In the "MasterChef" kitchen, the season can often hinge on the smallest of details, a little something extra that places one dish above another in the collective estimation of the judges. In the Season 4 finale of "MasterChef" on Wednesday evening, as Luca Manfe and Natasha Crnjac vied for the title, the money, the cookbook contract, and the coveted trophy, it would come down to a point where the judges were actually considering calling the competition a draw and splitting the prize. But there was that one little detail that elevated one home chef's three-course offering above the other...
Luca and Natasha first got a bit of support for their efforts. As recounted in "Winner Chosen" on the Fox.com website on Sept. 11, the rest of the top eighteen home chefs that had started the journey at season's beginning with them were on hand to cheer them on. Then the judges -- Chef Gordon Ramsay, Chef Graham Elliot, and restauranteur Joe Bastianich -- brought out the families. Natasha's husband and child and several family members entered the "MasterChef" kitchen. Luca, who is an immigrant from Italy, was reunited with his wife. But the judges surprised him with other members of his wife's family, which Luca proudly referred to as his "extended" family. But Chef Ramsay had another surprise for the almost-always positive Luca -- they'd flown his father and sister in from Italy to watch his final performance on the show. Tears of joy and happiness filled the kitchen. Luca was ecstatic.
But then it got serious -- as it always does. The two remaining chefs were charged with creating a three-course meal for the judges, on the basis of which their fates would rest. Natasha was determined: "I'm gonna get into the kitchen and kick his ass."
And the oven mitt (gauntlet?) was thrown...
For the appetizer, the finalists were given an hour to cook their dish.
Natasha played to her strengths, choosing to prepare a Pan-seared Scallops, Seaweed Salad, Couscous, and a Cauliflower Puree. And when she was done, she had also plated a work of art. And although Natasha had come off as somewhat cocky, somewhat driven throughout the season, one thing nobody faulted her on was her ability to cook or present. The judges all loved it, praising her for her creativity in making something work that seemed like just a plain bad idea. Luca also got rave reviews for his Pan-seared Duck Liver with Caramelized Peaches, Asian Pear Chutney, and a Toasted French Brioche. Ramsay thought it exceptional but thought the duck needed a bit more cooking. Graham was afraid of Luca's already rich and heavy appetizer perhaps not allowing him to balance the rest of his meal.
Then it was on to the main course entree. Luca and Natasha were given another sixty minutes to prepare. Natasha cooked a Five-spice Monkfish with Rendered Caul Fat, infused Jasmine Rice, and Coconut Curry Sauce. When plating, she sliced the monkfish into dominoed slices atop her rice, which was squarely caked. Again, it was very artistically presented. And received high praise once more, with just the exception of Chef Elliot's finding the dish a bit too spicy for his taste. Luca cooked up a Tamarind and Balsamic-glazed Beef Short Ribs with a Truffle Puree and Sauteed Chanterelle Mushrooms. Although it appeared "too brown" (Natasha's description of the overall color of the dish), the judges again had little negative criticism of the dish. Even Chef Ramsay noted that even if he died from the heaviness of Luca's offering, he would be in culinary heaven. Judge Joe joked that it was a high honor to serve up Ramsay's "last supper."
The judges conferred and noted that the competition was too close to call and would be decided by not just the execution of the final dessert dishes but also in the cohesiveness of the three courses as a set.
The decision would be made a little bit tougher for the judges as well. Both finalists chose to create a panna cotta for dessert. The difference? Where Natasha decided on creativity and volume, Luca went with a bold play on traditional Italian flavors.
Again, the contestants were given sixty minutes. Natasha displayed her organizational skills by creating two panna cottas, one lime and the other coconut. However, the former did not set well, so she tossed it and concentrated on the coconut half of it. She presented another beautiful dish: Coconut Yogurt Panna Cotta with Passion Fruit Coulis, accompanied by Edible Flowers. Again, the judges raved, said that there was just too little of it. Ramsay said the flowers added an elegant touch. Luca produced a Basil Panna Cotta with Sweet Tomato Jam, Mascarpone, Honey Cream, and Granulated Basil. The judges originally thought Natasha had tried to do too much and Luca was going a bit too far out of the box, but they all agreed that neither was the case. And Luca's panna cotta was a hit, although Bastianich gave Luca a tip on how he might want to construct the dish in the future, layering the ingredients so that each mouthful contained all the varied flavors. Chef Ramsay said he'd pulled off a dish that shouldn't have worked at all, but the "wacky" dessert was a success.
After a few minutes of deliberations, where the merits of each dish and the set as a whole were evaluated, the judges made their decision -- even though at one point Ramsay asked his fellow judges if they should just call it a draw. But Chef Elliot pointed out that one of the dishes stood out and made one of the home cook's the definite winner.
And so with families, extended families, and fellow competitors anxiously quiet, the three judges traded places with Luca Manfe and Natasha Crnjac for the final reveal.
The Season 4 MasterChef was...
Luca's story on "MasterChef" actually began last season. He was denied entrance among the top finalists by the slimmest of margins. But his dream was to own and operate his own restaurant and he felt winning "MasterChef" would springboard him into optimal positioning to do just that. He returned and auditioned for Season 4, made it into the kitchen with the rest of the top finalists, and, one by one, watched his mostly Italian-based dishes either ensure him a place in the next round or win him praise and an advantage over his fellow finalists. He became the embodiment of perseverance and heart, rarely not having a positive spin on whatever came his way. And as the season entered its last few competitions, Luca seemed to unleash his inner creative child, performing at the top of his game -- something he truly needed against Natasha, who never really stumbled in the competition at all.
Luca said, noting that he had worked "so hard" to get to and win the finale, that he had come to America to live out his dream and winning "MasterChef" showed him that anything is possible -- and the opportunity to make his dream a reality was now in his hands.
Luca Manfe was the first male winner of the U. S. version of "MasterChef." He was also the first returning contestant to win the title.
"MasterChef" will return for Season 5 in the summer of 2014.