark seafood, the judges consistently praised his dishes, and his continuity throughout the challenges was exceptional. At the final judging, Saveur’s James Oseland was so effusive with his praise that he asked Rick to marry him. He also stepped outside his traditional area to cook venison and he aced it.
Shouldn’t Have Won: He scored big with his first and third courses, but the middle one wasn’t up to par. The pork belly wasn’t braised enough, the gnocchi were too chewy, and the concept was too simple. His final dish also didn’t tell anything about him as the chef he is today.
You can blame it on the foie gras or the sad-orphan story, but Marcus is the new Top Chef Master. It was a neck-and-neck race, with Rick and Susur earning seventeen stars each, and Marcus grabbing the win with seventeen and a half. Rick had predicted a final showdown between himself and Susur, but in the end it was really between Marcus and the ninja chef. It’s only fair to say that Susur was robbed (the Bravo poll showed 47 percent in favor of him), but Top Chef Masters has its own agenda to worry about, one which seemed this year to focus on giving the top prize to a hot, young chef with style and culinary flair to boot. As for the winner’s reaction, he told us, “People all over the world will celebrate this with me, I guarantee you that.” It was a dubious claim, but not nearly as funny as his remarks about the winner: “We all know what the winner gets: It’s $100,000 for you charity, and bragging rights forever.” Ha, no. Who’s going to be the one to remind him that this doesn’t mean anything and that there will be someone stealing his title next year?