Paul and Sarah square off in what was supposedly the closest finale ever

By Stephan Lee
Updated March 01, 2012 at 07:01 AM EST
Virginia Sherwood/Bravo

Top Chef

S9 E17
  • TV Show
  • Bravo

So we’ve finally crowned our winner. I’m exhausted just from watching and writing about this long and downright weird season. We started things off with two qualifying rounds in which the cheftestants had to fight for the opportunity to just compete. We had an eclectic roster of celebrity guest judges that brought us Charlize Theron, Patti LaBelle, and Pee-wee Herman. We witnessed some of the oddest and least culinarily (just made that word up) relevant challenges in Top Chef history. We endured far too many cookout/”catering” events. We test-drove Last Chance Kitchen, which provided some dramatic, exciting twists. We also met some of the least likeable competitors ever to crack an egg in the Top Chef kitchen.

Regardless of my feelings about the remaining contestants as reality TV characters, I have to take my hat off to both Paul and Sarah. No doubt they’ve been just as frustrated with parts of the competition as we have as viewers, and they did give us an interesting finale. That’s not to say I’m going to go easy on either of them. (Editor’s note: I know everyone reading this knows who won, but let’s pretend we don’t so we can relive the “suspense”).

For the Final Challenge, the top two chefs had to make a four-course tasting menu from the restaurant of their dreams. Of course, we all know the drill. They also get to hire a team of sous chefs made up of eliminated competitors.

The Challenge to Become Paul or Sarah’s Bitch had some random twists. Some of the more recently ousted chefs weren’t in the running, and in their place were some early losers: Collin the vegan beardo, the girl who couldn’t open her pressure cooker, and Tyler Stone, the moon-faced, cocky novice who got eliminated within minutes for committing unspeakable acts upon a pig carcass. On the other side of the competency spectrum were master chefs Barbara Lynch and Marco Canora — I don’t understand what was in it for these two other than the embarrassing prospect of not getting picked.

Apropos of nothing, I love how reality TV competitions often feature two contestants with the same name, one spelled normally and the other spelled tragically: Tyler and Ty-lör of Top Chef; Lindzi and Lyndsie of The Bachelor (okay, neither of these is normal); Tarzan and Troyzan of Survivor (ditto). Just one of those factoids that makes life just a little more splendid.

NEXT: Sarah makes a gamble… and loses

The wannabe-sous chefs scrambled to put out their dishes. Chris Crary strategically prepared an Asian dish to bait Paul into picking him — I find that clever and hilarious at the same time. (I’m just picturing Chris putting a piece of kimchi on a fishing line.) From the other end, Sarah tried to strategically guess which dish Heather made so she could have her on her team. Ugh, why?! As much as Sarah bothers me, I consider Heather the most loathsome Top Chef villain ever for setting a bullying and — yep, I’ll finally say it outright — racist tone to the whole season. I also forgot how much I hated the sound of her voice.

So Sarah chose a gross-looking scallop with raisins and curry — seriously, it looked like a white blob smothered in orange boogers — solely based on the fact that Heather has a similar dish on her menu at home. But her strategy TOTALLY BACKFIRED because it turned out Tyler Stone made that sad dish! That’s what you get for not choosing based on quality dishes. Sarah very bitchily quipped at Tyler, “I’m not letting you butcher.” Was that an unnecessarily mean thing to say? Absolutely. Was it warranted? Kinda. Touché, Sarah. Despite the terrible burden of Tyler on her team, Sarah didn’t give up trying to snag Heather. She eyed a greasy, sloppy, and heavy-looking chicken and dumplings dish and immediately saw Heather in it. This time, Sarah made the right match. Yay, Sarah, you won the prize…of Heather. Congrats, girl.

Really, why did all these dishes look so bad? Did they do the close-ups after Paul and Sarah bit into them? So for a rundown:

Team Paul: Chris Crary, Keith (yay!), Ty-lör (double-yay!), and Barbara Lynch

Team Sarah: Grayson (after tonight, even more deserving of Fan Favorite), Heather, Nyesha, and Tyler. It was funny how Sarah kept addressing her team as “ladies … and Tyler.”

