'Top Chef' finale recap: And the winner is...
Image Credit: Joan Leong/BravoWell, Top Chef fans, we’ve finally reached the end of another season. I know many of you have bemoaned how much the last 13 weeks dragged on, but on some levels, it flew by for me. Without a deep connection to the cheftestants, and with Tiffany (AKA the only hope for a happy ending) booted just before the finale, I was freed up from the usual anxiety that comes from having a strong rooting interest. Stir in a plethora of unanswered questions (mail-order bride or not?), and I found there was even less reason to emotionally invest.
But, hey, just because the menu might not have your favorite dish doesn’t mean you don’t eat, right? So let’s dig in. We picked things up right where last week left off, with the remaining three — Kevin, Ed and Angelo — getting called back to the judges’ table to find out what they’d be cooking for the MOST IMPORTANT MEAL OF THEIR LIVES. (Not to diminish first prize, but at this point, is losing really that big a deal? Won’t all three experience some degree of fame/notoriety/increased restaurant business anyway?)
Speaking of fame, past winners Ilan Hall, Hung Huynh, and Michael Voltaggio showed up to aid the top three with the MOST IMPORTANT MEAL OF THEIR LIVES. (I could’ve lived without Ilan, but Hung and Mike, thank you for giving me a reason to pay attention.)
This being Top Chef, our trio of finalists had strict parameters to follow. The cheftestants had to create a four-course meal, comprised of vegetable, fish and meat courses, and ending with dessert. Not only that, Tom Colicchio and Eric Ripert complicated matters by heading out into the Singapore markets in the early morning to choose the proteins in question. Avec Eric? Now there’s a show I would watch.
With all three playing on the same exact protein playing field, the pressure was on to get creative. Kevin got paired with his friend and former colleague Mike; Angelo continued his all-Asian all-the-time party with Hung (even the judges were snickering about that one); and Ed was stuck with Ilan. I’m not sure whether it was his total distrust of Ilan, or his clearly wracked nerves, but within minutes of their partnership being announced, I was ready to bet good money that Ed wasn’t taking home the top prize. Anyone else have that same reaction?
Meanwhile, before the chefs and their “assistants” had barely had time to toast their successes, Angelo’s immune system hit control-alt-delete. Poor guy was suffering from some inexplicable bug, not that Ed seemed to care. Like the emotionally cold father of a wimpy son, Ed put on his doctor hat and advised Angelo to buck up and deliver a big “f— you!” to that cold of his. Apparently, when you have pain that renders you virtually immobile, all you have to do is blurt a couple expletives, shake it off, and get back to the kitchen!
Without the time, energy or baseline heart rate for a real confessional interview, a writhing, bed-ridden Angelo told us of body aches and stabbing pains. But who knew Angelo’s illness would bring out his opponents’ true colors? Taking a cue from Tiffany, Kevin wished aloud that Angelo would get better, not just for his own sake, but so he’d have a worthy competitor. Ed, on the other hand, hoped the sick dude would throw in the towel.
When it came time to prep, Hung had to communicate with Angelo over the phone, adding to the gallons of sweat that seemed to be the silent ingredient in all of the evening’s 12 dishes. Hung, who was scurrying around like a battery-powered kitchen elf, snagged all of the foie gras, even though Ed had banked on using it. Ed took his frustration out on a duck neck. And Mike advised Kevin not to get cocky. Pot and kettle, much?
The day ended with Angelo getting a kick in the ass an antibiotic shot in the butt, and by the time cooking day arrived, the return of Angelo’s V-neck T-shirt signified his return to at least partial good health. Also back in business? Angelo’s signature weirdness. Indeed, the meditative cheftestant declared that the rain had passed and he was ready to jump into his cape. What?
Ed continued to be a d—-bag, asking Angelo, “So now you’re not sick anymore?” to which his rival responded, “I’m sick of your attitude.” Oh snap! Game on. The divide then widened to Ed vs. Angelo and Kevin. The latter two ragged on Ed’s overwrought dishes and pointed out the lack of artistry in his plating. Ed figured his food tasted better and theirs probably tasted like “sh–.” That mouth of his seems pretty artless as well, no?
