The one thing that struck me this season on the inaugural “Top Chef Masters” is how truly amazing these chefs are at what they do…and how they can create masterpieces on a plate within minutes, using any ingredients in front of them. Well, the finale last night was no exception, with Hubert Keller, Michael Chiarello and Rick Bayless squaring off for the grand prize of $100K for charity and the title of Top Chef Master.

They began by having host Kelly Choi take them to the Getty Villa, where they would be spending the day and night, having time to think about their menu, and then creating four main dishes each to serve to a panel of judges. The judges for the finale would be the three who have been here since the start–food critics Jay Rayner, Gael Greene and James Oseland; “Top Chef” regulars Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons and Padma Lakshmi; and each of the winners of the first five seasons of “Top Chef.” The task? A “meal of a lifetime”–dishes that represented various parts of each chefs’ life–their earliest food memory, when they decided to become a chef, their first restaurant opening, and today.

As always, there was a twist as they began cooking the next day….but it was a good twist…a video taped message from each of their sous chefs. But then even better, those chefs walked through the doors and were there to help them with their championship meals.

Here is the gist of each entry….

Hubert started with a 3-meat and potato stew, followed by a salmon souffle, lamb chops wrapped in spinach leaves, and sweetbreads with beef cheeks.

Rick made barbecue smoked quail, black mole with ahi tuna, roasted pig with sunchoke puree, and a rick/seafood/chorizo “air” dish.

Michael started with a gnocchi duo, followed by a polenta/rabbit/mushroom dish, then a ginger marinated whole fried fish with mango salad, and short ribs that he somehow infused with burning grapevines to signify the Napa Valley where he has his restaurant.

The judges were simply wowed by just about everything, especially Hubert’s stew, Rick’s mole and Michael’s gnocchi and short ribs. Michael, who admitted that Oseland was not his biggest fan (they showed clips of him consistently giving Michael 3 or 3.5 stars), made some garnishes out of pages of Oseland’s Saveur Magazine. Pretty funny, but risky at this stage.

There was no quick fire challenge last night, so the scores would be based on the diners and these judges. Michael had a diner’s score of 4.5, but the judges gave him 12.5 (4.5 each from Greene and Rayner, but just 3.5 from Oseland again), for a total of 17 stars.

Hubert had a diner’s score of 4 stars, and also 12.5 from the judges, giving him 16.5 and putting him out of the running.

Finally, Rick had 4.5 stars from the diners, and 13.5 from the judges, giving him 18 points total and the title of Top Chef Master. Someone had to win, and two, unfortunately, had to lose this one. But man, did they ever make this into a heavyweight fight. In the end, Rick, who is a master of Mexican cuisine and a pioneer in trying to bring it to the forefront of critics’ palates the way French and Italian food has for years, won $100K for his charity, the Frontera Farmer Foundation, his own charity that helps local farmers with the equipment they need to keep delivering quality produce for chefs and home cooks.

So that’s it…..this show’s premise was genius, not just because it used the successful “Top Chef” format, but because they were able to take some of the best chefs in the world, have them set their egos aside, and produce an exciting reality show. I can’t imagine they won’t return for more seasons.
Meanwhile, congrats to Rick Bayless, who truly deserved to win this thing. See you all next season, but stick with me as we blog the new season of “Top Chef: Las Vegas,” beginning in a few minutes!