By Archana Ram
Updated March 24, 2011 at 06:30 AM EDT

As told to Archana Ram.

Antonia, Richard and Mike had stayed consistent and strong throughout the season. Each of them had won a ton of challenges and kept moving. Each of them individually wowed us. It never plays out quite how you think, but I was really glad they were the final three.

The whole Quickfire was absurd. We knew it was absurd. We just kept piling it on to see how they’d react. They all did really well considering all the twists they were given. They all delivered edible food, which I think is a pretty big accomplishment at that stage. Mike had one pot and nothing else. You never how someone else will react to the challenge you give them, and they also never knew there would be a second twist. Cooking with one pot is a challenge but a realistic one. But cooking with one hand behind your back or tied to someone else isn’t. Simple challenges can be the hardest, and I think it’s because they over-prepare. They’re not able to stand back and simplify. They get caught up in trying to do too much. But in this case, the three of them are actually really good at restraint.

As for the Elimination, it was honestly the most stressful challenge for the chefs and the most stressful in terms of the decision. It came down to one bite and one vote. It was painful, agonizing.

I don’t agree entirely that Mike had it easy, so to speak. I think on paper, yes, it was the most familiar dish among the three. But I don’t think it’s the simplest because making fried chicken perfectly and wowing us with it is a hard thing to do. (And clearly, he didn’t win.) Not only is fried chicken the most familiar for the cheftestants because it’s hard to find a top chef in America who hasn’t made fried chicken in their life, but it’s also hard to find a lot of eaters who haven’t eaten great fried chicken in their life, so they have a lot to compare it to. In some ways, that made us more discerning. We expected more from Mike because it was a dish we know he can make and a dish that’s relatively simple if made well. He had a lot more to prove. Richard doesn’t have a strong Austrian background and Antonia doesn’t have a strong Japanese background, but that gave them the freedom to take a little more license and give a little more of themselves. Richard did so in a really creative way. Antonia tried, and some of it was successful, some wasn’t.

Mike also had creativity. Choosing to do an empanada instead of biscuit was smart. The egg yolk was a beautiful touch that played on the creaminess and richness of the dish. It also gave it the chicken and egg theme. Michelle liked the empanada, but she was surprised that she liked it. She had tried it before but never enjoyed it. She was impressed with his version. Mike’s pea puree lent some freshness and brightness. And the chicken batter was good, but the problem was how he chose to cook it — first by sous vide and then by frying it. It probably wasn’t necessary. Certain cooking methods are the way they are for hundreds of years for a reason. For fried chicken — get a hot pot with a lot of oil. Batter your chicken, fry for eight minutes on each side, and you’re done. You don’t need all the fancy tricks. His batter didn’t adhere well to the chicken so part of it got soggy, which was disappointing.

With Antonia, sashimi needs to be subtle, clean and cut perfectly. If you’re going to add bells and whistles, you need to do it carefully. The fish needs to be the star. She chose a really strong dressing for it as well as chili peppers, which blew out my mouth so I wasn’t able to taste the fish anymore. Her miso soup was really off. It was salty but also didn’t have that great umami taste you want from the soup. There was something about the recipe where whatever she used was a little off balance. We all agreed it wasn’t the best miso soup we had. A lot of the pickles were smart, and the eggplant had a lot of flavor and melted in your mouth. Plus, the rice was seasoned well. That was the biggest test because Morimoto had a clear vision of how he wanted his rice and how his mother made it. That’s the trickiest thing about this challenge — cooking a “my last supper” challenge is about cooking great food your way but also living up to people’s nostalgia, and that can be really difficult. But the star of the plate should’ve been the sashimi, and it just didn’t measure up to our expectations.

We liked Mike’s and Antonia’s dishes, but there were also flaws in both. For all of us, Richard’s was clearly one step ahead of them. He found this great middle ground between giving the dish his own style, imparting through that dish, a piece of himself while at the same time giving us the classic flavors that Wolfgang expected in his goulash — the paprika, the beautifully braised meat, the sour cream — all those familiar flavors we know and love. At the same time, he did this dehydrated sour cream, and the strudel was done really well. The apples were traditionally cooked, the pastry was great and he did this dehydrated tarragon cream that gave it a modern touch and burst of freshness.

But after we chose Richard, then, of course, was the twist. They took it like rock stars but when you saw the episode, you saw how scared they were. And I was too! I literally was shaking. My heart was pounding when we gave them that envelope. I felt like it was so cruel to do after they had cooked for so long, but we had established that with them from the beginning. They knew something was coming. We felt it was the right thing to do to make sure we were a 100% on who was going to the finale.

While Antonia and Mike were in the kitchen again, the mood at our table was really stressful. We all took a break, sat around the couch, chatted and tried to get updates on what they were doing in the kitchen. It was also going late into the night. The good news was we didn’t have to do Judges’ Table afterward for the first time ever, but it was really nerve-wracking. There was a lot going on. The kitchen had to be cleaned and restocked, and then Mike and Antonia had to get their energy up to cook again. They were exhausted.

In the end, it wasn’t a mutual decision. It was three against four. Both dishes were good, and it wasn’t about a clear winner or loser. Neither was perfect, but we weren’t judging for perfection. We knew they were exhausted and that they had put their best foot forward, giving every ounce of thought and energy. In the end, it just came down to: Which would I eat again?

Wolfgang went back and forth for a while. We all did. People could’ve made arguments either way. Antonia’s was really bold. The flavors were strong and it was a nice idea, but I thought the flavor overwhelmed the fish, and grouper is a pretty meaty fish to begin with. I loved the textural and temperature contrast in Mike’s dish, and I really loved those two sauces. Pieces of his plate were bland if you ate them alone, and I always try to eat the components on their own and then together. When I ate them alone, I was disappointed, but when I put that olive caramel with the potatoes and the tartare, it gave the dish a whole new angle and really made me think about it and appreciate how well those flavors went together. Really, everything should be in balance and work both separately and together. But in this particular case, the food wasn’t meant to be eaten separately. It was meant to be eaten as one bite. So I stopped, ate it all and realized that it was actually really in balance.

I have so much respect for Antonia. I’m so proud how well she did on both her seasons. She took it all the way to the finals both times. She’s a strong, fearless chef. She makes good food and knows how people want to eat. I’m excited to see where she goes next. I just hope I’m invited to the table.

The kitchen, the industry and our show are meritocracies, and we actually stacked the deck in favor of women. If I close my eyes, I’m pretty sure I would’ve chosen the same way. Trust me when I say that, if anyone, it pained me the most to let Antonia go. But this has nothing to do with women — white, black, short, tall, fat, skinny. This is about the dish in front of us and that’s how the cookie crumbled. I think Mike has proven himself thoroughly over the last three challenges so it wasn’t an arbitrary decision.

For the big finale, it’s down to two people instead of three for the first time in many years, which allows us to give them a lot more time to focus on their food and their process. It’s not anything like a finale we’ve done before. We’re not telling them to cook a meal of a lifetime. It’s a much broader challenge and they both do an incredible job.

What did you guys think of the episode? Were you surprised to see Antonia go? Was the episode as stressful for you? And who do you think will take home the title next week?