And the Top Chef Masters winner is ... Rick Bayless

Rickbayless_topchefmasters_290I came perilously close to shorting out my keyboard as I drooled over all the incredible dishes presented in the final episode of " Top Chef Masters." But only one chef could win -- and I'm thrilled with who did.

The chefs are challenged to present their autobiography through food, preparing four dishes that track their culinary lives: First food memory, the dish that made them want to become a chef, first restaurant, and what's next.

First food memory

Hubert family owned a pastry shop in the Alsace region of France, so he remembers the "Baeckeoffe," or baker's oven. Monday was laundry day, so  the women of the village didn't have time to make lunch. They each threw together a stew and brought it to the bakery, where Hubert's father would seal the pots with leftover bread dough and put them in the oven. Hubert remembers 40-odd pots cooking away in the oven, waiting for their owners to collect. That sounds both delicious and kind of adorable.

Rick reveals he grew up in a barbecue restaurant (poing!), where his dad was a pitmaster. "Barbecue sauce coursed through my veins until I was 15," he says, and all of his clothing smelled like hickory smoke. He breaks out the family's barbecue sauce for a hickory-smoked quail with slaw and watermelon salad.

Michael remembers standing on a box at the kitchen counter as his mother made gnocchi. She taught him how to roll out the dough, and how to shape the individual pieces using his thumb. He's making a duo of gnocchi --  one in his mom's style, and one in his own.

The dish that made you want to become a chef
Hubert remembers going to Auberge de l'Ill, the only 3-star Michelin restaurant in eastern France, and tasting a salmon soufflé. He served his apprenticeship at that restaurant, and the day he was able to make that dish perfectly was a day of fulfillment.

Rick traveled to Mexico when he was 14 and had a Oaxacan black mole. "It was like every synapse in my head went off -- I couldn't believe this flavor!" Of course, it's an incredibly complex sauce -- "It took me more than 20 years to get it right" -- but that's what got him started.

Michael remembers going mushroom hunting with his family, and bringing back those fungi plus the occasional rabbit. "What you gather during the day, you brought back to your kitchen and community and prepare and share. That to me defines cuisine."

First restaurant
Hubert resurrects a lamb chop wrapped in spinach with a vanilla merlot sauce. Um... I'm going to have to take his word on this one. Plus, he blanches garlic and puts it in the center of the chop. We'll see how it goes.

Rick does a variation on cochinita pibil -- roast suckling pig -- with sunchoke puree and crispy pigs feet. Instead of the usual presentation, he packs the meat into a pan and makes tender, succulent pork cakes. Drool.

Michael started out in a "New American cuisine" restaurant in Miami, which traded on global flavors. He dredges up the dish that got him noticed: fried fish stuffed with poached ginger and garlic.

What's next
Hubert thinks it's going to be all about affordable dining, so he makes two dishes -- crispy sweetbreads and braised waygu beef cheeks. Of course, he's also got a fistful of truffles, and I don't know exactly how that fits into "affordable," but we'll go with it.

Rick decides to sort of tart up a classic Mexican dish -- arroz a la tumbada, a black rice soup with a whole bunch of seafood -- with chorizo air. Air? Rick Bayless isn't about air! Blais! I blame you!

Michael decides to draw from Napa Valley but having smoldering cabernet vines as part of the presentation with his brined short ribs. Personally, I'm not crazy about the "things on fire around my food" school of presentation, but what do I know?

The judging
Our regular judges are joined by Tom, Padma and Gail, as well as five winners of Top Chef. I'm thrilled to see Stephanie (and I can't wait until her restaurant, The Drunken Goat, opens), and less thrilled to see Hosea. It still pisses me off that he won....

Most of the judging consists of people saying "oh my god, this is so good." There are a few quibbles -- Padma thinks Hubert's vanilla merlot sauce makes his dish too dessert-like, no one is thrilled with Rick's foam, and Michael's fried fish is proclaimed "too literal" -- but mostly you have some really happy people. What I wouldn't give to be at that table...

The final scores are separated by only one and a half stars. Hubert received 16 and a half stars, Michael got 17 stars, and Rick was victorious with 18 stars. Whoo-hoo! I KNEW my Chicago chef was the one to beat! Congratulations, Rick! Now excuse me -- I have a strong urge to make a reservation at Topolobampo right now. Just hold the foam, ok, Rick?

Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends
  • Michael and Hubert were both drooling over truffles, but Rick was unimpressed: "Yeah, you can slice truffles over a dish and say it's special -- but it's not, it's just expensive." I feel the same way about foams.
  • The chefs all got messages of support from their sous chefs back home -- and then actual support from those same sous chef in the kitchen. The chefs are genuinely thrilled to see their colleagues. Awww!
  • I loved seeing all the pictures of the chefs in their younger days. Michael's HAIR! Hah!
  • Because Michael kept getting less-than-stellar reviews from James, he decided to get creative: He tore pages from Saveur, James' magazine, and burned them around the edges to make doilies. Just because he was such a hard-ass last week, I kind of feel like that's a needlessly schmucklike move. 
  • The judges and previous Top Chefs are in heaven during he meal. Gail says she loves Michael's polenta so much that "I kind of want to bath in it." Jay's eyebrows almost shoot off his head. Sorry, Jay -- she's a married woman. (I, however, am not. Just saying....)
  • At the judging table, Jay addresses Rick's mole: "Can we, instead of discussing it, just make strange guttural noises? That would sum it up." Hee!
  • Hubert is quite proud of his thrice-blanched garlic in the center of his lamb. The blanching makes it so smooth and subtle! Actually, James says, mine was almost raw. Hubert is mortified. "He looked so crestfallen," James says during the judging. "I liked him more for that," Jay says.
  • Jay describes Rick's foam as being "a little like an elderly granny at a family wedding putting on spandex hot pants to dance at the disco." His family weddings are much different than mine.
  • I love how pleased and shocked Rick is when he wins. "I am just totally elated!
  • My personal goal was to stick it out and compete against chefs that have this incredible training that I've never had. And I did! Viva Mexico!" And Viva Rick Bayless. Long may he mole.
It's been a pleasure experiencing Top Chef with y'all, even (or especially) when we disagreed. I'm bowing out of recapping duties now, but check out my other TV writing at The CW Source. Thanks!

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