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Karen Brooks on Judging the Top Chef Masters Finale

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Oh PS spoiler alert: San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino won this season of Top Chef Masters, beating out NYC chef Kerry Heffernan for the Bravo title. And among the judges at the dining table was Portland Monthly restaurant editor Karen Brooks, who, on camera, dubbed the battle as representative of two "polars in the restaurant world today. One is 'I'm going to nurture your into a blissful coma', and one is a 'I dare you to eat this' bravado."

Brooks — who met Cosentino at her recent Feast Portland book party — admits she was "firmly in [Cosentino's] risk-taking corner. I mean, the guy cooked with heart, literally," she says. "[But] not everyone agrees." With confidentiality agreements now null and void, Eater checked in with Brooks about her Top Chef experience — including spy-novel levels of secrecy, what happened at the judge's table, and what dish was " sexy enough to make you blush."

How did you end up on the show?
I received a call on a Sunday night in February, asking if I wanted to be a guest judge for a top-secret episode. The whole thing unfolded [like] a John Le Carré novel. They sent a car the next morning to ferry me to the airport, noting only to "bring two outfits." Twelve hours later I was in Las Vegas at the Cosmopolitan, signing a confidentiality agreement. Fines are monumental. They take a Fatwah out on anyone who reveals details. I dropped my bags in a room so big that I needed a Google map to find the bathroom. No one knew who was on the show until the following morning at the show-down kitchen. I'm not sure how I was chosen. A producer told me she had seen my TedX talk "Recipe for a Vital Food Scene" on YouTube and loved it. I suspect Ruth Reichl recommended me. We met in Portland at IACP last year, and she's been a wonderful supporter of my writing. But if she did, she never let on.

Did you know your fellow critics before you arrived?
I only knew people at the table by reputation. Francis Lam is one of my heroes, a brilliant writer. Alan Richman is a legend, the food-world's provocateur. Ruth — Ruth! Everyone snaps to attention when she talks (and no one, I believe, wields more influence on the ultimate winner). It was intimidating. My heart was pounding the whole time.

Do the judges cast an official "vote" or award points in some manner not shown on-screen, or was your role more to have those table conversations to get the "main" judges thinking?
No raise-your-hands vote. The final show didn't begin to capture the level of debate. A lot of great arguments ended up on the cutting room floor. Kerry definitely had followers. I believe — and this is just my opinion — that the arguments at the table shaped the final conversation for the regular judges.

From the edit, it looks like you were Team Chris. What was his standout dish?
It was a very difficult challenge. Both chefs cooked with amazing heart. But Chris doubled the dare: heart and hearts. His spun a gutsier story; he had a clear through-line and narrative. The best food, you can argue, tells a story — about place and chef. You couldn't just eat his food and swoon; he made you stop and think about what you were eating and what he was saying. Though it didn't make the final show, what I said about his "love letter" dish — scallops, pancetta, and sea urchin — was simply, "sometimes love means jumping off a cliff."

But the clincher dish was Chris' Trippa Napolitana, a Roman orgy of tripe, pickled mint, tomatoes, and peppers served over a wild black brushstroke of onion charcoal. Most judges couldn't identify this crazy black stripe — and some dismissed it, forcefully, as a gimmick. But to anyone familiar with Matt Lightner's embrace of smoky Spanish vegetable char, it was a brilliant, left-field, avant perfume in this profoundly earthy company.
· All Previous Karen Brooks Coverage [Eater PDX]

Image of Cosentino and Brooks, at courtesy Katharine Kimball

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