Top Chef Masters Finale Recap: Playing With Heart

Mmmmm, juicy.
Mmmmm, juicy. Photo: Isabella Vosmikova/Bravo

We made it to the end, everyone! Top Chef Masters drew to its inevitably unsurprising close last night, but not without serving up a big helping of vintage photographs, feelings, and way too many tears. As in past seasons, this finale called upon the cheftestants to break through their crusty, caramelized exteriors to scoop out the crème brûlée of emotions waiting inside. Of course, one man was better suited to the task than the other, but both put up a good fight and everyone’s a winner in the end, except for the guy who didn’t technically win. So yeah, just one winner then. On to the recap!

Two men are left: Chris, the offal fiend who’s been the favorite to win this since the first episode, and Kerry, the classically trained chef who is “proud to have made it to finals” because he snuck his way in by not being completely awful for half of the season and then elevating his game when others started to flame out. Which is actually a brilliant strategy in retrospect, so kudos for that, Ker-Bear.

For their final challenge, the chefs were instructed to “bare your soul on a plate” and create four courses based on personal letters: a love letter, an apology letter, a thank you letter, and a letter to themselves. Kerry is scared because he’s “not much of a letter-writer,” but Chris thinks “this challenge is very powerful” and can’t wait to start sobbing about it.

Unfortunately the letters are never read aloud, and it’s not even clear if they actually had to write them, so I guess I’ll have to keep waiting for that competitive prose-writing series of my dreams to happen never. Moving along, both men get sous chefs they’ve worked with before, and so much time and money to plan, shop, prep, and cook everything. Kerry’s a one-stop shopper and gets everything he needs at Whole Foods, while Chris feels the need to also go to a butcher shop and an Asian grocery store for tripe and fresh pig blood. Traffic and time are his enemies, though, and by the time Chris makes it back to the kitchen, Kerry’s already prepped most of his food. But Chris still has time to put together his blood sausage so it’s fine.

Curtis rewards the chefs for their hard work by cooking dinner for them in a ridiculous hotel suite. Nothing interesting happens here, and the biggest response either one can muster is, “This doesn’t suck!”

The next day, it’s go time as they hustle to get everything ready on time. Kerry’s being hands-on and controlling, showing his sous chef how to do every single thing, which is maybe a good thing considering the blood sausages are “spooging” all over the pan on the other side of the kitchen. Meanwhile, the diners are taking their seats, and it’s Chris’s worst nightmare because they’re all food critics. Curtis says repeatedly that this is going to be fun, so either Bravo turned up his happy dial or we should all start to be concerned about him, maybe both actually. Anyway, Ruth, James, Francis, Krista, and Grub Street Alan are there, as well as some other critic types.

First course: the love letter. Accordingly, both create dishes for their wives. Kerry makes a Korean stew because his wife is Korean, and Chris serves a beef heart tartare with foie gras because hearts equal love, har har har. While some of the diners admire Chris’s boldness — Krista praises it as “a steampunk version of steak tartare” — the general consensus is that his dish appealed to the mind more than the tongue or heart. Advantage Kerry!

Second course: the apology. Again, food for the wives, this time to apologize for being busy and successful and never being home enough. Explaining his apology, Chris says he “married a kitchen” and begins a stream of waterworks that lasts for the remainder of the episode. What a softie! When Kerry says essentially the same thing, he looks like he’s just going through the motions and comes off as cold and aloof. Crack through the caramelized exterior! Anyway, Kerry’s dish is a supremely great pea flan with prosciutto and morels, and Chris’s is scallop with pancetta in a sea urchin sauce, which is compared to make-up sex and Ruth thinks it’s “one of the sexiest plates of food I’ve ever had.” But everyone gushes over Kerry’s flan so this round is a tie, even though Chris says he has no chance of winning at this point.

Third course: the thank you. Chris pays homage to his offal-loving Italian grandmother with a Neapolitan-style tripe, and Kerry honors family memories of clamming in the northeast with his clam ragout topped with branzino. The positive feedback on Kerry’s food becomes grating at this point, but it’s clear the show is just trying to make it look like he’s going to win. One person says Chris’s tripe is extraordinary, though, but Kerry still takes this round. Also, at this point in the episode, Francis has said nothing and I am grumpy about that.

Fourth course: a letter to yourself. First of all, this make no sense as a concept. What would such a letter say? “Dear Me, eat these tasty things I made for you. Love, Me.” No, this is nonsense. But that’s how Kerry interpreted it, because he serves an over-the-top plate of côte de boeuf, short ribs, and potato gratin. Chris, on the other hand, interprets this as a last meal kinda thing, which for him is blood sausage, poached oyster, and a fried egg. Some guy tried to take Chris down by calling the dish “embarrassingly bad” but then Francis opens his golden mouth and spouts a strange yet glorious swimming metaphor involving a pig doing a belly flop and then tops it all off with, “It’s maybe the best thing I’ve eaten in the last 30 years!” Well done, sir. Advantage Chris!

Before a decision can be made, there has to be debate, and it’s all about ideology and A vs. B. You see, Chris and Kerry are polar opposites and represent two extremes in the food world. Kerry’s dishes showed off his style of cooking, but Chris’s showed off his personality, which Kerry doesn’t have.

It’s too tough to make a call yet, so the judges chat with the chefs. Kerry says he would have made a few tweaks to his dishes, but can’t name any specifics (wrong answer), then says the “letter to himself” dish was just about eating rich food (wrong answer again, confirmed by the stunned looks on the faces of Francis and James). Meanwhile, the judges are praising Chris for sharing his emotions and Kerry is crossing his arms and pouting.

After some forced debate to fill time (“Do you want to be comforted or thrilled?” “Sometimes you can be too thrilled.”), they rightfully name Chris the new Top Chef Master! “Guts prevailed!” cries Chris. Kerry is sullen, but tries to save face by spouting some boilerplate stuff about learning from his fellow chefs. Everyone drinks some Champagne, Francis squeals with joy, Chris gets a fancy jacket and cries some more, and that’s how this fairy tale ends, boys and girls, with the happy ending we always knew it would have. Thanks to all the readers and commenters for sticking it out with me this season. Let’s do it again next year, eh?