Top Chef Masters — A winner is crowned

I wonder if the crew on “Top Chef” ever gets to sample the leftovers.

That thought kept running through my mind/tastebuds when watching the season finale of the inaugural “Top Chef Masters.” With a remarkable 12-course meal offered to a dozen folks, the laws of physics imply there had to be plenty of uneaten vittles. Especially when one of the judges was host Kelly Choi, who at 75 pounds couldn’t possibly ingest more than a third of her plate.

You know there’s some beefy cameraman or half-starved production assistant within feet of the fare. “Just … one … short rib … please.”

That shared lust for food certainly came through the television screen on the finale. It would be hard to imagine a more delectable and diverse meal than the one presented by chefs Rick Bayless, Michael Chiarello and Hubert Keller. It was a master class in Mexican, Italian and French cooking. And there was a true injection of personal pride into the proceedings.

After all, the pinnacle challenge involved a “series of dishes based on your career as a chef.” These were split into four dishes inspired by:

1. Your first food memory.

2. Why you became a chef.

3. Your first restaurant opening.

4. Where you’re headed.

Bayless put together a menu of quail, black mole (pictured above), suckling pig and a variant on seafood stew — all infused with Mexican flavors. While the table (which also included the regular host/judges from “Top Chef” and the past five winners) raved about the mole and its crazy amount of ingredients, they were disappointed in the overcooked seafood fourth course. Flashback to a scene in which the finalists’ own personal sous chefs were imported to help prepare the meal, and Bayless was flustered by the fact his helper had turned up the heat too high on the mussels and co.

Keller offered a mix of homespun memories and impeccable execution with his meal of “laundry day” stew, salmon soufflé, garlic-stuffed lamb chop and a beef and sweet breads combo. The reviewers felt the soufflé wasn’t quite up to speed and the garlic too overpowering, but the rest of the goodies ranked high.

Self-described “scrappy” contestant Chiarello — the underdog among the three names — served up gnocchi, polenta with rabbit, a ginger rouget (fried fish) and a braised short rib.

The best touch came courtesy of the chef, who managed to include a personal dig in his cooking. Having been hounded by prissy judge James Oseland since he arrived (a montage showed the chef never earning higher than three stars from the judge), Chiarello decided to cut up pieces of Oseland’s publication, Saveur, and use it as a decoupage that the food sat upon.

Chiarello predicted the closest finale yet. The score bore out his theory.

Hubert ended up with 16/12 stars. Chiarello with 17. Bayless won with 18.

Once again, Oseland kind of screwed Chiarello. (Saveur Faire is everywhere!) He offered him three stars when most everyone else was putting up 4 and 4 1/2 star scores. Oseland never appeared like the kind of guy who could take a joke, and the decoupage may have been too much of a veiled insult.

In some respects, much of that attitude crept into the whole season of “Top Chef Masters.”

No matter how light and fun and goofy the producers tried to make the show, there was something a little off about the general vibe. Perhaps it was the seriousness of the stakes, which weren’t about fame or personal gain, but rather focused on one worthy charity after another.

Maybe it was because producers likely didn’t want any of the chefs to look too bad. It’s OK for some cooking school grad to come across as a moron on a typical season of “Top Chef.” But it does Bravo no good to bite the apron of those who feed them. In this case, the high-end chefs that provide numerous guest appearances on the program.

Was it a great season? If based on the actual food showcased, probably the best ever.

But if evaluated on “reality competition show” drama. Well … it was a smidge undercooked.