After the three finalists collaborate with star chefs to create a traditional four-course meal, the judges pick the series' first woman winner

By Vanessa Juarez
Updated June 12, 2008 at 12:20 PM EDT

Top Chef

S4 E14
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Compadres, it’s been a long and interesting season of Top Chef, and after today we part. Sniff. If you missed last night’s finale, it was off the hook. With the golden TC trophy in sight, Lisa went completely bonkers, sabotaging Stephanie by tripping her in the kitchen. Stephanie sprained her wrist and thus had to cook the finale meal with one arm in a sling and even knead pasta dough with her feet. Thatwould have been much more exhilarating to watch than what actually happened: a straightforward final competition in which Lisa, Richard, and Stephanie created a four-course meal using the traditional progression — fish to poultry to red meat to dessert. (Read: sort of dull.)

Way before tuning into Bravo last night, I noticed the Chicago Tribune was touting a live chat that would be taking place today with Stephanie, which made me wonder: Do they already know something we don’t? It turns out they might have. (Read our own interview with Stephanie.)

The episode started out with the three finalists having breakfast together, and you could cut the tension at the table with a knife. Richard and Stephanie seemed annoyed by Lisa’s company, perhaps because she had called them out last episode for not congratulating her for winning third place. ”I still can’t get over how Lisa is still here,” Richard said. ”I think a chef has to be a leader, and she’s just got a bad attitude. I don’t think Lisa deserves to win Top Chef.” But the irony of her presence wasn’t lost on Lisa. ”I’m in the finale,” she said, ”and I just kind of managed to get through by the skin of my teeth. But you know what, I don’t care that Stephanie and Richard won a bunch of eliminations and I’ve only won one.”

To be precise, Richard and Stephanie each won 4 of the 13 rounds of competition. So most of them. Which is why, after they drew knives to break the tie, Stephanie got first pick of one of three celebrity chefs who would serve as sous chefs, each of whom came with a different list of proteins to work with for the final dinner. Stephanie picked Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, and Richard picked Dan Barber of Blue Hill, leaving Lisa with April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig. The Spotted Pig has become an überly hip place to dine at in New York. Anthony Bourdain has discussed its gastropub mojo on No Reservations, and it actually made an appearance on a season finale of The Office.) Speaking of, this role reversal reminded me of the socially inept awkwardness of Office Space. The cheftestants suddenly became Lumberghs, ordering Miltons around: ”Um, yeaaaah, could you just filet that fish this way. Yeaaaah, thanks.” Except the Miltons were super-respected, award-winning chefs, and fileting fish is like handling the roach problem in the basement. Stephanie joked about ordering Ripert around: ”So I tell Eric how I want him to cut the snapper, and then I just sort of hover over him….I think he got a little, like, offended for a sec. He’s like, ‘I know.’ ”

NEXT: Richard chills out

What did you all make of Richard breaking out the liquid nitrogen? He’s obviously proud of his abilities with it. ”There are probably less than a dozen chefs in the country that cook with liquid nitrogen,” he said. ”I broke out the nitrogen, and all of a sudden I’m doing a demonstration for the best chefs in the world.” No doubt he’s talented with this molecular gastronomy, but it’s the kind of thing that almost always comes back to bite chefs in the bum. That said, Ripert took a particular interest in Richard’s ice cream making. ”I’ve never seen such a technique,” he said. ”As a chef, the day you don’t learn anymore, it means you’re such an egomaniac you’re blind.” Ripert is one of the best chefs in the world; his humble words made me think of a Q&A I just read with Colicchio on Salon.com in which he was asked which Top Chef winners he’d recruit to open a restaurant with. ”Probably Harold or Hung,” he said. ”I think Ilan — he’s a good cook, just a little immature, and he has a little way to go. If I were going to raise money and put someone in charge of the kitchen, I’d want someone with a little gravity or weight to them.” I think he’s completely on the money about Ilan. That immaturity usually lies with the folks who repel constructive criticism instead of absorb it, and Ilan strikes me as being a bit of a know-it-all, too self-loving to learn, as is perhaps Lisa.

So on day 2, the big curveball was they didn’t get their sous chefs back. Big whoopee. Toss in a surprise fifth course. Or hell, invite their Bravo sisters from The Real Housewives of New York City to critique the food, just for kicks. I can see it now: Ramona and Jill get into a fight, and the latter ends up with quail egg on her face. Explaining the celebrity chefs’ absence, Colicchio said, ”The judges wanted to make sure you live and die by your own hand.” Wah, wah, wah.

