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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Holy Mole: Rick Bayless, I bow to your greatness

Unless another home disaster strikes (ahem, don't ask), my wife and I are planning a Chicago trip in mid-October. Number one on our list of things to do: eat at Frontera Grill, restaurant of newly crowned "Top Chef Master" Rick Bayless.

I don't care if the wait is 10 hours and he's only serving Volcano Nachos. I will gladly come off like one of those losers waiting in line at the latest "Star Wars" premiere if it means I get a taste of any dish that Bayless touches.

Now, I've made my preference for "Masters" known on this blog and around the newsroom. And while believing that "Masters" is superior won't temper my enthusiasm for the original version's return (No spoilers, people! I could only watch one show on my DVR and I chose "Masters"), last night's finale was truly memorable television.

First off, as MJ mentioned to me this morning, "Masters" didn't let its loyal viewers down. Because of his charm, finesse, good humor -- and most of all -- high character, Bayless was a fan favorite from day one. Heck, I even let out an audible squeal when he topped Michael Chiarello's star count during the final showdown. But after last season's "Top Chef" Hosea debacle -- Sidenote: my wife almost asked during last night's judging table, 'What's Hosea doing there?" until she remembered that Bland Baldy the Leah Licker won -- my faith was feeling a bit shot.

Not that it would have been a travesty had Chiarello won. The man can obviously get his braise on. And Hubert Keller was also intensely likable and worth rooting for.

But Bayless had several things going for him.

One, he came off as a true student AND teacher on the show. His ability to master Mexican cuisine was mesmerizing, particularly last night's revelation that it took him 20 years to perfect the Oaxacan mole that left the judges in a state of pure ecstasy. Also, when he had to use former "Top Chef" contestants as sous chefs in the penultimate challenge, he trusted their instincts -- particularly Richard Blais' penchant for liquid nitrogen -- and deferred when needed. That's a true sign of leadership and respect for one's chosen field.

Two, he's Midwestern based and supports family farms. To embellish on a quote from David Puddy, "gotta support the home team."

Three, I can actually drive to his restaurant and taste the goodness for myself. Napa Valley? I can't afford a plane ticket on my craptastic salary! Keep your wine snobbery and gnocchi on the West Coast, Chiarello!

Four, Bayless was humble in competition and in victory. Again, not that Keller wasn't exceptional. Chiarello? Well, after his whole Slim Shady "What's my name?" routine last week, it's any wonder he collected even 5 percent of the vote during last night's "Top Chef" poll.

No, Rick Bayless was always the man to beat. And last night, he delivered dish after dish of perfection. Even when his Frontera sous chef overcooked the seafood, Bayless didn't have a meltdown. He merely resigned to the disappointment and moved on, smiling the whole way. Seriously. It was like rooting for my dad to win.

Other things I'll miss about "Masters":

The professionalism among chefs. Chiarello might have been a douche to inferior amateurs -- yeah, I'm talking to you, Dale -- but hey, he's earned some butt-kissing. I know respecting your opponent enough not to resort to catty drama or fiery insults isn't the point of most reality shows. But I enjoyed every minute of watching skilled food artisans deliver their best dishes -- and not only encourage others, but actually share and help in the heat of battle.

Though the lollipop noggin and stick body of Kelly "The Human Mii" Choi haunts me at night, I loved the "Masters" judging panel. Sure, Gael Greene's hats don't compare to Gail Simmons' rack, but last night's "can we all just make guttural noises" routine by Jay Rayner was hilarious. Rayner really needs to replace boring Brit Toby Young full time. I couldn't really follow his hyper speed grandma-spandex-wedding jab, but I have to imagine it was about 1,000 times more clever than a "Tropic Thunder" reference. Also, James Oseland deserves credit for dogging Chiarello in entertaining fashion all contest long, to the point where Chiarello got in on the joke and fired up some crispy edges of Saveur magazine. Loved it.

What a finale. Tell your life story with food? That's a Costanza high note if there ever was one. "Top Chef" would never be able to pull that kind of premise off because, quite frankly, no one would care to know an unknown reality contestant's background. Plus, it's just not gimmicky enough.

But viewers cared about Bayless, Chiarello and Keller because they've earned the right to tell their stories. They're true professionals who've cut their teeth the hard way. You have to respect that ladder climb -- and it showed in their food history and preparation. Ultimately, it's always fun to watch the best of the best do their thing -- this time with no ridiculous wrinkles and forced sabotage like making each chef relocate on the fly or serve raw food in the hot sun.

Finally, the right ambassador was chosen. "Top Chef Masters" will always work because the formula is legit. Get the best chefs. Have them compete and have fun. Viewers get to drool constantly and then choose to eat at their restaurants -- and maybe even feel like they know the individual personalities in the kitchen a little more. I mean, who wouldn't want to patronize Bayless' restaurant after seeing how classy and passionate he is? He could sneeze on my plate and I'd still dig in for seconds of the swine flu.

So there you have it. A masterful end to a masterful spin-off.

And after all the kind words, I totally better get a good table if I make the Chicago trip. Just sayin' Rick.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski,

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I had a WTF Hosea moment too.

It's not just that Top Chef Masters had seasoned (wink) chefs. It was that those chefs who deserve every right to an ego never showed an ounce of the divaness throughout the competition that She-Devil-Who-Shall-Not-be-Named showed in the first five minutes of every episode she was in.

Bayless, Chiarello, and Keller spent 80% of their time interviewing about how great an opportunity it was to work with such accomplished competitors. The contestants on Top Chef, on the other hand, usually spend their interview time dumping on their peers and tooting their own horns.

I'll take Top Chef Masters anyday, but will still be tuning in to the original.

By Blogger Ms. Quarter, At August 20, 2009 at 8:23 PM  

Good point, Ms. Q.

I think the humility shown by the chefs illustrated why they're so good at what they do. I mean, I can't ever imagine someone like She-Devil or Stefan admitting it took them 20 years to perfect a dish, but Rick was perfectly willing to share that with the audience and the judges. It made his victory that much more sweeter. Frontera Grill, here I come!


By Blogger Press-Gazette blogger, At August 21, 2009 at 9:31 AM  

If ya'll go to Frontera, I expect a full Channel Surfing review! I know it's not food, per se, but dang it, if I can't enjoy the food I least want to read about others enjoying it! :)

Also, what are your initial reactions to Top Chef: Las Vegas? Anyone smell another awesome ranking of the powerful kind?

-- Sara

By Blogger Sara, At August 24, 2009 at 1:42 PM  

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