Sunday, June 13, 2010


So the finale of Top Chef Masters was close. Very, very close. Marcus Samuelsson won by a half a star, not that you could tell by the editing. Since the exit of both Jonathan Waxman and Susan Feniger, the finale held little interest to me. There was no excitement, no unexpected twist to look forward to, just 3 men cooking the stories of their lives. The editing led viewers to think one thing (Marcus's third dish sounded like the most criticized of the night) when in fact something else happened. I think I've finally figured out my malaise with the Top Chef franchise - FMF or Fan Manipulation Fatigue. For instance...check out these quotes from Jay Raynor's blog.

"... No, I was nervous because I had absolutely no idea whether the producers and editors had decided to save me from myself or not. There was a lot of very good stuff in that finale. What there wasn’t was the moment, when I lost my temper in a red-faced, eye-bulging, vein-swelling rage, during the critics’ last discussions."

OK, gotta step in here and ask why the hell not? Why wouldn't the producers and editors include that? I want to hear that passion because I'm here to tell you, that finale was a snooze-fest. But it obviously wasn't Jay's decision so back to Jay.

"I will admit that as the competition went on, I became more than a little tired of Moonen’s posturing as both "the fish guy" and "the sustainability guy." The latter struck me as a little odd given that his restaurant is located in Las Vegas, possibly the least sustainable city on the face of the planet. Almost nothing grows there. It all comes from somewhere else, leaving massive carbon footprints as it travels. But all of this was irrelevant to the competition. Our job was to judge their food according to both how they had matched up to the challenge laid before them and the quality of the food placed before us. And that’s what we did, and Moonen went all the way to the finale fairly and squarely."

Again, Jay brings up some interesting points while ignoring the biggest which is next the US Military and BP, television and movie productions are the most un-green and un-sustainable industries in the US. So having Rick Moonen on a TV show talking about Sustainability at his restaurant in Las Vegas is a big nugget of crazy wrapped up in a tender cocoon of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. But after the Toby Young Experiment, all Top Chef crazy is relative. Jay continues.

"But at that finale the game changed, subtly. The challenge was very specific: the food had to tell their story. It had to be about food memories, the food that made them want to be a chef and, finally, and crucially for me, the food that defined them as a chef.

For this course Moonen cooked venison, and a lovely piece of venison it was too, with outrageous pear butter. He made it clear that he wanted to change the way we looked at him. He didn’t want to just be "the fish guy." He was a fully-rounded chef. The problem: that venison came from New Zealand, thousands of miles away. It seems he wasn’t the sustainability guy either."

Uh oh. Fame and Ego crash head on into ethics and morals. Rick picks a piece of meat flown all the way from New Zealand in his drive to win Top Chef Masters. Now, there seems to be some confusion to what Rick's philosophy is when it comes to sustainability. I pulled this from the RM Seafood website.

"When not behind the stove, Moonen can be found throughout the country educating about the dangers of over-fishing and ocean conservation. As an industry leader, he has testified several times for environmental and sustainable policy issues in Washington, DC and New York. He is a founding member of the Seafood Choices Alliances which named him Seafood Champion in 2006 as well as an active member of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Seaweb, and a chef's advisory board member of Ecofish. He also has served as a spokesperson for American caviar, a more environmentally sound alternative to the Caspian Sea varieties, and he is often quoted for his expertise with various indigenous and exotic fish."

Not only that but Rick is unapologetic about picking that protein, "I’m not a tree hugger. I’m a chef. I’m in a cooking competition." Jay seems more upset that Rick picked a protein that had a huge carbon footprint....not something that was ecologically unsustainable as farmed New Zealand venison is not. I would have been more impressed if Rick has used some good ol 'merican white tail but let's not act like he got a facial with gold tin of Almas Caviar. Still Jay wasn't ready to let it go.

