Last night brought the finale of Bravo's Top Chef Masters, and our SF-based Traci Des Jardins was in it to win it. On the line was $100,000 for the cheftestants' charity of choice. For those of us rooting for the home team, we hoped La Cocina would be victorious.
The episode began with the remaining three chefs (Des Jardins, Mary Sue Milliken, and Floyd Cardoz) joining host Curtis Stone and critics James Oseland, Ruth Reichl, and Gael Greene in the kitchen. The final challenge was to create the three-course meal of their lives. The first course was to be inspired by their first food memory, the second course was about what made them want to be a chef, and the third was critic's choice.
Des Jardins was paired with our favorite insatiable critic, Greene, who wanted French-inspired fried duck. Des Jardins is trained in classic French cookin, so she looked relieved and then overjoyed when Morgan Mueller, her executive chef at Jardinière, got to join her for the challenge. Greene to Des Jardins: "This is kismet."
The dish that made Des Jardins want to be a chef? A quail salad from Zola in San Francisco during the '70s. It was served at the exact moment when she was figuring out if she wanted to go to college and her life was forever changed.
When it came down to prepping and cooking, Los Angeles native Mary Sue Milliken knew it was a rainy day in LA. She kept all of her shopping to one stop and was the first in the kitchen. Unfamiliar with the local traffic, New Yorker Floyd Cardoz made several grocery stops that kept him out for far too long and left him to enter the kitchen with the shortest amount of time on the clock. The only twist for the finale was a sexy and sweet one: Host Stone made a surprise light lunch for the finalists.
Diners for the last supper of the series included OG Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio and Top Chef Masters alums such as Milliken's other cooking half, Susan Feniger. Milliken explained that in this Laverne and Shirley of food relationships, she always has Feniger try things first. (We like to call it the canary in the coalmine method.) Case in point: Feniger did Top Chef Masters first and married Milliken's husband first. Quick, Bravo, get these ladies a spinoff show!
Milliken prepared Asian tartare, shrimp two ways, and the lemon soufflé Reichl requested. Reichl noted that this dessert enhances and continues her love affair with lemons, and Alan Sytsma (who used to work with her at Gourmet) added that the dish tasted like Reichl.
Des Jardins made shrimp Creole, quail with sweetbreads, and duck two ways. Unfortunately, it was not fried, and Greene was happy with only one of the duck preparations. When asked whether she would still be a food critic if she was served this duck several years ago, her answer was no. We were heartbroken, but liked the idea of Green still writing "silly stories for Cosmopolitan about how not to get dumped by your husband on his way up." Cardoz served the most subtly complex meal with a polenta upma with coconut milk and mushrooms similar to his afterschool snack, snapper in a tomato and fennel broth, and the rendang Oseland requested and loved.
The competition was as stiff as Stone's overgelled hair, but Cardoz was crowned the Top Chef Master. His winnings support the Young Scientist Cancer Research Fund, selected in honor of his late father. We were bummed that Des Jardins didn't win, but in her stint she raked in $30,000 for La Cocina -- masterful work!