There can only be one.
Credit: David Moir/Bravo
S12 E14
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It’s a fun exercise to go back and watch a season’s premiere before its finale. Four months ago, we watched 16 nervous chefs arrive in Boston, shuffling awkwardly at their stations. Now we’re in Mexico, with only two remaining in contention. Between then and now, there would be 30-plus challenges, 14 eliminations, four pigs, two if-by-lands, and one winner.

Although 16 chefs stood ready in the Top Chef kitchen that day, Gregory and Mei were literally the first two chefs we heard from. It’s only fitting that they get the last word.

More often than not, Bravo’s stalwart series manages to get the finale it deserves. Like any competitive reality show, there are always surprises along the way, but in the end, the last chef left standing is usually the most deserving. What was nice about this finale, though, was that it seemed like either result was one that would satisfy us. Even though one chef would emerge victorious from the clash of the titans, this was a can’t-lose scenario for the viewer. I certainly didn’t think I’d be saying that this past October.

After the first few weeks, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to enjoy the Boston cast. They seemed young and pugnacious, engaging in verbal sparring and making food that felt distant and overwrought. Michael was criticizing Tom’s palate. Keriann and Aaron were seconds away from a knife-fight on the line. The only bit of levity we had was Katsuji piling on ingredient after ingredient while the judges looked on incredulously.

But once the excess noise had quieted, we were left with a diverse cast that felt the most evenly matched in years. Coming into tonight’s finale, Gregory and Doug had each won four elimination challenges, Mei and Katsuji had won three, and Melissa had taken two. I can’t remember a time when paring down the field week-after-week got so hard so early. During the season’s final third, it felt like every week a different chef was emergent, and I truly believe there were, in the judges’ minds, four different chefs who could’ve won. Other than Vegas (which had the Voltaggios, Kevin, and Jennifer), has another season ever felt so evenly matched?

Rather than playing at seriousness, the final half-dozen-or-so chefs all had voices and visions for their cuisine. George was traditional, but consistent in his Old World ways. Doug’s rustic cooking took on a boldness fueled by his admitted Napoleon complex. Technique hamstrung Melissa at the outset as she focused more on knife cuts than complete dishes, but part of me still believes she’s the season’s most technically-proficient cook. Either way, this might be the show’s most well-rounded cast.

For that and more, credit has to be given to the producers, who after 12 seasons and almost as many spin-offs, still find ways to keep the show’s recipe sustainable. Old favorites like the mis-en-place race and Restaurant Wars are the show’s signatures, but sudden-death quickfires, judge-selected pantries, and especially the menu-creation-oriented challenge broadened the task at hand for the contestants. The argument could be made that, in times over past years, this show operated as “Top Cook.” This year’s emphasis on the broad expectations of the “chef” title deserves recognition.

NEXT: Sizing up the competitors

At the same time, another underrated development this season occurred behind the judges table. Tom, Padma, and Gail remain the steady nucleus they’ve always been, and the guest judges ranged from the inspirational (Boston’s Bravest and Finest) to the insane (“Rob” Gronkowski). But for me the judges seemed more accessible and “human” than they did at times in the past, opening up in ways the camera didn’t always let us see. Some recognition is due, I think, to Richard Blais, who blurred the lines between the roles and added a new, different perspective to deliberation-time. Just don’t serve him bacon powder.

I’m have to be honest about something here: from the narrative perspective, Gregory fits the part of Top Chef slightly more than Mei does. Sure, Mei’s a budding master of hip, modern food, but Gregory’s cuisine—versatile, globally minded, and cosmopolitan—feels almost postmodern, if that makes any sense. Remember last week when he somehow served Mexico-on-a-plate to a table of Mexican chefs? Only Gregory could do that.

That isn’t to take anything away from Mei’s accomplishment or journey, of course. I said at the very beginning that Mei had the “it” factor of her mentor, Michael Voltaggio, and other past winners. Mei proved to be a machine this year, cooking consistently solid food, even if it felt restrained at times. Though she’s efficiently stone-faced in the kitchen, she’s not a stoic; instead, the scars of her past—the unfortunately familiar refrain of parental rejection—inform her cooking in ways she might not even know. She doesn’t always allow it, but when she’s willing to let that past bleed into her present, it results in her best work. But regardless, Mei has always, without fail, looked like someone who can win.

It’s more-or-less right down to cooking, so after a quick hot air balloon ride, the final two assemble their teams for a five-hour cook-off. Gregory grabs George the Greek and his Portland pal Doug to form a skilled boys’ club; Mei counters with Melissa (obviously) and Rebecca (for pastry skill), and it’s a battle of the sexes. Aaron would approve.

The task is a familiar one: the best four-course meal the chefs can muster. In past years, there were sometimes curve balls in finales, but lately it seems like the producers have realized the best thing to do is get out of the chefs’ way. And after a shopping trip that seems like it was exhausting in and of itself, tensions are understandably high in the kitchens, but there seems to be a lot of good work going into putting food onto the plates at the chefs’ respective restaurants. There are more diners than usual for the finale, which just means there are even more acclaimed chefs about to chow down. Talk about a tough room.