Between the rougets and duck necks and Singapore slings, not to mention the 10,000 guest judges, I could barely keep my head straight. Here’s what the cheftestants dished out to the crowd — which included Momofuku’s David Chang, Vincent Bourdain (pastry chef at Valrhona) and Aun Koh (publisher of The Miele Guides) among others — along with the feedback they received:
Vegetable course: pickled royale mushrooms with pork belly, cockles and watermelon tea
– The judges loved that he made his own noodles and mastered the local flavors. Frankly, if he hadn’t nailed Asian flavors, then dude wasn’t worth the v-neck he was wearing.
Fish course: sautéed rouget with olive-poached cuttlefish
– Much like this season of Top Chef, all of the elements were there, but it needed more complexity.
Meat course: sautéed duck breast and foie gras with cinnamon marshmallow
– Ginger salad and the, um, creative use of marshmallows was overshadowed by the mysterious liquid masked as a palate cleanser. A cherry palate cleanser sounds about as refreshing as gargling with Tylenol cough syrup.
Dessert course: coconut-vanilla cream
– It was comforting, yet confusing thanks to a few savory notes.
Vegetable course: eggplant, zucchini and pepper terrine
– Call it sweet justice for Ed, but Eric Ripert was a fan of the presentation but not the lack of flavor or contrast
Fish course: pan-seared rouget with cuttlefish sauce and noodles
– Who knew potbelly and squid went together like peanut butter and jelly? Kevin did!
Meat course: roasted duck breast with duck dumpling
– Eric was amazed by the caramelized bok choy. “I have never zeen zees!”
Dessert course: frozen Singapore sling with tropical fruits
– Restaurateur Iggy Chan was positively floored by the sling, which he deemed the new national dessert. Everyone seemed to agree that it was a complex, successful spin on a traditional favorite.
Vegetable course: chilled summer corn veloute
– Even though it was a vegetable dish, Food & Wine’s Dana Cowin took issue with the lack of clam taste. Wasn’t that not really the point anyway?
Fish course: stuffed rouget with zucchini pesto and pine nuts
– It was a pretty plate (I guess he could do it after all), but ultimately convoluted. If Seetoh said it, I believe it.
Meat course: roasted duck and braised stuffed neck
– Perhaps Ed was a French housewife in another life, because the judges thought it was ingenious to make use of the duck neck.
Dessert course: sticky toffee pudding
– Ed had initially said he was nervous about doing a dessert, and I now understand why. What he served looked about as appetizing as a square piece of tree trunk. Chang thought it was hilariously ballsy, while Gail similarly thought it took major cojones. But they failed to decipher the main ingredient: desperation.
The 10,000 judges were narrowed down to the main four (Tom, Padma, Gail, and Eric) for judges’ table and they, like me, seemed to rule Ed out pretty quickly. The explanation for his amateur dessert was as weird as the dessert itself. “What am I supposed to do?” Ed asked, before going on to say how he could’ve messed up a lemon curd if he’d made one. Huh? But he didn’t make a lemon curd. No one asked him to make a lemon curd! What sort of reasoning is “I could’ve messed it up”? He could’ve messed up everything! #Fail.
Angelo lost points for the aforementioned Tylenol palate cleanser — which coated Padma’s mouth, but most certainly did not refresh it — but that seemed to be his only major flaw. This deep into the competition, every little bit mattered, and with Kevin’s nearly blemish-free service (Eric, Gail and Padma wanted a little more spice in the vegetable dish) and the perfection of the progression of the meal, the verdict was…KEVIN IS TOP CHEF! (Click here to read EW’s Q&A with Kevin Sbraga.)
A tad underwhelmed? Yeah, me, too. But I must say, even though I thought Kevin went into the episode as the outsider, I had also made an early prediction that this season was a Kenny-Angelo game. Kenny’s early exit threw a wrench in those plans, and threw off the balance of the season. So did several other possibly-in-the-wrong-order eliminations. Tiffany certainly deserved a spot in the finale, and even Arnold probably could’ve (or should’ve) made it further had it not been for Lynne. Overall, though, let’s just say, if the rumors are true that next season is an all-star affair in New York, I can hardly wait.
What did you guys think of the season finale? Did Kevin deserve to win? And if not, who would you have given the crown to? What did you think of Hung, Mike and Ilan’s return? And who’s ready for next season?