Top Chef: Masters - Nobody ever needs to cook food ever again

I hope you all don't think I'm giving the finale of Top Chef: Masters short-shrift by A) publishing my recap a day late, and B) writing a somewhat brief one at that. To the first point, I wasn't feeling well yesterday, and then I just got behind. To the second, I think anyone who watched the episode can agree that it was pretty much a slack-jawed gapefest. I'm in awe of the product put forth by all three chefs.

The episode opens with the chefs being whisked away on the coastal highway to the Getty Villa, so luxuriously appointed that it genuinely impresses even these three world-class chefs. The assignment is straight-forward but elegant: create the meal of your lifetime.

The first course will represent your first food memory. The second course, the experience that inspired you to become a chef. Third course will associate with the opening of your first restaurant. Fourth is a representation of your future as a chef.

The judges will be the usual trio, plus the judges from the Top Chef mothership: Padma, Tom, and Gail. Also dining with the judges are the winners of the five seasons of Top Chef: Harold, Ilan, Hung, Stephanie, and Hosea. This concerns Chef Chiarello, who doesn't appear to trust in the palates of the young punks.

Kelly releases the masters to free run of the Villa, and they sit and enjoy a light lunch and chat about their childhoods. Hubert thinks back on his Alsatian roots, and the laundry day tradition of baeckeoffe, a rich day-long stew of potatoes, beef, pork, and lamb. Rick's first memory is barbecue sauce, so he'll craft a smoked quail dressed in his mother's hickory sauce recipe, paired with a watermelon salad (this is so right up my alley). Cute--and coincidentally also laundry-related--revelation from Rick: his dad was a pit master and the house was so meat-smoky that young Rick kept his "dating clothes" in a separate closet. Michael's dish will be a duo of gnocchi, inspired by learning to make the pasta with his mother reaching over him to roll each piece.

It's all so dreamlike, these technicians of food, kibbutzing about their creative process and the beginnings of their lives as chefs. The scene plays like looking in on a snowglobe, magical and yet unattainable.

But we're snapped back to TC reality with a grand Whole Foods shopping trip, with each chef spending up to $1,300 in an hour. They have five hours to prep afterwards. The chefs come back to the kitchen, and as they glide about the ranges and refrigerators and pots and pans, their voices guide us through the second stage of their dining biography.

Rick went to Mexico at the age of 14, and encountered Oaxacan molé for the first time during that trip. He'll be serving ahi tuna with black molé, plantain tamales and grilled nopales, a course even he has some trepidation about given the molé's complexity. Michael will serve a polenta with rabbit, duck, wild mushrooms and asparagus. Hubert's dish will be a salmon soufflé with caviar, and a choucroute flan.

On Day 2, the chefs are given another two and a half hours, as well as a card from Kelly indicating a surprise on the TV monitor in front of them. Worried, they press play, and are met with messages of encouragement from each of the sous chefs at their main restaurants: Laurent Pillard (Fleur de Lys), Nick Ritchie (Botega), and Brian Enyard (Topolobampo). It's a sentimental moment that rings the right notes for the somewhat-stressed out chefs, and then in walk the sous chefs, in the flesh, to assist their bosses. In a season crammed full of lovey-dovey, it's still a cool moment to watch.

Sous chefs at their sides, the chefs detail courses three and four. Rick: achiote-marinated cochinita pibil with crispy pigs' feet and pickled onions for course three, and arroz a la tumbada with mixed shellfish, tomato-jalepeño broth and chorizo "air" (foam) for the fourth. Hubert, whose big fat truffles just arrived the previous night, will lay 'em on thick for his fourth course of pan-seared sweetbreads and wagyu beef cheeks (the cheeks symbolizing a frugality brought on by economic hard times...ahem, HUGE TRUFFLES), preceded by a third course of lamb chop and vegetable mousseline with whole blanched garlic cloves and a vanilla-merlot sauce.

