The Top Chef Masters finale happened, and here is my gripe: As with this season of MasterChef, the finalists were made up of one person who had been slaying it all competition (in the case of MC this was Christine, who was, incidentally, blind) and one culinarian who had been bobbing along in a warm pool of the consommé of mediocrity for the whole season before getting things in gear a few episodes before the finale (MC’s Josh frequently found himself in the bottom three, and was even eliminated once before being invited back into the game). In the final episode, these slackers bust out with menus completely unlike any of the wallflower gnocchi and unspectacular over-easy eggs they’ve been handing out for weeks, parading out a pea flan and saying, “Hey, look, I’ve always been Mr. Pea Flan!” You can’t save the goods for the finale. Saving the goods for the finale and hoping to win goes completely against the nature of these competitions: Before you were Mr. Pea Flan, you were Mr. Who’s That, and nobody wants Mr. Who’s That to win a very important Bravo-emblazoned chef’s jacket worth $500 million. This is why I was very concerned to see Kerry Heffernan against my boy Chris Cosentino in the finale of TCM.
Cosentino’s food doesn’t translate well to television. It looks just offal. Seeing beef heart, honeycomb tripe, and pig’s blood (pig’s blood basically co-starred this season, like a warm red judge oozing onto the critics' table to sit there, bubbling distractingly) without being able to take a deep breath, swallow, and “just try it!” isn’t the same as summoning a memory from the normal citizen’s Proustian archives of, like, what prosciutto tastes like or the mouthfeel of pappardelle. Watching the preparation of blood sausage doesn’t exactly draw the mmmm-goods out of you. But the judges have been consistently impressed by Chris, and maybe more important, his passion throughout the competition has made him a favorite of mine and probably yours if you’re the kind of person who enjoys people with tattoos of pigs on their bodies. Last week, Chris coached teenagers in an elimination challenge like a true dad (plying them with stories about his youth as a screw-up, pulling out all the stops to get them to loosen up) while Kerry’s instruction was more like a private SAT tutor’s whose doorbell ring ends your Saturday marathon of PS3 like a mallet making paillard out of Elder Scrolls. Inconsistent asparagus! Work harder, young drones!
Then again, Kerry cooks for the critic: no guts, flawless presentation, no bravery required. Last night, he upped his game to the point that — based on the judges' sound bites — it seemed as though he’d be the clear victor if the winner’s title weren’t based on a cumulative performance. You can’t win a cooking competition based on one dish, but of course you should be able to, because if you can’t then that means you shouldn’t have earned a spot in the finale in the first place. Takashi-san should have. Because he’s a ninja. But life is unfair, and so is television, so for an hour we had to suffer with the possibility that Kerry would somehow snatch the figurative trophy out of Chris’s hands like a foodie thief. This is how that hour went.
With no QuickFire at this point, we jump right into the elimination challenge. This week the chefs are asked to write four letters, and translate them into a four-course meal. I’m thinking that this is a pretty good finale challenge, because it’s always nice when people cry on television, especially when they’re trying to read out loud. Kerry says he’s not much of a letter writer and asks if texting counts. Unfortunately, we will never hear the content of these letters (the first is a love letter, the second an apology, the third a thank-you, and the final note a “letter to yourself”) because someone at Bravo isn’t hip to our needs. It seems fitting, because if this season of Top Chef Masters had a theme, it would have been “communication”: The chefs yelled at each other a decent amount (Chris and Art, Lorena and Patricia), and most of the challenges required them to work together despite this. The reality-show lesson seemed to be that no chef is an island, and that a person has to balance egocentric artistry and teamwork in order to succeed in a kitchen. I guess food is a sort of communication device, a way of relating emotions or experiences through flavor or soup or whatever. Again, this is why Chris is such a strong competitor compared to Kerry: His point of view is clear and decipherable, whereas Kerry’s take on the world through his dishes just seems to be “I’m strict.”
The judges this week are all critics; no other chefs in the mix. This makes Chris hang his head. They’ll be assisted in this endeavor by, in Chris’s case, his chefs de cuisine from Incanto, and in Kerry’s case a friend/cooking companion who taught him to surf. Because that makes sense.
The chefs get the rest of the day to shop and prep, and two hours the following day to cook. Chris takes a personal tack in his planning, trying to trump Kerry’s classical training with a super-emo menu with heart (literally). Kerry, who admits to being reserved, decides to shop first and ask burning personal questions later — I think he’s kind of fudging the emotional connection, which reminds me (again, I know) of another cooking show, Next Food Network Star, in which everyone’s always coached to tell the camera (also known as “lie”) that every single dish came from their mother’s old, worn recipe box, or was Nana’s very favorite (God rest her), or is dressed with a sauce made of feelings. Kerry opts to do all of his shopping at Whole Foods to save time, while Chris decides to take a chance and shop at three different locations so that he can procure the best organ meat and goopus from all around the Las Vegas metropolis. Very risky, but I guess it’s probably important to get the nicest offal you can if you’re going that route.
Kerry’s love letter is a tribute to his Korean wife: a lobster-and-kimchi stew that winds up being a shrimp-and-kimchi stew because Whole Foods isn’t carrying the fancy-fancy. His thank-you is a chowder with bacon and branzino for his mama, of course, who used to take him “clamming” in Cape Cod. Unfortunately, Kerry the robot man’s hard drive crashes when confronted with getting a story together for his apology letter. He’ll make something up later.
