It was a battle of the coasts in last night's Top Chef Masters finale, pitting New York's Kerry Heffernan against San Francisco's golden boy Chris Cosentino.
But it wasn't just that. It was also a battle of culinary ideologies, considering these two chefs' approach to food couldn't be more different. Classically-trained Heffernan tends to gravitate towards fine ingredients and high-end presentation, often focusing on taste that appeals to a wide range of palettes. Cosentino, on the other hand, who aptly goes by the Twitter handle @offalchris, is the king of guts, creating dishes with ingredients many are unaccustomed to, and tend to be more challenging to the diner.
So as Ruth Reichl put it, when it comes to food, “do you want to be comforted, or do you want to be thrilled?” That ended up becoming the determining factor in who won this round of Top Chef Masters.
The final Elimination Challenge (there was no Quickfire, naturally) was to create a four-course meal based on four types of letters: a love letter, an apology, a thank-you note and a letter to yourself.
Immediately, the differences between Heffernan and Cosentino became apparent. Heffernan, the more left-brained of the two, became focused on ingredients, believing that the stories would come later. Whereas the more right-brained, “emotional” Cosentino allowed the dishes to build from his memories.
Their approaches to shopping further illustrated their differences, as Cosentino hopped from shop to shop to shop to obtain the perfect ingredients, whereas Heffernan, probably wisely, simply went to Whole Foods, ending up with a good hour more of prep time than his opponent.
Thankfully, each chef had help — their chefs de cuisine from each of their home restaurants. We imagine that was not only a big help in the kitchen, but a big dose of moral support. As Eric Ripert said in Treme, (reading lines written by Anthony Bourdain) lovers come and go, “but your sous chef is forever.”
After a long night of prep followed by a little “man date” that evening (Curtis Stone cooked the finalists dinner), service began the next day to a table full of esteemed critics including “the douchebag” Alan Richman as well as local dining editor Lesley Bargar Suter from Los Angeles Magazine. As it turned out, the letters and corresponding dishes went like this:
- Love letter: An homage to the first meal he cooked his wife — scallop and spot prawn Korean Jjigae
- Apology: A “warm hug” to his family for being away so much — flan of sugar snap peas with prosciutto, morels, and chervil
- Thank you: To his parents for creating memories in Cape Cod — Branzino with clam ragout and mustard greens
- Letter to himself: Culinary decadence — dry aged “Cote de Boeuf,” short ribs with Swiss chard and fennel gratin
- Love letter: To his wife, “his heart on a plate,” — beef heart tartare, foie gras, and puffed beef tendon
- Apology: Also to his wife, her favorite food, as a way of saying sorry for being working so much — scallop, pancetta piana and sea urchin
- Thank you: To his grandmother for teaching him to appreciate offal — Trippa Napolitana
- Letter to himself: His “last supper,” — blood sausage, poached oysters, and egg
For the most part, unsurprisingly, the critics loved nearly everything. (Save for Cosentino's “last supper,” which some felt was too basic a plate to put out as a last impression.) But the conversation evolved into a debate about what it is that we food enthusiasts are all really seeking — chefs who challenge our palates, or chefs who indulge them?
Of course no real conclusion was reached, but in the end, Cosentino's bold, inspired flavors won out, and he was named winner of Top Chef Masters.
It's been a seemingly quick, fun ride this season, and we're sad to see it end, but Top Chef junkies should be relieved to know that another season is right around the corner. Bravo's no fool.
Thanks for reading!
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