As told to Archana Ram.
I think we accomplished exactly what we set out to do this season. We brought back 18 of the most talented chefs on the show who did not win to get them back in the kitchen to see how they did, but also we stretched the show even further — took the challenges further, made things more complicated, exciting and delicious. I’m really amazed, looking back, at how much great food there was, how much I learned about the chefs, and how much I learned about food. I think every chef on this season has a lot to be proud of. We made them work for it, that’s for sure.
These chefs have already done this competition and Restaurant Wars, so we wanted them to do something different. We wondered: When they had total control over the kitchen and dining room, what would they do? And usually in finales, we only make them cook for 10 or 12 of us around one table at the same time. This forced them to use a completely different set of skills, which more closely mimicked the reality of restaurants. They had to manage timing and the front of the house, and every dish was theirs. They had to take responsibility for every single course, not as a group, but as a boss of a team. They had to execute, delegate and put their trust in their sous chef. And if they screwed up, it was their fault.
You may have wondered, like I did at one point, what’s in it for the sous chefs to cook a good dish? I think that the nature of chefs is such that they can’t help themselves, especially these really passionate, talented cooks. They’re not wired to do a half-assed job. There was a lot of pressure on Richard and Mike, and they didn’t want to disappoint them. What’s in it for them is the glory of knowing they contributed to a meal that made television history. That’s how young cooks cook everyday on the line for their bosses. It’s never about them. Their name isn’t on the door, but they’re cooking there because they love to cook and there’s an energy in the kitchen that’s infectious.
I thought the concept of Tongue and Cheek was great. It was very Richard. His style is always to recreate classic flavors in a modern way. It had a lot of spirit and playfulness, but it was also a really gutsy way to cook. Not a single dish was timid in flavor or construction. There was confidence in his cooking. The irony of the confidence that Richard has in his cooking but not in himself when he’s talking is kind of unbelievable. But if he was nervous, it didn’t show on the plate. His food gave us a great sense of who he is as a chef and cook.
That oyster amuse bouche was fresh, clean and started everything on a great note. The crème fraiche looked like pearls in an oyster, and that was really clever but the flavors also carried through. His hamachi dish was, if not my favorite dish of the entire season, certainly in the top three, and it was one I’ll remember for a very long time. The concept of the dish was sort of outrageous. It was a raw beautiful fish with fried sweetbread, which was a great concept in texture, temperature and flavor. The heavy richness of the sweetbread and light cleanness of the fish were fantastic, and then he added layers to it that made it sing — chilies, Asian Pear, pickled radish and garlic mayo. All of these added a brightness. It really blew me away. The pork belly was great, but I wasn’t as enamored with it as everyone else was. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I loved the concept, but I thought the fish felt a little watery. But no one else got that, so it sort of became irrelevant. He had fried the cod in a beautiful batter and treated it almost like a veal or pork cutlet with the seasoning and really concentrated breading. It was very satisfying. Everyone else went crazy for that dish.
Coming down from those three dishes, there was this momentum. Then the short rib came to the table. It was very straightforward, which is not to say it wasn’t good. Technically, it was flawless. A perfect braise. Rich sauce. The celery root puree was sweet. It all made sense. But every dish until that point had had something special to it, something that had made us all do a double-take and given us fodder for conversation, and this just didn’t do that. If someone else had made that dish, we might not have had those expectations. But when you’re on a trajectory with a meal that seems to be going in a certain direction and then goes to this, we felt it didn’t follow. That said, I appreciate that he wanted to show us that he could make something classic and make it well. And he did. You could not poke a hole in that short rib. But it sidetracked us a little bit.
But then we were brought back with the crazy foie gras-cornbread situation. There was part of me that thought he had this good idea in his head that he thought was clever. “Foie gras ice cream” sounds dramatic, so he did it without actually thinking if his dessert would improve with it. But I didn’t think it detracted at all. I think it added an earthiness that worked with the corn. It also started conversation. But what we had was very different from what Padma and their group had. It worked a lot better for us. I got it and I liked it. And I certainly liked it more that Mike’s dessert because I liked that Richard took a risk. I know if Richard had another few days with the dish, he would’ve nailed it. But it wasn’t far off. I thought the mango-foie gras-cornbread combination was really interesting. Do I want a scoop of foie gras ice ream on a cone during my summer vacation? Absolutely not. But the ice cream accentuated the richness of the foie gras. When foie gras is cold, it tastes quite different than usual but then in your mouth, it melts like regular foie gras. A lot of people were freaked out by it, but it made a lot of sense to me. I just think he needs to figure out the textural issue with it. I loved the cornbread. I thought it was excellent — just sweet enough to feel like a dessert but also a perfect canvas for the mango and foie gras. It was also nice to get mango because in the course of these two meals, we didn’t eat a lot of tropical fruit and we were in the tropics. It just felt appropriate. And the texture of the mango is sort of similar to the foie gras, so that was interesting because their flavors are so different. It was a ballsy choice for sure.