Chris’s love letter to his wife is a beef heart tartare with foie gras and tendon, because he’s a literal guy and apparently his wife is a very adventurous soul. He calls foie gras and heart a “perfect marriage” because “that’s what I have” (cue slideshow). Now eat your macerated raw beef heart, my love. His thank-you is to his great-grandmother Rosalie, whose tripe preparation’s stench used to repel young Cosentino before he became known for guts. While Chris is speeding through the desert hitting markets, Kerry is prepping his food, possibly giving him a huge advantage and about an hour’s edge on his competition. Chris gets to work on some blood sausage for his letter to himself, which he interprets as being his “last supper.” That takes on a new meaning as you watch blood sausage filling being poured into casings. It’s not pretty. Last meal indeed. Chris drops some info here that his family founded Newport, Rhode Island, “and with them came sausage making.” Is it time to make a Girls nepotism poster with Chris Cosentino sitting on a bench next to a liver, a kidney, and some slab bacon?
Curtis breezes through and asks Kerry about his letter to himself, so Kerry explains that he’s making rich food that he would like to eat. Apparently he was too focused on his veal stock to come up with a suitable lie, like “I was raised in an orphanage and the first time I had short ribs was when my adoptive family dressed me in fine silk and took me to dinner before I slept in a real bed for the very first time, as opposed to the cold, hard cement floors to which I had grown accustomed.” That’s what winners say. Cosentino tells Curtis that he’s writing both his love and apology letters to his wife because he “married a kitchen” and doesn’t get to spend enough time with his family. That’s how it’s done! Share those deep-seated insecurities! Kerry hasn’t even figured out the story behind his apology letter.
For no reason at all, the chefs then go to Curtis Stone’s pimped-out suite so that they can exclaim over the view (does not suck!), sit down at a bar, and eat dishes prepared by Curtis in their honor. For Kerry, it's mussels and clams, and for Chris, a foie gras with some kind of jelly on it. Was this the time-taker-upper that precluded us hearing those letters, or was it just that Kerry never wrote them?
As the chefs prep for service, Kerry says that he finally came up with the theme for his apology dish. It is now an apology to his family for waiting so long for him to come home. Weaksauce! Nearby, something very intense happens with Chris’s blood sausages, which as I said were already looking so delicious dribbling into their veiny casings: In the pan, they explode and the insides are “coming out the ass” (yes, that is a quotation); yes, some of the blood sausages are “spoogin’” (that is also a quotation). Can you do this on extended basic cable before midnight?
The judges' table is packed with 12 critics, which terrifies the chefs. The love letters are up first: Kerry’s scallop and spot prawn jigae versus Cosentino’s heart tartare, foie gras, and puffed tendon. Though Kerry’s stew is “muted,” it’s smooth and sexy and the critics seem to have an easier time going to first base with him over it than they do with Chris after ingesting his “interesting” heart tartare. But it does gain him admiration. Chris’s second course gets him a little ruffled as he deals with slippery uni and he almost runs out of time, fiddling with the dish until the clock runs out. Round 2 is the apology; it’s Kerry's pea flan “warm embrace” versus Chris’s scallop, pancetta piana, and sea urchin, which are his wife’s favorite things. And now he begins to cry, thankfully. Cry your way to the win, chef. The flan is soft, decadent, and flavorful, a big hit. Cosentino’s dish, however, blows minds because it’s soooo sexy, and even though the scallop’s assertiveness seemed like a bit much, Ruth Reichl claimed it was one of the sexiest plates of food she’d ever eaten and says “apology accepted.”
Things are looking pretty even at this point, with Kerry having taken the first round and Chris the second; the chefs make some adjustments to their third courses, Kerry by using an immersion blender to break up some funky greens and Chris popping his plates of tripe into the oven in shifts to keep the guts nice and toasty. Chris’s thank-you, a trippa Napoletana, trumps Kerry’s chowder despite an ominous charcoal smear on the side of the plate. But his final dish, the last meal of blood sausage with fried egg and oysters, causes a big debate at the table — it was either “embarrassingly bad” or, as Francis claimed, “as if you took a swim in the ocean and you’re doing the backstroke, the sun is hitting you, you’re feeling good, and then all of a sudden a pig comes and gives you a back rub” and the best thing he’s eaten in 30 years. It was obviously not conceived for the critics, but by the chef, for the chef, which was, I thought, the point. On the other hand, Kerry’s dry-aged cote de boeuf, potato gratin, and short ribs are a “portrait” of who he is, he claims, because it’s a study in excess. Oh. Not too personal, but a crowd-pleaser to all but one critic who claimed the short rib had been robbed of its short-ribby tenderness.
The critics go back and forth about how Kerry’s menu was about himself as a chef and Chris’s about himself as a person, the pleasure coma of a well-executed menu versus the bravado of a boundary-pushing adventure in guts, etc. etc. Can you be too brave? Can a diner be too scared? The judges tell Kerry that his menu was excellent but didn’t smack of personality, particularly his last course (his explanation, “I wanted to allow myself to enjoy something” rich and decadent, is met with a blank Oseland stare). When the judges ask Chris if placing his wacky personal tastes above those of the diners could have been a mistake, he answers that when you cook what you love it comes through on the plate. Chris is convinced that he lost, and I’m worried, too. That was a lot of spoogy blood sausage. But either due to his conviction or his overall performance this season (I suspect the latter, though again, nobody can acknowledge this without admitting that there has been no suspense this entire time), Chris takes it home and wins over $140,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation and all’s right with the world.