Top Chef season finale recap: Who Will Wear the 'Top Chef' Tiara?
We're not spoiling anything by revealing that the season 10 winner is most definitely female
May the odds be ever in your favor! The culinary war between our two talented female finalists became even more of a spectator sport, as 300 people packed into an arena to watch Brooke and Kristen hurl deadly weapons at each other in the form of immaculate and well-balanced dishes. Gamemakers erected obstacles before the warriors in the form of required ingredients. Previous Champions presided over the ceremony. Images of fallen competitors flashed on the screen … Okay, I extended this Hunger Games metaphor for much longer, but I deleted most of it to spare all of you. Basically, this year’s Top Chef finale played out live in a setting that looked like Iron Chef Kitchen Stadium. Those giant knife decorations were weirdly ominous, though, like props from Stab 4. (By the way, it’s such B.S. that only 68 of the audience members were allowed to eat while the rest had to look on. Let them eat kumquats!)
I had a major concern before the episode even aired — I was a bit worried that the judges would try too hard to make up for the travesty that was Kristen’s untimely elimination by handing her an overly decisive win. We’ve been given plenty of time to see Brooke’s considerable talent, and I didn’t consider either one to be more deserving than the other coming in.
My fears were realized, I think, but that’s entirely speculation on my part. I’m not convinced that Brooke was given a fair shake. This was one of the most evenly matched Top Chef finales ever, but it didn’t feel that way from the very first minute of the episode. More on that later.
So the ladies went head-to-head in four rounds; the first chef to win three rounds would take the Top Chef crown — or, as Gail put it, the Top Chef tiara. When I spoke to Kristen after her elimination episode aired, she came across as so timid that it surprised me when she entered the stadium last night with so much verve and determination. “F— yeah, I want to beat her,” she said of Brooke. In terms of demeanor, Kristen looked much more like a winner from the very beginning. Perhaps Brooke should add a new phobia to her list, alongside helicopters and boats: cooking before a live studio audience.
NEXT: Which previous winner were you most excited to see? Harold gets my vote for most changed.
For the first dish, Kristen made a chicken liver mousse with frisee, mustard, prunes, hazelnuts, and pumpernickel, which went up against Brooke’s crispy pig ear with chicory salad. While everyone liked Brooke’s usual unexpected combinations, she had let CJ overcook the pig ears, while Kristen’s mousse turned out velvety and classic. Kristen won this round unanimously.
Going into the second, scallop-themed round, Brooke was determined not to let someone flub her vision again. (CJ, ruining everything once again!). As was her theme of the night, Kristen kept the dish simple, simple, simple, whereas Brooke got ambitious. Brooke’s seared scallop with salt cod puree won over Gail, Emeril, and Hugh, whereas Tom and Padma voted for Kristen’s citrus and lavender cured scallop. Brooke squeaked by with that win, tying the score 1 to 1.
Like in any televised sports match-up, each of the competitors got a fluff reel. Judging from the footage, Kristen had the winner edit from the get-go, with the more touching story and the exciting come-from-behind trajectory.
Ewww, there’s Josie! She’s clapping! Wouldn’t it have been the shocker of the season if Kristen had chosen Josie to be one of the finale sous chefs?
Brooke made a rookie Top Chef mistake in the third round: She created a dish in an effort to “redeem” herself for a past challenge. That almost never works! Leave your failed ingredients behind and move on — especially at such a crucial stage. Brooke surprised but mostly confused the judges with her Vadouvan chicken wings that they had to eat with saucy fingers. Not surprisingly, they all voted in favor of Kristen‘s more sophisticated celery root puree with bone marrow. The fact that Brooke compromised herself due to what she thought were the judge’s expectations showed that she wasn’t feeling confident tonight.
NEXT: My obligatory rant about the judging … I didn’t disagree with the result, just the overly one-sided delivery of it.
After the two losses, Brooke needed the next round more than ever, and she didn’t hesitate to snap at her sous chef Stefan to keep his mind on food, not weird groupie-girls. As Tom said, this was potentially a $125,000 dish. Brooke went for surf and turf, as she had earlier in the season. Her braised pork cheek and red snapper with collard green slaw and sorrel puree with pomegranate proved to be another one of her complex, unlikely but surprisingly successful combinations. Gail loved the interplay between the proteins, and the pomegranate gave the dish a much needed tart and crunch. Kristen presented red snapper with leeks, gem lettuce, tarragon, uni, and shellfish nage. This round appeared to be pretty neck-and-neck, but the judges one by one voted in Kristen’s favor. I have no doubt that Kristen’s dish was delicious, but I was frankly surprised that the judges didn’t try to make it a five-round competition. But then I forgot, the judges NEVER make a decision just to enhance the drama of the show. [Cue the epic eye-roll.]
But let’s not forget the important thing: KRISTEN WON TOP CHEF! And a deserving winner she is. It’s a huge accomplishment to be the front-runner from the beginning and bounce back from an objectively unfair elimination with an incredibly impressive run of wins in Last Chance Kitchen. I have no doubt that Kristen had the better night and earned the win; you knew her dishes were excellent when Gail had to reach to find criticisms — having to use a knife to cut through leeks or having to dig through a leaf or two of greenery to reach the scallop? You always try your hardest, Gail, and we love you for that, but your complaints just showed Kristen’s dishes were damn near perfect.
However, I’m not just trying to be a b-hole here when I say I wouldn’t blame Brooke if she felt a little short-changed by the night’s proceedings. Tom and Padma didn’t even throw a single vote her way the whole night. They made the finale look like a blowout win for Kristen, which I doubt it was. I’m being hyper-critical of Tom and Padma because they lost a lot of trust from me when they eliminated Kristen. They, much more than any of the other judges, got a ton of backlash for the decision, and I can’t help but think they were trying their hardest to make amends. If you look at his Bravo blog or his Twitter feed after the Kristen elimination episode, you know that Tom especially was defensive and embarrassed about how things went down, saying that he would have voted differently had he seen the episode. When he tasted Brooke’s good dishes, he spouted off some generic compliments but then would vote Kristen with little hesitation. Of course, I wasn’t there to taste any dishes, but it definitely piqued my B.S.-meter when Tom and Padma were the ones who were so one-sidedly pro-Kristen. Brooke, who won more challenges than anyone else, and not just because Kristen wasn’t around, deserved better. I appreciate Kristen’s precise, simple dishes, but I think Brooke should have gotten more props for going the more ambitious route and coming up with surprising combinations.
Anyway, even though I complained about some aspects of the Seattle season, it was way, way better than the joke that was Top Chef Texas. What a great final two and a great winner!
Do you think Tom and Padma were a little too motivated to give Kristen a decisive win? Are you excited that there’s finally another female winner?
Follow @EWStephanLee on Twitter