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Seasonal Showdown on the "Top Chef" Holiday Special

I can't tell you how much I've missed Bravo's culinary competition series, Top Chef. It's become the television equivalent of a phantom limb; I keep reaching out for the remote to put it on but then realize it's not there anymore.

Thankfully, the good folks at Bravo realized my Top Chef withdrawal had reached critical mass and offered up a Holiday Special that pitted contestants from the first three seasons of Top Chef against each other for a holiday showdown with $20K at stake. Sadly, there was no sign of Sam, who really does deserve another shot at Top Chef gold, but if we're talking about what we're thankful for this season, the tiresome Ilan wasn't there, so that's got to count for something.

I did think that some of the choices were a bit baffling. Yes, it makes sense to have Season One's Stephen and runner-up Tiffani, along with Season Two's Marcel, and Season Three's Tre and CJ there, but Sandee Birdsong? Really? As much as I like Betty (I'm a huge Grub fan), I was a little surprised to see her and Josie there as well. What happened to Sam? Or Casey? Bah humbug.

Still, it was wonderful to catch up with contestants from seasons past and get to see them put through their paces during a quickfire challenge involving a game of Dirty Santa (or Yankee Swap, if you prefer) that had contestants trading their primary ingredients, which ranged from a beautiful piece of prosciutto de Parma to toro, black truffles, walnuts, and yams. The results were a strange mix of concoctions from these somewhat rusty competitors. Thought CJ's winning dish, a combination of spiced shrimp with walnuts, sauteed apple and bitter greens, was a real standout and definitely deserving of Eric Ripert's selection. Same too with Marcel's toro tartar with a sunny-side-up egg, prosciutto, and chive puree. I was really disappointed with Stephen's yam, chocolate, and lavender soup, which sounded intriguing but ended up tasting like a bar of soap.

For the main task, the chefs had to prepare a three-course meal for nine and each course would be served together, with two chefs being eliminated after each course. I knew that Sandee wouldn't be going very far after hearing her far too low-key menu that included a mushroom soup and a chocolate pecan tart. She spent too much time working on the pastry for her dessert course (she had only made piecrust once before) instead of engineering an outstanding starter. Stephen completely misjudged his first course as well, offering up rock-hard crispy celery root gnocchi that were far too substantial (not to mention nearly inedible) and inappropriate as a starting course; I agreed that the asparagus and truffle jus didn't really seem seasonal enough for a holiday meal. I wasn't at all taken with Tiffani's first course, which consisted of bacon-wrapped apples with Brussels sprout salad and apple-chicken jus. It seemed confused and more appropriate for a garnish or side than a starter. I did think Josie's course looked divine: a duo of duck with sour cherry and fig chutney and Tre's scallop starter (with swiss chard and butternut squash puree) looked scrumptious.

The second course also showed some strategic misfires. Marcel's second course was an overblown mess of a dish consisting of a chicken liver and truffle turkey dumpling, savory bread pudding, a Tuscan-style torta, and spinach. Way too much food for a tasting menu and too many warring textures and flavors going on there. Eeek. Both Josie and Betty overcooked their respective dishes, marking them for elimination right off the bat. (Badly played, ladies.) Tiffani's roasted duck breast on top of sage and rosemary spaetzle with mulled wine and burnt orange jus looked amazing; I wanted to dig into that right now. But so did Tre's applewood smoke bacon-wrapped rack of veal with French beans and mac and cheese with a port wine reduction. Yum. I'd also loved to have tried CJ's fall-spiced goose breast with quince and oyster stuffing with mushroom gravy and a pomegranate-jalapeno sauce but the presentation was severely lacking, sadly.

Third course picks? Definitely Tiffani's salted butterscotch pudding with apple cider caramel and whipped cream and Tre's horseradish and mustard-crusted Colorado lamb chops with parsnip puree, chanterelles, Brussels sprout leaves, and a balsamic jus. Naturally, they advanced to the finals.

Ultimately, it was a showdown between Season One's Tiffani and Season Three's Tre, who were tasked with creating a new fourth course in 30 minutes using any leftovers in the kitchen. Tiffani culled the leftovers from the eliminated chefs and pulled together a take on the old holiday standby: a turkey sandwich, instead reinventing this next day's salute to gluttony with a puff pastry topped with braised veal and truffle butter. Tre bravely offered up a dessert course, after his sad defeat last season with that course (a dessert got him unceremoniously booted) and delivered a beautiful chef's dessert: raspberry and walnut crepes with blackberry-balsamic reduction and white chocolate marscarpone sauce.

I do think Tiffani is a remarkable chef but her shrill and severe personality just grates every single time I see her, so it's usually impossible for me to support her. I was really pulling for Tre to win this as I think he did an exemplary job and even successfully tackled a dessert this time around with honor and poise. Sadly, however, Tiffani's leftover course and her butterscotch pudding left a sweet place in the judges' minds and they crowned her the winner of the Holiday Special, granting her $20K to use towards opening her own restaurant in LA.

As for runner-up Tre, he walked off with a stack of signed cookbooks and a feeling of vindication, so I won't be too negative about the outcome. But still, I do wish the guy would get some sort of recognition for his culinary skills. Hmmm, maybe a Top Chef: All Star edition, someday?


Giulie Speziani said…
Watching the holiday special, I really couldn't help but compare Tiffany and Tre to Hillary and Obama. Even though I'll root for the ladies any day(kitchen or government), Tre really excelled this time around. He has the skill and the drive so I'm surprised he didn't win this time around (especially with a dessert).
And if you ask me, the only female chef I thought truly deserved the title from all three seasons, would be Elia.
I was really hoping that Tre would come out on top. I think his dishes were the most consistently good (whereas Tiffani's starter was not a big hit). I do think that Tiffani is a brilliant chef but, like everyone else, think that her personality is lacking. But I think that she and Tre deserved those top two spots and only wish that, in the spirit of the holidays, they both could have won.

Would have liked to have seen Anthony Bourdain at the table too but, otherwise, a fabulously festive Top Chef special!

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