Top Chef's two female champions do battle in a culinary garden of forbidden delights.

By John Vilanova
Updated September 25, 2014 at 03:01 AM EDT
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TOP CHEF DUEL
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If it were up to Stephanie Izard, the first female winner of Top Chef, she says, she’d stop talking about the fact that she’s a woman and focus instead on her food: “Why don’t we just talk about me being a chef?” she asks during this week’s duel.

While I’m sure she’s deservedly sick of hearing about her gender, the fact is that she is not “just” a chef; she is a female chef. And, of course, in a business that has traditionally had problems with women in the kitchen, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating that.

So for the duel pitting Stephanie against Kristen Kish—the show’s only other female champion—it was fitting that Top Chef would emphasize the significance of the face-off (rather than ask any questions about why the number is only two, considering there have been 11 standard Top Chef, one All-Stars, two Just Desserts, and five Masters seasons altogether). Two out of 19: When you put it that way, you might as well emphasize this twosome. They’re all you’ve got.

But that aside, Stephanie and Kristen couldn’t be a better pair of female faces for the show, and they’re interesting adversaries because their paths to the title were so remarkably different. Stephanie cooks big, bold, rustic food, delivering densely packed and layered flavors. It’s aggressive and unapologetic, and since going toe-to-toe with a crumbling Richard Blais in the season 4 finale, she’s collected plenty of other silverware, including Food & Wine‘s Best New Chef award and a James Beard award.

I’m going to have to admit a little bias here—Kristen is one of my favorite competitors in the history of Top Chef. Her Italian/French stylized wonders are the some of the most intellectual plates the show has ever seen, and while the tweezers can be a bit much sometimes, when she talks about her food, you can hear how its constituent parts come together to execute her vision. What’s more is when you look at these plates—complex and beautiful, even if at times heavy-handed—you can see why they won week after week. That hands-on approach (and Chef Josie!) prompted her dismissal during Restaurant Wars, but a successful run through Last Chance Kitchen let her claim the title that she deserved all along.

Six years did pass between Stephanie’s and Kristen’s victories, and the idea of Stephanie influencing a young Kristen isn’t all that far-fetched. Combine that with Kristen’s training—with the esteemed Barbara Lynch—and the presence of Michelle Bernstein at the judges’ table, and you’ve got the makings of a solid celebration of women and their influence within the culinary community. And some serious cooking.

NEXT: Challenging quickfires

On Kristen’s own season, it became evident fairly quickly that she was the class of the group. We kind of knew it; she kind of knew it. Here, she’s up against a far tougher test, and though she always paid her fellow chefs respect, it’s kind of strange to see her intimidated here in the presence of real competition.

I’m not sure how much of letting Stephanie go first had to do with strategy versus deferring to her forebear, but Stephanie is ready with a cheeky challenge that asks the Asian chef to move outside of her comfort zone… by cooking Asian food.

In this case, the challenge calls for Thai street food inspiration, and the worldlier Stephanie has an advantage here. Though Kristen was born in Korea and planned to return after her Top Chef victory, she still has yet to step foot there. It’s a tricky challenge that probably tweaks Kristen a little (particularly because she has to admit her victory cash went elsewhere), but it’s fair.

I’d never heard of hoi tod before, but a fried mussel and shrimp pancake with spiced lamb, bean sprouts, and green papaya salad sounds good whatever you call it. Stephanie knows the flavors of Thailand, and the intention of her approach—which intentionally ignores pretenses of sophistication in favor of something more accessible—is well-suited to the challenge’s parameters. She argues—perhaps rightly—that she can create better, more intense flavor.

Like I said earlier, Kristen knows how flavors and ingredients—fish sauce, lemongrass, et al.—combine to create Thai food. So of course there’s a caramelized fish sauce and peanuts alongside her skirt steak and roasted radishes, and of course the unequivocal technique creates a prettier plate. She even puts her own spin on things by eschewing another Thai staple, lime, instead using orange for citrus and brightness. It’s a subtle change, but it’s the kind of culinary intervention that she knows how to do so well.

Ultimately, though Stephanie gives the judges the things Kristen and her cuisine can’t, namely greasiness and the rustic authenticity she’s known for, without ever being unsophisticated. Michelle Bernstein calls it “satisfyingly trashy… in a good way.” For Gail, it’s an easy choice—Stephanie’s dish went out and won the challenge. Curtis also would’ve picked Stephanie, but Michelle’s comment is the most striking: She chooses Stephanie because the winning dish “made her think.”

Being so soundly swept could knock anyone—particularly Kristen—off her game, but a back-to-basics, technique-intense pasta challenge is an easy way for Kristen to regain some momentum. It’s been interesting to see how the chefs during Duels have used the clock as the challenging factor so far this season, and 30 minutes for a refined, tasting menu-ready pasta seems to be the most intense test yet.

