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'Top Chef Masters' finale: Watching the pros do their thing

August 19, 2009 | 11:00 pm

Trio

It was a most un-"Top Chef"-like finale. The remaining chefs -- Rick Bayless, Hubert Keller and Michael Chiarello -- were given plenty of time, zero curveballs and even an extra pair of trusted hands in the kitchen.

Much like the entire inaugural season of "Top Chef Masters," it gave me the warm fuzzies all over.

So much praise was handed out during the final meal that when it came time to choose a winner, I wasn't sure the judges were going to be able to get picky enough. But it's also no surprise that Rick took the crown.

Technique is everything in "Top Chef." Searing a scallop or getting a cut of lamb to perfect medium rare has always been big coup with the judges, and it's true that ingredients are nothing if they are not cooked correctly. In the end, though, Rick's big bold flavors gave him an advantage -- a 27-ingredient mole! -- even in the face of overcooked seafood. As we saw in tonight's episode, most of the judges haven't been schooled in Mexican cookery like they are in French and Italian. 

Or, then again, Michael could simply be right: Maybe James Oseland just doesn't like him!

He and Rick tied with straight 4.5 star ratings from the diners and the judges -- except for the 3.5 rating he got from James. And as the series' producers pointed out, there has been a pattern. The finale featured an entire vignette about the rivalry and evidence that James does like to give him low scores. Michael's downfall tonight was a polenta that everyone raved about. Everyone except for James, who said it "could have been more delicately seasoned" before handing him 3.5 stars -- the cause for his defeat. Something to chew on...

Bayless Asking the contestants to tell their culinary autobiography over a four-course meal was a sumptuous end to what has been an eye-opening look at what the A-list chefs can come up with under reality show conditions.

The ambitious, hungry amateurs who compete in "Top Chef" proper are put through the ringer come finale time.

But for "Masters," the end was about letting the chefs simply do their thing. They were given an entire day to ponder their menu, time to chop and plenty of time to prep. They were asked to cook a dish reflective of their first food memory, the food that inspired them to become chefs and to open their first restaurant, and a final dish that showcased the direction their food was going. All were excited by the challenge.

So instead of clashing egos, there was storytelling and listening. Instead of strategy, there was comraderie. Many were turned off by Michael's behavior in last week's episode, but tonight we saw him helpfully alert Rick to keep his eye on a dish. They all knew it was going to come down to the evening's minutiae. And so it did. 

The first two courses were a dead heat from what viewers were shown: Hosea picked Bayless' barbecue quail as his winner, but everyone seemed to love it, Hubert's stew and Michael's gnocchi equally. Stephanie wanted to lick up the sauce that went with Keller's salmon souffle, Gail wanted to bathe in Michael's polenta -- the same one that James said was seasoned incorrectly -- and Gael went loco for the mole. Later on at the judges table, the mole also earned spontaneous gutteral noises from Jay.

Unlike past "Top Chef" finales, the judges here really had to get down to the nitty gritty in distinguishing who put out the best overall meal. Hubert's souffle could have been more "cloudlike" and "luscious." Michael's fried fish, while technically perfect, could have used more "interpretive flair." These are the imperfections that banished the two seasoned pros to runner-up land.

Rick, "King of Mexican Cuisine in America," got to keep his crown. 

So what did you think, "Top Chef" fans? Did you enjoy the finale? Do you think the right chef won? Do you want to see another season of "Top Chef Masters"? (I do!) If so, which chefs are you hoping to see compete?

-- Denise Martin

Photo credit: NBC Universal

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