In the kitchen, Stephanie and Richard were a bit frantic, while Lisa was cool as a cucumber. What the eff? Did Blais slip some Xanax into her OJ? Even Colicchio was caught off guard. ”It was surprising to see the reactions,” Colicchio said after his usual check-in. ”You know, Richard has been usually calm, but he seems very excited, I think partly because he has so many ideas running around in his head and he can’t keep them quiet. His Achilles’ heel could be that he’s doing too much, but again, if he pulls it off, it should be great. Lisa is very calm. We know she’s a tough competitor. We’ve seen her at judges’ table time and time again defending herself, and I think part of being a chef is having somewhat of an attitude and a swagger. It helps.” When I think of swagger, I think Mick Jagger. I think Debbie Harry. But I digress.

NEXT: Stephanie’s negative attitude

Colicchio also mentioned that Stephanie was freaking out about her cake. Lisa told her she habitually bad-mouthed her own food. ”You always f—ing say that,” Lisa said, ”and it’s always awesome stuff. You’ve said that like three times to me, and then you won. I don’t want to hear that from you.” Wha? Is that sincerity I hear? For once, I actually agreed with Lisa — a bit. Stephanie’s a perfectionist, so she occasionally has a hard time persuading herself that her dish is good. Her cake was a textbook example of this. She felt uncomfortable about it and overcompensated by adding a salty banana cream — and the judges ultimately picked up on it.

Joining the Gail, Ted, Padma, Colicchio, Ripert, Barber, and Bloomfield tasting table were local chef Alfredo Ayala and Tim Zagat, creator of the renowned Zagat Survey. There isn’t much to say about the individual dishes — where can I get a scratch, sniff, and taste flat-screen TV? — other than they all looked amazing, refined, and elegant. The judges were a tough read, sort of lukewarm, until a lightbulb went off in Gail’s head after sampling Stephanie’s lamb-pistachio dish. Ripert seconded her, saying, ”It’s the first time I hear at the table, everybody is using the word I love. We haven’t heard that yet.” Colicchio agreed, saying, ”Richard’s dish just needs work, Lisa’s dish is just pedestrian, Stephanie’s is just full of surprises, and it works.”

But even after those words of validation, it was super difficult to determine who would come out on top. Lisa definitely thought she had a chance, but I had a very strong sense that she wasn’t going to win. (Mostly because I had spoken with my mom, who’s an hour ahead in mountain time, and she’d already seen the ep. Ma attempted to conceal the events of the show by saying overall that it was ”good,” but I particularly noticed no hints of outrage in her voice.)

I couldn’t believe there were still 20 minutes left in the show when we got to the judges’ table. Didn’t the ep feel stretched out? More cooking and competition, less chatty Cathy, please. Standing in front of the judges, Stephanie looked straight ahead, stoic, as she often does, as if she were getting her mug shot taken in prison. It’s okay, Stephanie, the judges just thought your leeks could have been cooked more. Richard, on the other hand, was in much bigger trouble. His scallops were underseasoned — ”a little bland,” according to Colicchio. By the time the judges said Richard’s pork belly needed to be crispier, he seemed defeated. In general, Lisa had behaved herself throughout the episode and had actually cooked what looked and tasted, according to the bosses, like good food.

NEXT: A shocking statement?

Before determining who would end up on the chopping block, Padma asked if the cheftestants had any last words. That resulted in a smidge of groveling.

Stephanie: ”It’s just sort of funny that when I was having Dale work with me and the number one thing he said was don’t second-guess yourself, and the dish that I fell short on, I think that that dessert was me second-guessing myself. But I think I’ll be able to take this and learn, and I think I just am what a Top Chef should be.”

Lisa: ”I feel very strongly about the menu that I provided you guys with tonight. I’m very confident that you’re going to be like, ‘She deserves this, she deserves to be Top Chef, you know, she’s got the qualities.’ ” [Cue mysterious but iconic Top Chef sound effect.]

Richard: ”Yeah, sure, I’ll say it, I feel like I choked a little bit. I think I overthought things too much. I think when I’m at my best, it’s when I’m not thinking. And I think that it wasn’t certainly my top performance that I’ve had so far.”

Gail said she was ”totally shocked by what Richard just said.” Before the preceding commercial break, there had been a teaser that edited Gail’s comment in a way to make us believe that Blais was going to bad-mouth Lisa. Did you notice that? Despite the lack of drama, I was relieved he didn’t give in to the lowest common denominator.

While the judges deliberated, Lisa offered her own assessment in the back room. ”You definitely killed the first and third [courses],” she told Stephanie, ”and I kind of feel like I nailed the second and fourth. I don’t know.” Richard and Stephanie’s response? Crickets. And the judges continued to deliberate. Apparently it was a ”long road” to making a decision — so long, in fact, that Ted Allen started to hear morning birds chirp. Did this ”long, long discussion,” I have to ask, include booze and talk of existentialism before they actually chose Stephanie — yay! — as the winner. ”I won Top Chef!” she cried. ”Holy s—! This is the biggest thing that’s happened in my life. My life is about to change. It’s going to be absolutely insane.”

What did you think? Did you call it before the end of the show? Did the judges’ comments seem fair? And did the right chef win?

Episode Recaps

Top Chef

Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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