I’m not sure how you could possibly not be impressed watching Kristen make pasta. It’s machinelike and efficient—she says she’s made it every day with AP flour, a single egg, and water for more than a year and a half—and translating pastas in these ways is going to be her culinary calling card whenever she opens her restaurant. In this case, she goes Turkish, with a ground lamb, garlic, and onion-filled manti dumpling doused in brown butter with yogurt sauce.

Stephanie has a relatively harder time with her pasta, but she still manages to produce an impressive plate that sounds delicious: agnolotti with a crab Rangoon-inspired shrimp, crab, fennel and cream cheese filling with a Chimichurri sauce. Ultimately, the judges decision seems closer than I expected at first glance, with Curtis and Michelle splitting the vote before Gail sides with Kristen.

NEXT: Forbbiden fruits (and veggies and meats and more)

I’m not sure what, exactly, the Top Chef production team had in mind when constructing the Garden of Eden-themed challenge for this week. Outside of planting a giant snake in the kitchen and allowing Curtis to crack wise about getting naked, it feels kind of tone-deaf in a week that’s supposed to be about women’s empowerment. Gender is at play in the first course, which is supposed to be inspired by masculine and feminine themes, but the whole thing feels a little clumsy and weird to me. The following courses—temptation entrees and sinful desserts—are fine in context, but it’s a strange choice given the gender politics of original sin.

But we all know not to discuss religion and politics over dinner, so neither chef takes the thing anywhere near as seriously as I am—and there are plenty of sexual images to go around. Stephanie does a duo of sexual symbols, with razor clams and mussels with a perilla-and-Stella sauce, shrimp and red onion butter, radishes, and blood oranges. It’s soulful and in-your-face, but it’s a duo, and it feels disconnected outside of the… uh… genital theme.

For Kristen’s first course, she chooses caviar because it comes from female fish (duh), pairing it with slow-poached swordfish (the most phallic fish, of course) with lemon, Bavarian leeks, chives, parsley chips, and caper berries. It’s a more complete composition, which earns high marks from the table.

Dinner table talk is a little strange this week, with restaurateurs Quinn and Karen Hatfield, Suzanne Goin, and David Lentz joining Gail, Curtis, Michelle, and Hugh Acheson. Things are a little chippy—the chefs are the most critical diners we’ve had so far all season. We also learn Curtis is uncomfortable saying the word “vagina.” Go figure.

Kristen’s second course is the most decadent “dirty stoner food” I think I’ve ever seen, with fried oysters, potato and miso puree, asparagus, fluke, a New England seafood chowder, and a perfectly tourneéd potato. As one of the judges says, it’s a “tour-de-force of technique,” but there are little misfires here and there with the cooking itself.

On the other hand, Stephanie’s dish receives superlative, unequivocal praise from the diners. It’s a pretty pile of food: blueberry and apple nuoc cham, a Vietnamese fish-and-vinegar sauce, with seared halibut, miso marcona almond butter, green almonds, white asparagus tips, spring onions, mushrooms, and probably a dozen other ingredients that date back to Eden. By the judges’ accounts, it was soulful and skillful at the same time—a quintessential success that united time and space.

How are you supposed to follow that up, honestly? While I’m sure it was guilty—to some extent—of an unfavorable edit, hearing a judge tell Stephanie, “You’ll never live up to that for the rest of your life—sorry,” might’ve been a bit harsh. You knew the fall was coming, and apparently passion fruit semifreddo, chocolate-covered deep-fried Malaysian flatbread, and pomegranate with bourbon and coffee sauce was a combination that wasn’t going to work. As the guest judges rip into it, Curtis tries feebly to defend it, but things get a little nastier than they should. (I thought this week was about solidarity!)

Meanwhile, Kristen’s ice cream with pink peppercorn, roasted figs, pickled blackberries, tahini-orange caramel, hazelnut and cocoa nib shortbread, and a meringue is lauded for its technique and marriage of flavors, textures, and taste. Apparently it’s her best dish of the night. Go figure.

I’m not sure if I was alone here, but for once, I really didn’t feel like I knew who was going to win during the last commercial break. Kristen and her sous chefs plated food that was technically perfect, but lacking in moments that stood out. Stephanie showed that cooking from the soul can be messy, but rewarding, earning the victory, it seems, not on the strength of a better meal, but instead creating a dish that would be remembered. The transcendent one won out. They do that, sometimes.

Episode Recaps

Top Chef Duels

Celebrity chefs Curtis Stone and Gail Simmons decide the best chef as two past contestants go head-to-head in each episode.
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