I loved the concept of Restaurant Iz. I thought it was really on-point for this moment in American culinary history. I’ve been to Chicago, New York, San Francisco and L.A. all in the last month and every hot, of-the-moment restaurant in each city was one that did a rustic turn in Italian food, not the super fancy, refined Italian food. Whether it’s due to the economy or the mood we’re in as a nation, we’re focusing on ingredients, and simple, beautifully executed Italian-American food. People are enamored by it because it’s comforting, simple and delicious. It lets you highlight the ingredients, and that’s exactly what Mike did.
The spiced beets salad was really lovely. It was clean, fresh and a perfect way to start a meal. The beets obviously go very well with the mozzarella, but the chocolate vinaigrette was genius. It was subtle and not sweet in any way. It was more like a cocoa, which added an earthiness. It also looked like balsamic vinegar, so there was a connection to that classic Italian pairing of balsamic and mozzarella. It was smart and overall, a focused plate of food. Mike’s fish was simple, thoughtful and beautifully presented, but it just didn’t have the guts that Richard’s fish had. That being said, Mike’s fish was subtle and beautiful. I felt there was a focus to all of Mike’s dishes that I had never seen from him before. It’s hard to steam a fish and still make it exciting, but he did a beautiful job with it. It was delicate, and then he complemented it with the pancetta. Halibut is a meaty fish so it could stand up to stronger flavors without losing its integrity. I went crazy for his meat dish, mostly because it was silly. I had never in my life seen pepperoni served to me in any way other than on a pizza or sliced on a charcuterie plate. I was tickled by the fact that he made a sauce out of it. He literally puréed salami, and it really tasted like pepperoni. It also went well with the pork shoulder, which was braised beautifully with the turnips and cabbage. It had a soulful flavor. That sauce brightened everything up.
Mike’s dessert was a lovely idea, and I love caramel or flan, but his was a little dry and, as Tom said, cooked too fast. It didn’t have that rich, melty texture that you want in a flan. It was very elegant with the apple and celery, but it wasn’t that exciting. It was nice, and “nice” is not a great word. Coming off that pork shoulder, which took us to this great high, we needed something to stand up to it. This caramel custard did not. If I had eaten it on its own, having not just eaten the courses I did, it wouldn’t be bad. It just seemed like a letdown after that pepperoni sauce.
The finale Judges’ Tables are always long, but this one wasn’t as absurdly long as those from past seasons. (And it was great to have their family there. We all went drinking after.) I did feel strongly about Mike’s food, but when we looked at the meals as a whole, the risks they took, how successful they were in executing them, and their work, precision, and creativity, we felt that Richard had a tiny edge over his competition. Mike cooked his heart out. There’s no question. But this meal went to Richard, and I couldn’t have imagined it any other way.
My perception of Mike has done a 180 since the first day I met him. He’s lost some of that cockiness but not because he had to. I think he just grew as a person, and was humbled by the talent around him and by his own will. I think that’s a powerful tool to harness and understand what you’re capable of. I really think he converted America in terms of their perception of him. There’s no question that he’s going to open his restaurant and the people will come because he cooks great food. He’s a lot of fun, he’s smart and he cares about his food. I have so much respect for him. He should come out of this season with his head held high. They’ve both matured an enormous amount — Richard more so only because it had been longer since he was on the show. But I also think he’s a much stronger leader and has a greater knowledge and maturity about his food, himself and his capabilities. It’s great to see how much this meant to him and how he went into with a tunnel vision to succeed. He was able to do that because he was so honest in his intentions and so driven. He always wanted it, even when he lost to Stephanie fair and square in season 4. He knew he made mistakes, and he went home and honed them. He blew us away. He’s got so much going on in that brain of his. Sometimes I think it’s going to pour out of his ears! But for all of those reasons, he was our winner.
I hope everyone’s as pleased and thrilled with the end results as we were. These chefs exceeded our expectations. We were able to do so much amazing stuff with them because they let us take them on this crazy ride. I’m so grateful, because I got to eat really well along the way.
What did you guys think of the finale? And the season as a whole? Did you think Richard would take it home? Sound off below!