For the first time in all of my years of Top Chef fandom/recapping, the judges, producers, and America got it all right. For the first time, we actually have a finale in which the two best contestants made it through to the end.
If this season of Top Chef was the NCAA tournament, most of America would still be in the hunt in their March Madness pools. The number one and number two seeds made it to the big show without Lehigh (Josie) screwing everyone’s bracket up.
Ok, I’m done with the basketball analogy.
So, if this is the way things should be, with the best two chefs in the finals, why was I so much less invested in this season’s finale than years past? Because, I honestly didn’t care if Kristen or Brooke won…I’d have been totally happy with either outcome. There was no bad apple in the mix for me to root against, no one prompting me to mutter “I swear…if so and so wins, I’m never watching this show again.”
But this was by far one of the best and one of the tightest finale competitions in quite some time.
The chefs start out by walking in to the kitchen….and discovering that the kitchen is actually what looks like the Iron Chef America stadium with some comically oversized knives propped up against the wall. And that stadium is filled with a live audience, including all 9 of the previous Top Chef winners.
The finalists have already selected their sous chefs for the competition – no gimmicky blind amuse bouche tastings this year. Brooke has “Team L.A.”, Stefan, CJ, and Kuniko. I thought that Brooke’s choices made a lot of sense – CJ for his palate, Stefan for his quickness, and Kuniko for her precision. Kristen went with the seemingly more obvious picks of cheftestants numbers 3 and 4 – Sheldon and Lizzie – and, surprisingly, number 5 – Josh. Josh is a good chef and all, but I never imagined their styles of cooking meshing well.
It feels like just yesterday we were watching Stefan creep out on Kristen, taking a big whiff of her feet as they enjoyed a cigarette on the patio of the Top Chef loft in Seattle. And now, some 17 weeks later, Stefan is making creepy comments about he and Kristen’s first born son.
The menus are already decided as well. Each chef has 3 hours to create 5 courses, with each course constituting a round. The only limitations are that the second round must include scallops and the fourth round must include snapper. The first chef to win three rounds wins Top Chef.
This episode is all business with little fluff, save for a few flashback montages. Less than seven minutes in, and Hugh, Gail, Tom, Padma, and Emeril have the first course in front of them. I’ll bet that Brooke was wishing CJ had a little less palate and a little more technical skill, because he burns the crispy pig ears in her pig ear and chicory salad. Kristen’s chicken liver mousse with frisee, mustard, prune, hazelnuts, and pumpernickel turns out balanced and perfectly prepared.
Kristen wins round 1.
Brooke resolves to prevent any more execution errors and Kristen reaffirms her plan to focus on clean, simple, and well-executed. Kristen goes with a simple and clean citrus and lavender cured scallop, but Brooke’s seared scallop with salt cod puree offers some bolder flavors, and she wins round 2 by a 3-2 vote.
Pause for the recap reel. Time to trump up Kristen’s heroic battle back through the ranks of Last Chance Kitchen. It just seems a little too perfect. But you heard my theory on that months ago…
It isn’t until the third round that I see Brooke make a serious tactical error. Her dish, Vadouvan chicken wings with sumac yogurt-tahini and pickled kohlrabi fattoush, is mainly a shot at redemption. She is more concerned with proving that she can cook fried chicken after her abysmal performance in the fried chicken challenge. THIS IS THE FINALE! This is the time to put out the best plate of food you possibly can, not to prove a point. So, no matter how good those wings were, I’m not surprised that Kristen’s more refined celery root puree with bone marrow wins round 3 unanimously.
It is the snapper round, and Brooke is one bad dish away from losing to Kristen. So, I was a little surprised and impressed with her ballsiness, pairing braised pork cheek, red snapper, and collard green slaw. It looks like a dish that I’d devour, but it seems like there is a lot in there that would overpower the fish. Kristen keeps things lighter, serving her snapper with gem lettuce, tarragon, uni (mmmmmm…uni), and shellfish nage. I’ll wait while you Google “nage”.
As soon as I check the clock, I know how this is going to end. With only 6 minutes left in the episode, a fifth round just isn’t in the cards. In a less-dramatic-than expected fashion, the judges give the round and the title of Top Chef to Kristen.
I’m totally happy with Kristen taking the win; I think we’d all picked her out from the first week as the frontrunner. But I can’t seem to shake the sour taste of conspiracy theory from my mouth…I doubt I’ll ever believe that her elimination and subsequent rise through Last Chance Kitchen was anything but scripted. At the least, it was predictable.
And that wraps up yet another season of Top Chef. I hope that you tolerated it as well as I did.
- By Jon Watson, Food & More blog