"Bloody hell, but I was furious. For weeks he had worn his green credentials on his sleeve, bigged himself up as the savior of the planet. Even under cross examination about his dishes in the finale he declared that "we need to respect the environment you live in." I’m certain his restaurant in Vegas is run according to rigorous sustainability criteria. But, when it came to the last stage of a cooking competition, he shrugged it off. I felt like we’d been had, been spun a line by a shameless opportunist. I expect to see in the comments below this piece the rebuke that it was a cooking competition and we should only have judged him on the food. To which I will respond again, that we were to judge them on the challenge and that dish was meant to show us what defined him as a chef. And after weeks of singing "We are the World" he decided to throw every single one of his self-serving homilies out the window and use a staggeringly unsustainable ingredient, which had been air freighted thousands of miles. God knows what the carbon footprint of that single dish was. Mr Sustainability, Rick? I really don’t think so."

Love the honesty Jay is bringing to the back end of this but again, these are the kind of discussions that I, as a fan, want to see. Did Rick lose because of it?

"I should say here and now that this is not why Marcus Samuelsson won. He won because his cooking was better, especially his duck dish with that fabulous foie gras ganache. But I can definitely tell you that Moonen’s craven attitude to environmental issues is why I scored him as I did."

Half a star Jay, Marcus won by half a star. Jay gave Rick four stars but graded him down because of where the venison came from, not the taste of the dish he was served. Did he give Marcus 5 stars knowing it would be so close and to keep Rick from winning? The Diners (last season's finalists and Tom Colicchio) scored all three chefs the same with 4 stars so no help there. Seems that Jay's anger ruled the day.

Again we, the viewers, are left wondering if the best tasting dishes really won and who else pissed off Jay enough to lose stars in the process?


Buzz Kill said...

I lost interest when they did that color emotion sex challenge. Regular Top Chef starts this week and it promises to be interesting. That should take your mind off of this Master's Dissapointment.

"So having Rick Moonen on a TV show talking about Sustainability at his restaurant in Las Vegas is a big nugget of crazy wrapped up in a tender cocoon of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot." - That's funny.

Dani said...

It does seem strange that he would choose venison from New Zealand. ???

Big Shamu said...

It does Dani but maybe that was the only venison available. Nobody is spilling the beans on what else was available.

Anonymous said...

If you watch the extended version of the judges table, You will see how obvious it is that the judges didn't care for Marcus' last dish. so tell me Jay, how does that constitute 5 stars? I'm ok with him judging Rick the way he did (even though he was ignorant on the carbon footprint of venison, and carbon footprint & sustainability are 2 different things, but I do have a problem with Jay giving Marcus 5 stars when on tape the last dish was not top notch.

Big Shamu said...

I have to agree with Anonymous 3:04 here, a Five Star rating means ALL the dishes were perfect both in how the dish tasted and in how well the dishes addressed the specific challenge. Marcus's third dish sounds like it had issues. More of an issue than Susur's too large tuna blossom. What I'm really surprised at is the level of anger Jay is expressing at Rick's philosophy of sustainability. Keep in mind that if Jay had not picked venison for that last course, Jay STILL was steaming at Rick being vocal about Sustainability.

Unknown said...

Just so you know, deer are raised on free-range farms in New Zealand and the venison is sea-freighted to the USA by refrigerated container.

New Zealand has abundant water to use to grow food, and the environment is not degraded by food production.

If you want sustainable food – buy it from places that can grow it and ship it efficiently. Local does not always mean more sustainable.

And, as you saw from the judges’ comments on the food, New Zealand venison is delicious because it is carefully grown and prepared.

Big Shamu said...

I have to laugh, Innes because venison in the US is well fed on the most delicious landscaping shrubs and trees in many suburban backyards and gardens.

moi said...

Amen to American venison. I grew up on it. Best meat there is.

Best summation? "So having Rick Moonen on a TV show talking about Sustainability at his restaurant in Las Vegas is a big nugget of crazy wrapped up in a tender cocoon of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot."