Poor Marco wasn’t picked for the kickball team. I bet Sarah was wishing she hadn’t burned one of her picks.

With the teams they had, Paul and Sarah started rallying their troops. It came more naturally to Sarah, who vowed to stick to her German and Italian roots but make foods “outside of [comfort] zone.” Yet in the very next frame she snapped at Tyler, “This is not the time to do new s— you don’t know!” The editors were having fun with that one.

NEXT: Sarah cracks the whip a little too hard while Paul struggles to grow some balls…I really enjoyed watching what went down in the kitchen during the final challenge. There were a number of small catastrophes, and it was interesting how the chefs put out fires differently. Honestly, I had every intention of laying off Sarah this week, but I didn’t respect the way she flayed Tyler — after all, she only had herself to blame for picking him for the wrong reasons. I could see why she might have been frustrated with his technique, but she dressed him down in an unnecessarily damaging, belittling way. Not cool. She put a little Band-Aid on everything at the end of service by telling him he did a good job but then went on the record in her confessional by saying, “I got him to feel like he’s a part of the group and let him feel like I give a f—.” Again, Beverly‘s the passive-aggressive one? Still, Sarah did an impressive job carrying out her vision for her restaurant. I loved Grayson and her sleek, straight hair, and she was oh-so-quotable.

Sarah’s Restaurant, Monte Verde

The regular judges and a fleet of guest judges split into two groups to try out Sarah and Paul’s restaurants. For her first course, Sarah served a squid-ink tagliatelle topped with spot prawns and fresh coconut, which all the judges loved. Guest judge David Myers wasn’t sure initially about all the regions she whipped together in the dish but thought she pulled it off. Tom called it a “very, very successful dish.”

Sarah’s fiance rushed to warn her that his fish from the second course had a bone in it. She sprinted to the kitchen to spot-check the fish, and the judges enjoyed her rye-crusted steelhead trout atop fennel, pickled beets, and whipped lardo, bone-free. Sarah opted to add more fennel at the last minute, a decision not all the judges liked. David had an issue with the raw beets on the plate. Cut to: Beverly tasting the dish and complimenting the “really cool” rye crust. Awww.

The third course, a braised veal cheek with crispy veal sweetbreads on top of a persimmon sauce polenta, looked beautiful, but the first group of judges thought the persimmon sauce was overly chunky. Sarah realized that and fixed the problem for the second wave of judges, who enjoyed the dish despite a lack of “crunch,” according to Cat Cora. Sarah did a good job of pinpointing a deficiency and addressing it.

The judges heaped on the praise for Sarah’s dessert, a hazelnut cake with candied kumquat and roasted white chocolate ganache. Hugh wanted to steal the recipe, and Emil called it “over the top.” Overall, the judges were impressed with Sarah’s meal; David went as far as to say, “We saw strokes of genius throughout this menu.”

NEXT: Please, Paul, don’t choke.Paul started out a bit tentative in the kitchen, calling to mind Restaurant Wars, where he failed to step up as a leader. But by the second day of prep, he really stepped up, earning high praise from Barbara: “Working for Paul is amazing. He has passion, drive, wisdom — I’m proud to have this opportunity.” I loved that when his crab went bad, he brought out the shrimp he’d bought as a plan B. What a pro.

Paul’s Restaurant, Qi

The first group of judges got a taste of Paul’s “nice and jiggly” chawanmushi (egg custard) with edamame, pea shoots, and spot prawns — and they loved it. But when it came time to serve the second group of judges, Keith overcooked the batch. Paul didn’t bite Keith’s head off, as Sarah undoubtedly would have. He said he couldn’t get mad at Keith because he trained him in cooking the chawanmushi. (Hear that, Lindsay??!!)

Paul floored the judges with his grilled sea bass with clam dashi, pickled radishes, and mushrooms. Tom, Hugh, Emeril, and Bill Terlato couldn’t get past the delicious dashi. Padma loved the crispiness of the bass. Tom said the dish was “hard to fault.”

