The Season 3 finale of the Fox Television hit reality cooking show "MasterChef" was one of the most tense, well-edited shows in recent memory, drawing in the viewer with every bit of culinary skill displayed in the "MasterChef" kitchen, every critical comment -- both good and bad -- made by the judges, and every word of elation and disappointment made in the confessionals by the competing home chefs, Christine Ha and Josh Marks. But as judge Joe Bastianich reminded the two remaining finalists: There could only be one Master Chef.
It all began with remaining finalists standing before the three judges -- the aforementioned Bastianich, Chef Gordon Ramsay, and Chef Graham Elliott. They were tasked with cooking a complete meal -- an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert. But before the judges sent them to their stations, the families were brought out to offer encouragement. Dry eyes were a minority in the balcony (populated by the 16 home cooks bested by the last two finalists) as Josh was surrounded by his family, then Christine by hers. Even Chef Graham had to pull off his glasses to wipe away tears. Amusingly enough, although she was happy to see her husband (whom she had not seen -- figuratively speaking, of course, since she hadn't actually seen him as other than a blur since the early 2000s -- since the show began), Christine was ecstatic that other members of her family were there as well.
But the mini reunion could only last so long, because the judges had a contest to adjudicate.
The Final Cook-off
From the onset, it was to be a competition of styles. Since both contestants were known for their ability to produce dishes with great flavor, taste might not be as big a factor in the final judges decision as what is prepared. And right away, restauranteur Joe labeled Josh's menu superior to Christine's, calling his dishes risky but worthy of any restaurant menu. He then said Christine's was too simple, what one might find "hawked by a street vendor." Graham thought it would come down to Christine's exemplary palate. Chef Ramsay said that Josh's three courses seem complex, while Christine's were simple, so he's not altogether certain. All the judges worried that Josh's meal might not be cohesive enough as well.
With former contestants and family cheering them on from the balcony, Christine and Josh battled for two hours, hoping to produce something stunning enough to get them that "MasterChef" trophy and title, the $250,000 cash prize, and the cookbook contract.
(An aside: In a confessional, Christine talked about winning, as did Josh. But Christine, very aware of the public's perception of her, emotionally stated that she didn't want to just be an "inspiration" or "some gimmick." She wanted to win.)
While they constructed their dishes, the judges talked with the finalists. Joe was worried about Josh's idea of putting bacon pieces in the crust of his pecan pie dessert. But Josh wasn't worried. Chef Ramsay was concerned with Christine's simplistic approach to the entree, which was pork belly and rice. And then Josh dropped an entire lobster into a blender to make puree and Joe noted that he might have just ruined his dish with the move. Still, Josh remained confident.
The two hours allotted came to an end and the three judges told the contestants that they would serve their three courses to them in the adjoining "MasterChef" restaurant.
The Final Judgments
Up first: The appetizers. Josh presented Butter Poached Lobster with Grits and Sweet Potato Puree. He plated well, making it a work of art. All the judges loved the flavors and his bold direction. However, his lobster was only half cooked.
Christine places her Thai Papaya Salad with Crab and Mixed Vegetables, a dish served cold. Joe enjoyed it. Graham found it balanced but wanted more crab (Christine admitted that the crab was an accessory, so she didn't want to overload the salad with it). Chef Ramsay said it was delicious but not "luxurious" enough.
In the crosstallk after the contestants exited to get their entrees, Joe disagreed with Chefs Ramsay and Graham, who found Christine's appetizer not as good as Josh's. But, he pointed out, she did not fail her task. Josh did.
On to the entrees. Josh served up Rack of Lamb with Green Curry Sauce, Spring Peas and Carrots, another beautifully plated dish (so you wonder if he has been paying attention to Becky Reams' work over the course of the show). All the judges loved it, but Chefs Ramsay and Graham called Josh out on the diverse construct of off-seasonal components. However, Joe took up for the plate, noting that it was composed of ingredients from all four seasons, a regular Vivaldi "orchestration." It looked as if Josh had stumbled onto a "symphony" of components that worked if taken as a whole.
Christine again went simple, back to her Vietnamese roots. She presented Braised Pork Belly with Rice, Crispy Kale and Maitake Mushrooms. Chef Ramsay voiced his disappointment at the classic dish, pointing out that this was "MasterChef." However, when he tried it, he was nothing but complimentary. He also noted that the light appetizer now made better sense with such a heavy entree. Chef Graham said that what it lacked in appearance, it made up for in taste. He also said he might "steal" Christine's idea of frying the mushrooms. Joe said it was a bit too sweet for his taste.
In the crosstalk, Ramsay and Graham talked up Christine's dish, while Joe applauded Josh's. But when Chef Ramsay commented on the perfectly cooked pork belly, Joe nodded in agreement.
Then it was the desserts. Josh offered Bacon Crusted Pecan Pie with Vanilla Cinnamon Ice Cream. All the judges loved the ice cream, which Josh made by simmering a cinnamon stick in the milk. The judges couldn't get enough of it and marveled at its consistency. The only drawback seemed to be that the bacon was barely perceptible and Graham noted that the crust was a little oily, possibly from the bacon.
Christine then set down the final dish of the contest, a Coconut Lime Sorbet with Ginger Tuile, possibly the only dish she had that was more attractive than Josh's. Graham thought it was beautiful but seemed disappointed that the sorbet was more coconut than lime. Joe said it was light and the texture was right. Chef Ramsay said it was good and a perfect compliment to the heavy pork belly.
In the crosstalk, the judges enumerated the strengths of each of the dishes. But in the end, they agreed that it was obvious who had won. Joe agreed, saying that it all came down to one dish.
The Final Decision
The judges reconvened out in the "MasterChef" kitchen after their decision was made. They told the two very tense finalists that they were now worthy of the title of "chef" and traded places with them. Then, with the "MasterChef" trophy in hand, Chef Gordon Ramsay told them that their final decision had been one of the toughest they had ever had to make. But there could only be one winner.
And the winner was...
... Christine Ha!
With Joe's last remark after the desserts, it looked as if he had made a complete turnaround on Christine's seemingly oversimplified menu. The 32-year-old amateur chef had done it once more, surprised and forced a reappraisal from the man that even Josh referred to as a "food snob."
She immediately lost her composure, the tension and anxiety giving way to a flood of tears. In confessional, she noted that all of the hard work and not letting her disability trip her up had been worth it to get the "MasterChef" win. The normally laughing and determined graduate student from Texas cried as she spoke, still seeming a little shocked at having won it all, getting past 17 contestants (not the least a talented and determined Josh Marks), and becoming the latest American "MasterChef."
(photo credit: Kelly Campbell, Wikimedia Commons)