I laughed so hard I choked on my local, farm-raised trout.

Sharon Rudd said...

I agree with you, Moi, on the Amen to American venison.

Meanwhile, I think there's a lot more context and discussion to be had on the sustainability v. carbon footprint front, and possible assumptions that may have figured into the TCM finale judging.

Moonen asserts the New Zealand venison he used is sustainably raised and was brought in by boat, not air freight, and that he had personal familiarity its source in NZ.

A portion of some comments exchanged by Moonen and Rayner can be found here:

More is out there on the interwebs than I have time to pull together right now, but I particularly appreciated one remark I saw from Moonen (before this blew up quite so big, I think) about these questions being important to engage in and explore.

Granted, Jay seems to have gone pretty cranky pants on this. But there are lots of ways to look at these issues without taking a knee-jerk foodier-than-thou or sustain-a-bully-er-than-thou position. The conversation is important. The choices each of us makes, one purchase at a time, make a difference. Even if we are imperfect people with busy lives who do not devote all our time to growing our own vegetables and raising our own animals . . .

'Nuff said. Off to work on my picnic post.

Big Shamu said...

Eggy, I agree the conversation is important but I can see Jay's point of when it came down to brass tacks, Rick chose to jettison the green option (using a protein that consumed more natural resources to get to LA than say a grass fed beef from the much closer Hearst Ranch) in his desire to win the top prize.

LaDivaCucina said...

As a chef that is often at the mercy of whom is sponsoring me for groceries/supplies, I am often left with only the choice of what is offered to me and many times things that I've put on my list are substituted. So perhaps the NZ venison was all that was offered to him? I mean, Whole Foods is their sponsor and I always see NZ and Aussie lamb for sale, why? Don't we have any local lamb farmers in this country? Or is it just cheaper to import from there? Doesn't that make Whole Foods a bit hypocritical too?

Rick wanted to break out of the FISH GUY mold and he did. I believe a person could go insane trying to decide what is sustainable and have the least carbon footprint when one has minutes to think of a dish and perhaps the passion is what is driving the motivation to make a particular dish?

I think if you walk the walk and talk the talk most of time, one can be forgiven for situations like this. It's not like he was committing some grave mortal sin, like cooking seared snow leopard, loggerhead turtle soup with Beluga caviar. And as "green" as I like to be, I'd hate the thought that if I diverge from my beliefs a few times that I get crucified for it. Jay's comments were super sanctimonious, I think Rick should be given a break.

Big Shamu said...

To be fair to Jay, what we don't know is how often Rick referenced his sustainability philosophy while competing on Top Chef. He may have mentioned it every time the cameras were rolling but much of that footage ended up on the cutting room floor. I don't get a sense of Jay over-reacting from what little we saw as the season progressed. It made enough of an impression on Jay that Rick suddenly switching up from being the Fish/Sustainability Guy to being the Non Fish/Carbon Blowing Guy was just too much for Jay to stomach and Jay pointed it out and apparently judged him accordingly. Do I fault Rick? Nope, he took a risk and in at least one judge's eyes that risk bit him in the ass.

I'm cranky because I still don't know who had the overall best tasting dishes.

LaDivaCucina said...

Uh oh, Sham's cranky again!!!

Did you see my comments on your last post about Gael?

Julie said...

Coming to this several months later to report that Rayner's original post seems to be missing from Bravo's site, even though it's quoted on their Top Chef Masters page -- maybe they scrubbed the post since it was so scathing?

Big Shamu said...

Julie, I saw that the link now leads to nothing but my experience with Bravo, especially, is that the real reason it was taken down was much more they didn't want to maintain it anymore. I'm sure there are whole swaths of early comments, interviews, photos and blogs that are gone from the site. I will tell you I took those quotes directly from Jay's blog and to be honest, I'm sure Jay would readily admit they were his words.
More importantly, Condolences on your recent loss Jay.