At this point, we are witness to perhaps the only moment of master-on-master negative attitude during this entire season. Rick, unimpressed with Hubert's massive truffles, notes that truffles don't make a dish great if you lay 'em on there--they just make that dish more expensive. Damn! That kinda shoots Hubert's financial wisdom full o' holes, doesn't it?

ANYway, Michael will be cooking up a massive ginger-stuffed rouget over a mango salad and wasabi for the third course, and brined short ribs with 5-onion cavalo nero and the burned essence of cabernet cuttings from his very own vineyard. He's also working on a little surprise for critic James Oseland, who has given more than a few low grades to Michael over this season. As doilies for his second course's serving dish, Michael is cutting out circles from Oseland's Saveur magazine and burning around the edges a little. It seems like the kind of childish move that should get snagged by the internal filter, but we'll see how everyone takes it.

There's not much I can say about the meal. There's a lot of superlatives; Chiarello's Saveur prank is surprisingly well-received, even by Oseland; Padma kind of wants on Michael for his polenta. Still, there were some criticisms. Hubert's vanilla-merlot sauce was too sweet for some, and his thrice-blanched was still too raw for most diners. Michael's rouget was too one-note despite being well-cooked. And Rick's chorizo foam seem like a reach. Tom Colicchio rightly describes the meal as "an embarrassment of riches." Just watching, I couldn't agree more.

After stewing for a little, accompanied by a tall bottle of Milagro, the master chefs return for some criticism and certainly a heapin' helpin' of praise. While Michael's rouget was controversial at the table, the short ribs were a hit. Hubert's Alsatian stew made everyone rave, but--to Hubert's genuine shock--they all found the garlic too raw. He acknowledges that the vanilla was a risk, but that's why he did it (good on ya, buddy).

Rick's arroz a la tumbada literally means "thrown together rice dish," and it fails to cohere for the judges. Gael in particular is biased against foam, but Rick gets credit for pairing chorizo with shellfish (this is not news to me, I know I've seen it before). His molé might be the most universal winner for the critics--although I hope Jay Rayner was kidding when he said to Rick, "I lost my molé virginity. To you."

The scores are delivered. Michael, with 4.5 from the diners, gets 4.5 from Gael, a somewhat inexplicable 3.5 from his best bud James, and 4.5 from Jay for 17 stars total (remember, no Quickfire this week). Hubert's 4 from the diners is added to James' 4.5, Gael's 4, and Jay's 4, which gives him 16.5. Sorry Hubert! It's down to Rick, who also had 4.5 from the diners. He scores a straight card from the judges, a triple 4.5 for a total of 18 stars, and the victory in the inaugural season of Top Chef: Masters.

I don't know how you could possibly deliver a verdict differentiating between the quality of these three meals. I found it fascinating that the small failings in each chef's score so clearly led to their loss. Hubert's -.5 in the diner score put him .5behind Michael. Michael in turn got whacked by Oseland (again--guess you gotta burn something more important to get the message through, Mike!), scoring a full point lower than the other two judges; Michael came up exactly one point short against Rick.

Chef Bayless cheers his victory (and his $100,000 for the Frontera Farmer Foundation) with a subdued "viva Mexico" to the confessional camera, and remarks that his dad--the pit master--would be genuinely proud of his son, the Top Chef Master. Congratulations, Chef. You definitely earned it.

On that appropriately sentimental vibe, I thank you for reading along for this season. Top Chef: Las Vegas is now in full-swing, and I'll be blogging that--of course (click here to read my recap of the premiere if you haven't already).

Some bad news, though: since Project Runway is on Lifetime now, and the two shows are airing in the same "season," I won't be recapping PR this time around. I just can't promise that I'll be able to devote two nights a week to recapping, what with the move to our first house coming next month. But if I have time, I'll blog some general thoughts for those of you interested in what a fashion putz like me thinks about the first non-Bravo season.

As usual, I invite you Top Chef fans to keep reading beyond the TC season; I try to put up good stuff on here from time to time.