For his third course, Paul made a congee, which I normally consider one of the simplest foods there are, but he added complexity with uni, kale, and smoked albacore. I hope Tom doesn’t get hung up on that kale like he did last week! Tom liked the dish but thought the texture of the rice and the fish was kind of similar. Cat loved the albacore, and David thought he nailed the textural and flavor contrasts.

It was hard to top Sarah’s dessert, but Paul might have done it with his coconut ice cream, puffed rice, candied kumquats, and mangosteen (hey, that’s my accountant’s name!). The ice cream was a big hit with the judges, but Terlato and Emeril thought the puffed rice might have been overly crispy.

Overall, Tom thought Paul “hit it out of the park,” and Mark McEwan, head judge of Top Chef Canada, called the meal “sexy.” At this point, I was really crossing my fingers for Paul.

NEXT: Who will win?

At the Judges’ Table, Tom went on about how this finale meal beat out any season that came before, including All-Stars. (As all TV competition fans should know, we should take that assessment with several grains of sea salt.) Paul said he felt good in front of the judges for the first time all season. Sarah said being named Top Chef would be a big “thank you” to her single mom. The judges proceeded to compare Paul and Sarah’s menus course by course.

First course: Gail praised Sarah’s counter-intuitive decision to put tartare over pasta. The judges who got the silky smooth batch of Paul’s chawanmushi thought it was “exceptional,” but the other half of the judges got the watery, overcooked custards. Even when questioned, Paul didn’t blame Keith. That’s called class. Take notes, Sarah and Lindsay. But it seemed the first course went to Sarah.

Second: The judges went after Sarah’s uncooked beets, and Hugh called the whole dish “meh.” Emeril and Hugh thought Paul’s broth was “brilliant.” An easy win for Paul.

Third: Tom thought Sarah’s veal cheeks were perfectly cooked but the sweetbreads were dry; Emeril didn’t think the polenta worked, although she improved it for the second group of judges. Emeril questioned whether the congee was “that great” — Hugh thought it was. This one was a toss-up.

Dessert: Padma called Sarah’s the best dessert she’d tasted on Top Chef. Tom and Gail seemed to like Paul’s even more. Another toss-up.

Overall impressions: Gail thought Sarah took major risks while Paul cooked what he always cooks. Tom pointed out that Paul had a stronger eye for detail.

So who won? In front of the finalists’ friends and family, Padma announced that it was… Paul!! YES. Sarah had a great showing, but Paul outclassed the others all season. Of course a teary Sarah thought she deserved to be Top Chef, but I’m sorry, hon. Not so. I loved how emotional Paul’s dad got. Awww. Maybe there weren’t a ton of standout contestants in Top Chef Texas, but Paul is certainly a worthy winner, even compared to some of the stronger seasons.

Ugh, can we talk about the previews for next week’s reunion? Heather, you absolutely owe Beverly an apology, and a better one than “I’m sorry if you think I hurt your feelings.” (I still can’t believe she said that. Disgusting.) You know, as annoying and mean as Sarah has been this season, she doesn’t strike me as a rotten person to the core…quite. Heather is another story. She really blighted this season by being on it. I think she takes the (lopsided) cake for the vilest Top Chef villain of all time — I don’t even love to hate her like I did all previous villains. I just wish she’d never been on the show.

Sarah, I’m so glad you took responsibility for your actions on Watch What Happens! Now just stop re-tweeting mean things about your “friend” Beverly!

So was this really the worst Top Chef season yet? Did Paul’s win warm your heart? Did you soften toward Sarah a little bit? I admit, I did!

One final appeal: Can we please try to vote someone other than Malibu Chris (I’ve always loathed that nickname) Fan Favorite? He basically has it in the bag, but his win would be a minor travesty for longtime fans of the show, and it wouldn’t reflect the viewing public’s actual opinion. He’s just been campaigning like crazy. Grayson or Paul would fit nicely alongside true Fan Favorites like Fabio, Carla, and Stephanie.

Anyway, you’ve made watching this hit-or-miss season a lot more fun than watching it alone — thanks for that! Til next season, check out my recaps for Project Runway, and I’d love to keep the snark going on Twitter: EWStephanLee

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Top Chef

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