The contestants' mommies stop by as the judges pick the season 6 winner

By Archana Ram
Updated December 10, 2009 at 02:51 PM EST
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Top Chef

S6 E14
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I love food and I love Top Chef, but Bravo, your sixth season of this show has felt interminably long. Doesn’t that Natalie Portman episode seem like it was from ages ago? Perhaps it was the few weeks off here and there or the fact that we all knew who the top four were within the first few episodes, but either way, all long things must come to an end.

That end was the battle of three very talented, very different chefs, all of whom are very different in concrete ways, so much so that I could do a word association game pretty easily: Kevin: simple (not a bad thing), Bryan: traditional, Michael: creative. (The pop culture character association game is much more fun: Kevin: Santa, Bryan: Lurch, Michael: a cross between Cletus the Slack Jawed Yokel and Kenickie from Grease?)

The talent level of this season’s standouts was so much higher than in previous seasons that it reminded me of the Christian Siriano season ofProject Runway when you wondered why these apparent seasoned vets were even on a reality show. On this season of Top Chef, those who were in the top deserved to be there, so good on Bravo, for not sticking a Carla into the mix.

When we’re this close to picking a winner, it’s not about the gimmicks (i.e. drawing inspiration from theatrical medieval shows); it’s about the actual food, so it was only fitting that for their final elimination challenge, the final three had to prepare a three-course meal. The first would be a creation using identical, crazy-sounding ingredients like anise hyssop, the other would be a dish of their choice and the last would be a dessert. And by last, it wasn’t actually the last because of course a curveball was thrown and a fourth dish was added to the menu, much like Tim Gunn telling the Project Runway contestants to design a second look to go down the catwalk.

They had some help, though, from none other than the rest of the season’s cheftestants. Who could that be?! they wondered. Really? Have they not seen this show — or any reality show — ever? But what was shocking to me was how many of them I had forgotten, like Ron. It’s been so long since I’ve thought about him that for a second, I thought he was from a past season. How could I forget his chowder!

Not all of them got to help, though; Kevin, Bryan and Michael each drew two knives, and one past cheftestant helped them that night prepping and the other was their sous chef the following day. Bryan and Michael lucked out; the former with Jen and Ashley and the latter with Eli and Jesse. (By the way, since when is Jesse a ”work horse?”) Poor Kevin got stuck with Preeti and Ash. Wah wah. Could he get two less skilled chefs? Though it probably wasn’t a direct effect of having to work with these two, it didn’t help his stress level and for the first time, we saw a veritably unhappy Kev.

NEXT: A little Mommy love

Easing the stress level was a visit from their mommas! (I guess they saved money by flying out just two moms instead of three?) Either way, finally seeing Mrs. Gillespie was way more fun than seeing Mrs. Voltaggio, only because we now totally see where Kevin gets his jovial attitude. Much like Paula Deen, Mama G. is a traditional Southern woman who likes her chicken skin, and likes it crispy. I see why Kevin has a pig tattoo.

But it wasn’t like Bravo was doing them a solid by sending in some TLC from home. The moms had a job to do, two in fact; they served as inspiration for the fourth dish, one that evoked a childhood memory and they also ate and critiqued that meal (just that one) at the table. Obviously they didn’t have anything negative to say, but it was cute to watch them beaming with pride.

Speaking of eating, let’s get to the actual food of the challenge. All in all, the judges’ opinions — including those of the restaurateurs who were the guest judges — were pretty much all over the place. Too bland for Tom was just fine by Toby; too much bacon for Stephen Starr was no problem for Gail. It really was a mixed bag, one that had me scratching my head about who they’d end up picking.

Of the dishes being served, not all were stellar, but the judges had one clear favorite from Michael and Kevin, and two from Bryan. (On Tom’s blog, he claims that Bryan’s dessert was the only clear winner, but watching the episode led me — and perhaps you? — to believe that they enjoyed the venison just as much as, if not more than, Michael’s third dish, the squab breast. But, as Tom admits on his blog, we can chalk that up to the wonders of editing.)

No big surprise that Kevin’s most praised dish was the childhood memory meal, which, in his case, was a southern fried chicken. The guy waxes so poetically about food that he might as well make a book out of it. His dish took the judges right to the deep South and with it, they ooh-ed and ahh-ed over the its rich, beautiful flavors. As for Kev’s mom, she did her motherly part by telling Padma how much it reminded her of home.

As for his other courses, the rockfish, which came from the mystery box, got a resounding ”good” from Tom, but the misused mushroom was a big no-no in Tom’s world. The pork belly was undercooked for some, and even worse, didn’t meet the judges’ high expectations. I do agree with Toby that if pig-loving Kevin is going to do a pork dish, it better be a knockout. He set himself up for that one. As for the dessert, it was really neither here nor there. Like I said, Starr didn’t care for the bacon (and doesn’t care for any bacon in any dessert for that matter), but Gail was fine with it, and no one else seemed moved one way or the other. I should’ve known that their not saying much about any of Kevin’s dishes didn’t bode well.

NEXT: Michael rocked the rockfish

Bryan had two shining stars: his venison saddle, in which Gail could find no flaw, and his beautifully finessed cheesecake, which was deemed worthy of a pastry chef’s work. That praise must’ve been a nice buffer for the fact that his tuna noodle casserole — his childhood memory dish — was balked at for being unseasoned (to which non-sardine-eating Mrs. Volt could only say how she liked how un-fishy it was).

Oh, and how greasy was this Sam Nazarian line about Bryan’s ”safe” rockfish: ”It’s like a blind date you just don’t want to go on.” Sounds like something someone who once appeared on The Hills would say.

Michael unsurprisingly won over the judges with his rockfish. Only someone who’s as much of a mad scientist in the kitchen as he is would know what to do with kabucha squash and masutake mushrooms. As for the mushrooms in his fennel-scented squab breast, Donatella Arpaia, owner of Eos among other restaurants, was not loving the gimmick behind his mushroom puree in a mushroom form. I agreed that at this point in the game, those tricks are useless. He also eked that creative bone into his cream of dehydrated broccoli, which received a mixed reaction.

And okay, I guess the judges really liked his chocolate caramel coulant. But it was dry, judges! It was dry! I feel like if it were someone else, they would’ve knocked him or her down for that factor alone. But because it’s Michael and he does such iiiinteresting things, they let it slide.

Do I sound bitter? Yeah probably, and that’s because when all was said and done, Michael was crowned winner. Things boiled down to Voltaggio versus Voltaggio. Boy, I totally didn’t see that one coming! I agree that all three deserved to be in the finale, but it should’ve been Michael versus Kevin. Bryan had presented so many safe dishes this season that he really didn’t reflect the combination of skill and innovation that Kevin does. Hello, carrot and beet salad! I know Kev didn’t have his most stellar showing last night (I suppose the judges had to be as nitpicky as they were, considering how stiff the competition was), but Kevin has had such a great track record. Let’s just call it another Richard Blais incident.

I guess if I had to pick between Michael and Bryan, I would’ve picked Michael, but that’s begrudgingly because I still wanted Kevin to win. He has what it takes to be a Top Chef: the skill, personality and connection to and love for food. Sure, Michael has tricks up his sleeve and has presented some pretty cool dishes over 13 challenges, but I think Kevin is the whole package. Either way, it’s not like Kevin is going home totally empty-handed. I’m fairly certain that Kevin, Jen, and Bryan will all go on to do some pretty amazing things. Field trip to Kevin’s restaurant, anyone?

Were you guys happy or disappointed with the judges’ choice? What did you think of the finale? Sound off!

Episode Recaps

Top Chef

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