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Nine chefs duel to determine a culinary champion.

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October 09, 2014 at 03:05 AM EDT

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

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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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