Nine chefs duel to determine a culinary champion.

By John Vilanova
October 09, 2014 at 03:05 AM EDT
Nicole Wilder/Bravo
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Watching any competitive reality food show is a strange exercise when you think about it. Taste is supposed to be a subjective thing; who’s to say what the “best” dish is on any given night? Sure, the judges’ palates are refined and trained, but one person’s sensitivity to salt, proclivity for pickling, or secretly preferred protein could be the difference between victory and defeat.

Even more obvious, though, is the reality of the viewer: We can’t taste the food. Instead, we have to let our eyes and ears tell us what our mouths should. But all we get to go on are hours of prep-work, flavor-building, and judges’ scrutiny crammed into 40-some-odd made-for-TV minutes.

So really, what we’re doing is hearing culinary stories. The producers craft them. The contestants bring them—or invent them on the fly to fit their dishes into a challenge’s criteria. And the food tells them. The best chefs are the ones whose food tells a story—their story—and articulate a point of view that springs from the life they’ve lived, the places they’ve seen, and the bites they’ve taken.

If you asked an old-school sportswriter about maintaining objectivity in the press box, they’d say they don’t root for teams—they root for stories. Who raises the trophy (or cashes the $100,000 check) doesn’t matter all that much in the end. The journey is the most important part. And the best stories are the ones that last long after the final bites have been taken and the plates have been cleared off the table.

Between the cavalcade of culinary stars on tonight’s Top Chef Duels final, there are plenty of storybook endings available to choose from. Kevin and Antonia had come so close, each reaching finales before falling short. Jen and Shirley were technically savvy but lacked the final push needed to enter the winner’s circle. Dale and Knockout winner Tiffani have grown up before our eyes, turning from immature punk chefs to refined toques who cook with their hearts. Takashi-san is the dignified Master, seeking to show the new guard his knives are still sharp. And Richard and Stephanie have already tasted Top Chef victory—they just want more.

And then there’s CJ.

NEXT: Quickfires determine the final four

In some ways, CJ was always the ideal reality show contestant. He’s immediately identifiable due to the fact that he’s a giant (or a “basketball player,” to Wolfgang Puck). He’s funny, self-effacing, and handsome. And he’s ready, willing, and able to provide a good sound bite.

But really, what had he ever cooked that wowed anyone? Compared to the eight other chefs, Big Ceej seemed like an afterthought—he lacked the profile, trophy case, and accolades of his competitors. Sure, he’d won a bunch of Last Chance Kitchens, but he always seemed like an also-ran—one of the compelling cast of characters who kept things interesting until the real contenders emerged and things got serious.

But on Duels, CJ has reinvented himself, devoting fully to the craft and an ethos—sustainability and foraged food—that was hinted at during his battle with Stefan earlier this season but has become both his raison d’être and the way he reconciles his California past with his present. He’s the clear underdog, for sure, but he’s got perhaps the best story to tell.

There were quite a few cooks in the kitchen this week, and I honestly wondered about squishing nine weeks of duels into a battle royal like this. A finale with nine competitors was going to have to be winnowed-down quickly, and the tried-and-true two quickfire system was an easy way to cut into the field, albeit one that probably gave some of the chefs short shrift.

Coloring can be a rough requirement for these chefs—many of whose plates wowed us this year with bright multitudes of colors. Produce and protein popped off the plates; taking the spectrum down to just its polar opposites, white and black, was definitely a real challenge that probably favored some of the experimentally minded cooks over the traditionalists.

The key, though, is big flavors to break through the darkness. A few dishes did stand out, though. The most appetizing: Kevin’s black chicken albondigas with Oaxacan black mole and Tiffani’s sesame fried chicken crusted in forbidden black rice with a night-black Thai coconut sauce. Dale gets points for presenting the least-black dish with his black cod in black bean and black butter chili sauce, but in general the chefs all cook their food. Antonia’s making pasta. Richard’s building complex flavors and, as CJ says, “doing some Rain Man s—.” And Shirley’s concocting wild stories about floating pieces of nori in her broth looking like clouds.

Tiffani and Kevin joined Takashi’s earthy roulade of black chicken with truffle and black mission figs and CJ’s black bass marinated in dark chocolate with huitlacoche and black crispy lentils in the top four. The other chefs carry pained expressions—they’re not exactly used to losing.

CJ is the surprising first chef to move on, but the judges are unabashed in their praise. “I would say you f—ing nailed it,” Wolfgang says. It’s apparent to everyone that CJ wants it the most, and, in these cases, that’s bringing out the best in him. Tiffani joins him thanks to a dish that received even higher marks and was the clear best dish this round—no matter what sense is doing the judging.

The second quickfire requires a more refined touch—white plates will need to be less bold and more refined. That still isn’t stopping Top Chef‘s latest-appointed recurring judge Dickie Blais from compressing scallops, freezing mayonnaise, and whipping lychee to pair with a chicharon and sliced scallop crudo. This is probably going to be Richard’s last rodeo as a contestant, and to this day I believe he is probably Top Chef‘s greatest find. His dish is among the top four, and you had to think he was going to be moving on.

The competition is probably even stiffer here, though, with Kevin’s New England scallop chowder with lemon vinegar main-lining bacon into the judges’ bloodstreams, Antonia’s traditionally elegant poached halibut with cauliflower puree, hazelnut lemon gremolata, and Takashi’s spring roll cevich—of scallops, halibut, and squid rolled cauliflower and a baguette for crunch with tendrils of white asparagus—joining Richard and coming under consideration. Takashi-san definitely cooks the standout dish here, and his promotion to the final four was no surprise. But as always, Kevin figures out how to craft high-concept comfort food that stands out, and he moves on as well.

