By Adam Markovitz
February 26, 2009 at 01:50 PM EST
Virginia Sherwood/Bravo

Bad news, dear readers: The agony of watching her beloved Dr. Jeff get booted for a second time last week was just too much for Kate to handle, so she’s asked me to fill in for this season’s Top Chef finale while she mends her broken heart.

And Kate isn’t the only one with wounds to lick: Stefan and Carla are going home empty-handed now that Hosea has been crowned the king of Season 5. It was a great and hard-won victory for Hosea — and an especially tough blow for Stefan, who seemed to have a lock on the title just a few weeks back. At least Carla can lay her defeat on Casey’s bad advice and a fallen soufflé; Stefan just got whooped fair and square in The Battle of the Bald.

The episode starts calmly enough, with the three remaining chefs enjoying a beignet breakfast on an old-timey riverboat. Having never been to the Big Easy myself, I can only assume that this is how most Cajuns start their day when they aren’t busy cleaning gumbo off their jazz clarinets in preparation for the nightly masked ball. Carla seems a little shocked at the fact that she’s in the top three (she’s not the only one), but Hosea and Stefan are ready to rumble. Remember back when the judges kept commenting about Stefan’s cockiness, but we didn’t really see it? Well, he’s really making up for lost time now. ”It’s done. It’s over with,” he says in a confessional. ”Hosea, get the @#$% out of here. Go back to Colorado.” Honestly, if I were Hosea, I’d probably be pretty eager to get home just to reduce the number of spiteful Finnish men in my life.

With breakfast over, the chefs are herded over to some historical museum where Tom gives them their task: ”Cook us the best three-course meal of your life.” Easy, right? They can pick their proteins, and dessert is optional. The meal will be served to a table of twelve judges/guests at some schmancy restaurant called Commander’s Palace, and — surprise! — each chef will get a hand from one of three past contestants: Richard (Season 4), Marcel (Season 2), and Casey (Season 3). Hosea gets first pick and goes with Richard, an appropriately bland match. Next up is Stefan, who taps Marcel (still sporting that same Wolverine hairdo, bless his heart). The two of them working together sounds like a recipe for disaster, but as Stefan puts it, Marcel is ”a great chef. He’s a bit of a twat. But who’s not?” Well said, chef. That leaves Carla with Casey, which seems fine by both of them — although I get the impression Carla would’ve been equally happy if they’d given her a toddler or a papier-maché dolphin as a sous chef. She’s just that kind of gal.

NEXT: And they’re off!

The two-hour prep time starts in the kitchen, where Hosea immediately runs out of the pantry with all the foie gras. But when Stefan cries foul (or fowl…), the boys start fighting over the liver like it’s the last purse at a sample sale. Hosea offers to split it, but Stefan storms off in a huff — only to come back a few minutes later to gripe about Hosea hoarding the caviar. Meanwhile, Carla takes Casey’s suggestion of cooking her beef sous-vide (translation: in a vacuum-sealed bag), even though she’s never used the technique before. Now, a logical person might stick to the tricks they know for a high-stakes competition like this, but clearly rational thinking isn’t what got Carla this far. On the other side of the kitchen, Marcel turns out to be a surprisingly good at deciphering Stefan’s ESL-infused instructions (”Just put rare one slice boom boom.”) as the two crank out the first bits of a foie gras and caviar-free meal. When the two-hour prep ends, the chefs seem a little too happy, a little too confident, which can only mean…

It’s time for a twist! The next morning, Tom shows up with a table of goodies: blue crabs, red fish, and one giant dead alligator that he presumably killed with his bare hands. In order to decide who picks first, they each get a slice of confetti-colored cake — one of which has a tiny golden baby inside of it. (Something tells me the show’s producers came up with this one after a long night on Bourbon Street.) Hosea gets the trinket and takes the red fish before assigning Carla the crab and dumping the alligator on Stefan. What, nobody wants to cook a 100-pound reptile for dinner?

With three hours left before service, the chefs get back to work in the kitchen where Stefan wastes no time chopping up the alligator’s tail for a soup. But nature gets its revenge when Carla’s crab snaps down on her hand in one last act of defiance before taking its final bubble bath. Rest in peace, brave soldier. As the dishes start to come together, we learn that Hosea will be skipping the optional dessert course in favor of a venison dish while Stefan and Carla both opt for sweet plates. And, yet again, Casey chimes in with a suggestion for Carla: Why not make a cheese soufflé instead of a tart? Hmmmm.

The clock runs down, the food heats up, and the guests — including chef Rocco DiSpirito, chef Hubert Keller, and Toby Young — roll in. The appetizers get nearly unanimous praise from everyone, but they aren’t so kind when the first courses come around. Carla’s deconstructed bouillabaisse gets high marks, but Hosea’s sashimi is dubbed ”bland” and Tom calls Stefan out on freezing his fish in order to slice it into thin sheets. Did he really think they wouldn’t notice? We also get an out-of-nowhere musing from jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who notes that chefs talk ”just like musicians.” Thanks for that, Branford.

The second courses are served, and Carla’s strip steak turns out to be tough — a result of her botched attempt at cooking sous-vide for the first time. Too bad for her, because the judges don’t have a bad word for Stefan’s squab or Hosea’s foie gras and scallop dish. Gail says the squab was cooked ”beautifully,” Tom says Hosea’s food was ”well done,” and Padma just nods happily on the side with her mouth full of food. But wait a sec, what does Branford Marsalis have to say about all this? ”I could eat foie gras all day!” he quips to inexplicably loud laughter from the table. Good to know.

NEXT: Soufflé sadness

Back in the kitchen, disaster strikes — and it’s about time. I love Top Chef for steering clear of the usual reality TV craziness, but this episode had about as much drama as a cookbook up until now. Anyway, it turns out Carla forgot to lower the temperature on her soufflés, so the little suckers are bubbling away in the oven, curdling into inedible egg-cheese tumors. Instead of serving them, Carla decides to just suck up the failure and plate the dish with only her apple pastries and a tiny salad. She might as well have stuck a white flag in the middle.

The final courses come out, with Carla admitting that her soufflé didn’t quite rise to the occasion. Nobody dislikes Stefan’s mousse and ice cream, but the dish doesn’t exactly impress (Gail calls the presentation ”dated”). And while most of the table fawns over Hosea’s venison, some admit they would’ve preferred a dessert.

With service over, it’s time for the real judging to begin. The chefs appear in front of the panel, which includes both Gail and Toby along with Tom and the Padmaniac. They rehash the dishes, with plenty of kudos for Hosea and Stefan. Carla seems to know that she’s a lost cause as she breaks down in tears during her final appeal to the judges. ”Do I think that my food is good? Yes. When I make it, yes.”

But once the contestants leave the room, the judges immediately agree that she’s not a contender, leaving Hosea and Stefan to fight for the title. Stefan gets points for his classic technique, and loses them for his ”pedestrian” dessert. Gail and Tom defend Hosea’s skill and the thoughtful progression of his dishes. And when Tom claims that Stefan’s work lacks ”soul,” Toby Young makes a valid point (his first ever!): ”If we’re gonna give it to the most soulful chef, then we should give it to Carla.”

The final commercial break comes and goes, and the verdict is in: Hosea wins! Stefan pretends to be OK with it and Carla blubbers about love and whatnot, but the moment belongs to the bald boy from Boulder, our Season 5 champ. Congratulations, Hosea!

Your turn, readers. Would Carla have won if she hadn’t taken Casey’s advice? Did Stefan hurt his chances more by making a dessert or by freezing his sashimi? And, most importantly, what would Branford Marsalis have to say about all this?