The winner of Last Chance Kitchen returns

By Stephan Lee
Updated February 22, 2013 at 05:25 AM EST
David Moir/Bravo

Top Chef

S10 E16
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Dear Top Chef fans, I’m extremely, extremely sorry the recap is so late this week. If this were a restaurant, I’d be comping your meals right now. Please know that I had good reasons for the tardiness — but in any case, it won’t happen again! With that out of the way, let’s get started on the finale, part one.

This week, The Bachelor went on hometown visits — sorry to even bring that up here — and now Top Chef visits our not-so-final two in their natural habitats. In the many months since filming the season, Sheldon looked much the same, but he was getting some high-end restaurant experience at Vintage Cave, a fine dining establishment in Honolulu, to gain some new techniques — the sort of techniques Brooke already has. But Sheldon looked much more at home grilling on the beach with his wife and kids. So many pierced ears!

Then we zipped on over the Pacific to Brooke’s home in Los Angeles. She seems to live the rather typical life of a hip, young mom and wife, worrying about kids, paperwork, and finances. We were introduced to Mr. Brooke, whom Brooke hired as her sous chef. Let’s think about that dynamic for a second. Perhaps Brooke’s sous chef in life just naturally enjoys taking orders. “Knead my bread!” They went out to dinner with that familiar face Roy Choi and Sang Yoon of Father’s Office gastropub, who called Brooke his “favorite protégé.” At this point in the episode, I knew that my previous favorite Kristen was probably going to come back, but I think my allegiance has shifted to Brooke. Kristen killed it in Last Chance Kitchen, but maybe it’s just that I’ve had more time to grow to appreciate Brooke and her consistently great dishes.

Sheldon and Brooke visited Tom’s restaurant Craft in Los Angeles, where Padma greeted them in a hot pink dress and a crazy gold necklace that made her look like she belonged to a female warrior tribe in the Star Trek universe. She announced the winner of Last Chance Kitchen, and as came as a surprise to precisely no one, in walked Kristen, who had been so wrongly eliminated in the first place. I’m glad to see Kristen back, but I bet Sheldon and Brooke were secretly hoping someone like Carla or Danyele would be the one returning. I’m just so glad CJ’s campaign to get back on the show didn’t end up working. It reminded me of when Malibu Chris shamelessly self-promoted himself to win Fan Favorite — both these guys have crazily inflated egos.

NEXT: Tom pulls a Gordon Ramsey … not really.

For the Elimination Challenge, the top three had three hours to make three courses for Craft diners, and Tom would be expediting the orders, a task I’ve always found mysterious and intimidating, and other than hosting a New Year’s Eve special, the one job on this planet I’d be worst at. The chefs’ first challenge was to choose ingredients — Sheldon has fallen down at this stage of the challenge before, when he chose the most boring proteins for the surf-and-turf challenge, but this time, he stretched himself by reaching for the quail. Brooke noted that cooking quail didn’t sound like Sheldon; and not only was he using ingredients he didn’t normally, he traded out the usual color of his hat. What did cooking high-end do to you, Sheldon?

While the chefs prepped their food, they were each visited — or more accurately, pestered — by one of the judges. Emeril, like everyone else, seemed skeptical about Sheldon working with quail, and gave him a simple but valuable piece of advice: “Taste, brother. Taste.” Kristen said that Last Chance Kitchen taught her to go for simple, clean flavors because there was never any time to over-think, which is what got her eliminated in the first place. (That, and a big loud kid named Josie).

Brooke once again looked lost and harried in the kitchen, but we’ve learned by now not to believe Brooke when she says she’s struggling. She might get flustered by the circumstances, but she’s enough of a pro to pull out the strong flavors. Even though she kept burning pistachios and doubted herself, she at least was way more secure than the others about the dessert. Kristen admitted that her dessert was an afterthought, and Sheldon almost didn’t have the wherewithal to pull one off.

When Tom came in to expedite, he shouted at Brooke in particular to hurry up and fire more dumplings and re-plate food that had already gone cold. She looked distracted and dispirited, and said, “Bad day to have a bad day.” The whole scene reminded me of something from a Gordon Ramsey show, only much more civil and fewer people being called “donkey”s and “donut”s. Tom was a great balance of supportive and stern.

The judges arrived with special guests John Besh, who suffered the unrequited lust of Malibu Chris (blech) and Heather Terhune (triple-blech), and Martin Yan, who starred in one of my favorite shows when I was a toddler, Yan Can Cook — although his catchphrase, “If Yan can cook, then so can you” turned out to be untrue in my case.

NEXT: May the best woman win?

For the appetizers, Sheldon brought out some sashimi spot prawns, court-bouillon, radish, Asian herbs, and sea beans. It was the only dish of his of the night that was quintessentially Sheldon, and the judges recognized that. Hugh said it “sang,” and Emeril noted that the prawns were perfectly cooked. Kristen served chestnut velouté with duck rillettes and Brussels sprouts. The judges all thought the rillettes were lacking some sort of acid. Brooke’s crispy veal and sweetbread salad with kumquats, beets, and mustard was a good concept, but Hugh thought she could have cleaned the sweetbreads more to isolate their buttery flavor. The winner of the first course appeared to be Sheldon with Brooke in second.

The entrees flipped the standings a bit. Kristen’s seared ahi tuna with veal mustard jus and Meyer lemon puree received a mixed response. Yan praised the searing of the tuna, but Padma thought the lemon curd was too intense, and John had a bite that was “borderline salty.” Which once again supports my theory that even the bad dishes on Top Chef probably taste fine to normal people. On the other hand, Brooke’s braised short ribs with parmesan sauce and nettle puree got glowing reviews; Padma even said she wanted to sop up more of that sauce with Kristen’s tuna. Ouch.

Then it came to Sheldon’s surprising quail dish, and it turned out it wasn’t worth the risk. While Yan praised Sheldon’s ambition, Hugh couldn’t find him in the dish, and Emeril, who seems to be the season’s resident Sheldon advocate, went as far as to say, “He’s been brainwashed.” Verdict: Sounded like Brooke was out ahead of Kristen.

Brooke led the pack by a mile with her dessert of brown butter cake, whipped goat cheese, and blackberry sauce — John said simply, “Holy smokes, that is really, really good.” Kristen’s curry chocolate with cashews really just looked like a bowl of chocolate, which could be awesome, but not at this point of the competition. Sheldon’s white chocolate mousse with apple and fennel impressed Padma, who thought the combination was interesting. But to everyone with a culinary background, the fennel was overpowering and tacked onto the dish. Verdict: Brooke, easily

At the Judges’ Table, since it was the final three, the judges took the chefs’ past performance into account, which we all know they neeeeeever normally do. Tom summed up each chef in a nutshell (I’m paraphrasing):

Brooke: You had a great season, and your food is complex without ever coming across as showy. Tonight you got behind in prep and had a rough service.

Kristen: You showed a lot of ingenuity and fight in Last Chance Kitchen to get back into the game, but tonight you played it a little safe.

Sheldon: You put together dishes that were new and exciting, but tonight you were reaching for something different but lost yourself.

If Brooke had shown more pride in her work, I bet the judges would have pretty much declared her the winner, because they all seemed to love her dishes. But I think with Tom sitting there, who’d seen how flustered she’d been in the kitchen, she had an unnecessarily apologetic demeanor toward the judges and didn’t inspire much confidence. In the end, Sheldon ended up getting eliminated for his uncharacteristic and therefore uninspired dishes that night.

Who do you want to win next week? Are you excited that we’ll finally have another female winner?

Follow @EWStephanLee on Twitter.

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