I’ve been enjoying watching Top Chef Masters – in particular this last show, in which the winners of the last six previous episodes competed against each other by making each other’s signature dishes. Part of what I’ve enjoyed is getting to know the chefs, some of whom were completely unknown to me.
I’ve been rooting for Hubert Keller, the chef-owner of Fleur de Lys, a restaurant that I’ve gone to a couple of times. I loved the food last time, though the service and timing left much to be desired. In any case, Hubert is local and seems like a very cool guy, he has these big, puppy dog eyes and gives an aura of happiness. He is also clearly very secure on himself and his cooking, clearly he has mastered both technique and flavor profiles, and yet you don’t ever see him boast. I think he is the true master.
And yet, I was very surprised on how well Rick Bayless has done. I’ve seen some of his shows and I have not been particularly impressed by him. Part of it is that I’m prejudiced about a non-Mexican becoming the voice for Mexican food in America – mostly through his television programs. It seems sort of unfair. It’s difficult to believe that there aren’t Mexican chefs that are just as accomplished. I’m also prejudiced against the true cooking abilities of television chefs. Clearly there are some who are marvelous cooks, such as Jacques Pepin – his techniques are so beautiful and effortless, you know the end result must be great. But others seem too young, too inexperienced to be the experts they proclaim themselves to be. And of course, some are truly grating (Joanne Weir in particular). Until this show, I would have put Bayless in that category. He seems quite arrogant about his knowledge of Mexican cuisine and enunciates too much when he speaks. But seeing him in the last two shows has made me change my mind. For one, I learned that he was in Mexico working on his PhD in Anthropology when he fell in love with cooking. That indicates to me that his primary interest is, or at least was, on the Mexican people – that he wants to know about them (even if through their cuisines) and that he probably does have a respect for Mexican culture that was not apparent to me before. In other words, maybe he is, indeed, paying an homage to Mexican cuisine by bringing it to this country, instead of just stealing it for fame and profit. The other thing that impressed me is that he clearly is a good cook who understands the fundamentals of cuisine. He won by making an Italian dish, after all, something you wouldn’t expect from him.
My suspicion of TV chefs also made me wonder about Michael Chiarello; but I’ve been impressed by his modesty (even though he did say he was going to win the show). Clearly he understands his own limitations (while Keller, for example, doesn’t seem to think he has any).
I was happy to see Anita Lo do so well. I hadn’t heard of her before the show started, but it’s nice to see a minority woman do so well (in particular given this). Her food seems really interesting as well. I think it’s really hard to do fusion food well, it requires an intense knowledge of several cuisines, great technique and creativity, which I think many fusion chefs don’t have. I’d love to go to her restaurant.
I have little opinion of the other two chefs. Suzanne Tracht didn’t seem to have much of a personality. I loved Art Smith’s personality, but I think I may be partial to teddy-bear gay guys.
Anyway, I can’t wait to see what happens. And I’m still rooting for Keller.
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