NEXT: The final duel

With a final seating of Michelle Bernstein, Jonathan Waxman, Hugh Acheson, Francis Lam, and Tom Colicchio himself, the final challenge figured to be a drag-out affair, but the extra wrinkle of eliminating a chef with each course created incredibly high stakes. Instead of watching a full meal, filtering judges’ comments for each round, and trying to see who “won more courses,” the herd was thinned even further each round. While one bad dish is usually enough to deny someone the win, in this case, it felt a lot more like losing watching chefs pack up and go as they went.

The theme is a little silly—a three-course meal inspired by emotions that inspire duels—but love, honor, and pride are abstract enough themes that it allowed the chefs freedom to cook their food. Too often finales have been tarnished by mystery boxes, curveballs, and other noise. Here, they could just cook.

Food and love go hand in hand, so the first course makes a lot of sense. Takashi loves his father, a chef. Kevin and Tiffani love their wives. CJ loves… peas. Got it.

All of the dishes look great, but, as ridiculous as CJ’s love for his peas seemed, it really comes out with his peas cooked in their own juice with chrysanthemum, sorrel, foraged herbs, and gooseberries. Michelle is certainly impressed by the unorthodox approach, and I got great joy out of watching CJ try to play it cool and act like he’d been there before as even Tom gave him positive comments for once. Though it was pretty cruel for Curtis to slow-roll him once the judges had made their decision—calling him out to let him know he was safe was cruel, and you could almost picture the exact moments his heart stopped and restarted again when he found out he was through to the next round.

Tiffani’s bright, bold spicy scallop roll with olive oil, ginger juice, and yuzu seemed to be the judges’ second-favorite opening course, so she seemed safe as well. So it came down to Kevin versus Takashi, with Kevin’s butter-and-bacon-fat-roasted scallop with lemon and mascarpone grits representing a messy, spicy kind of love that you’d think the chefs at the table would go for. But this is one of those times that, for all my expertise in watching people eat food, my eyes and the judges’ mouths are clearly misaligned: Hugh and Wolfgang each thought it lacked direction. It was too messy, indeed.

But ultimately, Takashi is forced to pack his (sushi) knives and go. The judges’ criticism that his plating is a little busy is understandable, but I’d have a really hard time criticizing Buckeye tuna crudo marinated in a soy umami sauce with spring onion dressing and daikon radish salad. Overwhelming tuna is a cardinal offense, though, and he knows it. I guess someone had to be eliminated first.

CJ and Tiffani each choose to honor places for the entrée course: Tiffani’s Boston roots are on display with butter-poached lobster gnocchi, corn puree, and lobster sauce. It looks luxurious and Wolfgang says he couldn’t have cooked the lobster better himself, but, for Francis at least, lacks the punch a good Northeastern lobster sauce should have. CJ goes neo-classical, citing his Orange County roots as the inspiration for his duck a l’orange-inspired crispy confit with oranges, kumquat, and Manzanita berries (Shailene Woodley’s favorite!). The judges all like it, and Jon Waxman even calls it “frivolity,” somehow making that seem like a positive.

Doing duck is always an issue on Top Chef—”Will the fat render in time?” is the usual concern—but Kevin also offers the bird to honor his mentor, chef Michael Tuohy. In his season’s finale, Kevin floundered because he didn’t speak his own voice—rather than cooking his dignified and simplistic style, he went too fancy in an attempt to keep up with the Voltaggio machines. To me, sous vide duck with mushroom ragout and an English pea pistou felt like it occupied a similar space here, where Kevin overstated the inspiration and understated himself.

You can choose your metaphor—I prefer “chewyduck” (say it like “geoduck”) over “rubber ducky”—but it was clear that the judges thought his dish was bad. Kevin has always stood behind his food and did so again here, but he finished third again and was none too happy about it. That fire, unfortunately, was missing from his food.

The third course, pride, was strange because, as has happened before, the “do-I-do-a-dessert” question was left open-ended. I’m sure Tiffani’s award-winning biscuit, blueberry balsamic sauce, and lemon thyme ice cream was delicious, and she certainly takes pride in Sweet Cheeks, her restaurant. But is any biscuit worth $100,000, especially when you’ve already served it to the same diners weeks prior?

As for CJ, he takes pride in his own evolution, displaying proficiency and technique with a California halibut slow-roasted over embers in the juice of similarly roasted Muscat grapes. Francis loves it, but Tom is critical of the fish (it should’ve been a fattier one), but it’s more of a conversation about decisions than it is a critique of shortcomings—a master chef assisting an up-and-comer who’s on his way.

“We told two amazing stories,” CJ says. “I went from being not very good to good.” It’s relatively humble, but it’s also relatively true, and his coming-out party on Duels has probably been the season’s biggest surprise. Tiffani has fully redeemed herself as well, showing that she’s far from the person we first met so many years ago. Now, she’s warm and emotionally available—qualities that come through in her food. She’d make a deserving champion, even if she cooked not to lose.

But ultimately, the “nitrous canister injected into CJ’s life” was the difference, and finding his culinary voice led him to a well-deserved victory. Years ago, he never would’ve had a chance, but his fresh and of-the-culinary-moment inspiration helped him remake himself on the fly and become a real “Top Chef.” Maybe the real difference between “cook” and “chef” is that ability to articulate a nuanced and unique point of view—CJ happened to find his at just the right time. And so the best story won. Who wouldn’t root for that?

Episode Recaps

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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