NEXT: The meal of their lives

Though we saw the chefs’ full menus back to back, it’s probably more instructive to go course-by-course to try and figure out how things went down. Of all ingredients, octopus wouldn’t be my first guess to be the main ingredient shared between the two chefs, but in a lot of ways, I think this course epitomizes the battle of styles. Mei’s octopus with a fish sauce vinaigrette, avocado-coconut puree, and trellis of fresh basil, mint, and cilantro is elegant and sophisticated; Gregory’s grilled octopus with prickly pear, xoconostle prickly pear, passionfruit, and fresh cashew milk is, as so much of his food seems, something only he could make. Despite some seeming technical flaws, Mei’s dish is surprising diners with boldness and freedom, forsaking the restraint that she’s been dinged for in the past. But from the second Gregory’s food hits Padma’s lips and prompted a definitive “MMM,” the compliments begin to flow. His “sublime” and “powerhouse” dish puts him up 1-0.

Another excited, almost-visceral response to Gregory’s next course—Gail’s exclamation, “It’s brothy!”—made it feel like the Portlandian gazelle might take the title and run with it. Though they at times met with derision from the other chefs, Gregory’s broths, curries, and soups displayed his ability to build deep, unique flavors all season. This time it was a shrimp broth with green chorizo, pickled nopales cacti, and crispy shrimp heads. Though the initial reports are good—one of the guest chefs compares it to a gumbo—as the diners dig deeper into their bowls, the dish begins to sink. Tom finds it unbalanced; Padma and others are disturbed by the sharpness of the shrimp heads catching in their throats. I’m not sure what Gregory might have done to avoid that, but it’s an error that everyone realizes he shouldn’t have made.

Meanwhile, Mei makes a surprising return to the first dish she cooked on the show: congee. The first elimination challenge way back in October asked the chefs to cook the first dish they’d ever learned; Mei emerged victorious and established her case for consideration among the favorites. A return to the humble rice porridge at such a high-stakes time is in some ways an even more bold choice for Mei—a chef so steeped in modernity embracing her ancestral roots. But by incorporating carnitas, lime, and other Mexican flavors into her congee with scallion puree, hot sauce, peanuts, and egg yolk, she’s living in the present, too. Even though Gregory’s dish isn’t perfect, Mei’s dish wins the round more than his loses it. As Richard says, “Dat congee doe.” We’re tied at 1.

The thing I most hate to see in a final is a mistake. Like I said a few weeks ago, in an ideal world, each chef will cook his or her best dishes, and the winner will be the one whose food soars highest. So watching Gregory forget to add ingredients to a sauce, honestly, is a serious bummer. It’s a mental mistake—a coincidence of competition that doesn’t really tell us that much about who the best chef is. That being said, even a less-sweet sauce might not have saved Gregory’s striped bass with roasted carrots, radish, pineapple, and tomatillo, a dish that looks far too stuffy and conservative to come from him. Since he got to Mexico, Gregory cooked without a net, adjusting on-the-fly to the region and allowing it to guide his food. But for a brief moment, he snaps back into the nondescript food that characterized his disappointing midseason swoon. I’ve been thinking about it since I watched the episode and I’m still just… confused.

So the third course represents Mei’s chance to take a definitive lead in this seesaw battle, but she, too, offers her worst dish of the round, a roasted duck with braised lettuce, kimchi buttered jicama, and a huitlacoche puree. During prep, it seemed promising, a dish that might combine Mei and Mexico. But the duck fat isn’t rendered correctly (a common refrain it’s disappointing to hear in the finale), there are textural issues, and the kimchi and huitlacoche sauces are at odds. Marrying the two worlds would be a masterstroke; instead I’m not even sure who took this round. It seems like a tie to me.

And it comes down, as it should, to the final course, and a classic Top Chef conundrum—do you “do dessert?” At its best, dessert completes a meal—a final exclamation of flavor that, at its best, satisfies sweet teeth after the savory has been savored. At its worst, it’s melted chocolate a la Dougie. With savory training and a restaurant full of credentialed chefs from that world, though, the unknown-ness of dessert can be a blessing or a curse.

I just never thought it would be the thing that won someone a Top Chef title.

First things first, Gregory’s 30-ingredient red mole with short ribs, agave, and sweet potatoes looks like a remarkable dish. It’s prepared perfectly, utilizing what Gregory calls “the greatest sauce of all time” in a mature, sophisticated way that belies his culinary youthfulness and pays tribute to where he found his voice again.

But where the title was taken, it seems, was with Mei’s strawberry lime curd with toasted yogurt, milk crumble with bee pollen, and yogurt-lime ice, a better last bite that, fittingly, put that exclamation point on the meal and the season. In a year that—better than any other in the show’s long history—got at the complicated nature of what it meant to be “Top Chef,” it was fitting that a complete meal was required to take the title. Gregory served a “perfect” dish, but you could see it coming.

At this point, the judges have had it all. Eating food from around the world is their job. So surprising them, it seems, might be the truest mark of a young cook’s skill. Sure, it would’ve been easier and ostensibly smarter to play it safe with another savory course, but instead Mei, whose rock-solid consistency was her biggest strength and only handicap throughout the competition, did something unexpected. She reached out, handed Tom Colicchio a dessert he’ll never forget, and took the title for herself. She’s the chef, now. She’s Top Chef.

Episode Recaps

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