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The Art of Choke: The “Top Chef: Chicago” Season Finale

I’ve gotten quite a few worried emails from readers wondering why there hasn’t been a post about the Top Chef finale, which aired the other night on Bravo. Why aren’t I crowing about the defeat of sourpuss Lisa, the unexpected choking of Richard, and the crowning victory of Stephanie, the first woman to be named Top Chef?

Simple answer: I’m on my honeymoon after a magical wedding at Napa’s Auberge du Soleil. If you ever have the chance to stay there (or have the financial means to make it happen), it will surpass your every expectation; it is so sublimely relaxing and luxurious that you will gladly melt away at the mere sight of the view of the Valley. One caveat, however: though the enormous flatscreen televisions (in the bedroom and bathroom, no less) are gorgeous, they don’t receive Bravo.

And for some reason, neither Hulu or had the finale episode (“Finale, Part Two”) online for streaming. I’ve finally now watched the episode and I was completely riveted by the action that unfolded. Given a choice of celebrity sous chefs—including the incredible Eric Ripert—the three remaining chefs (that would be Richard, Stephanie, and—ick—Lisa) were able to select from pre-arranged proteins in order to construct a four-course meal that would include a dessert course (shock horror!); they’d have help from their sous chef during prep but—surprise!—they’d have to do the actual cooking on their own and then present their dishes to the judges.

Having Lisa there certainly set a certain mood in the kitchen. I really wanted Antonia in the Final Three and I do think that, had she been there, we would have seen a certain camaraderie that was distinctly missing from the kitchen with Lisa there. As for the sourpuss herself, she seemed oddly overconfident and strangely calm, as though she had somehow swallowed some magical Zen potion that sublimated her caustic nature. Or somewhat, anyway; there were still little digs here and there at Stephanie during prep.

But whatever. Stephanie proved once again that she has not only great vision but awesome organizational skills, quickly devising a menu that was daring, different, and difficult, that challenged the palates of the judges with unexpected and unusual flavor combinations (seriously, who ever thought you could braise a pistachio?), and cemented her skills as a talented and creative chef. Seriously, she had this thing in the bag unless she majorly screwed up somehow. (And something told me that wasn’t going to happen.)

So onto the food then. Just what did each of the three remaining contestants devise? Let’s discuss.

For her first course, Lisa offered a dish of prawns with a chili-basil sauce, crab, square-cut potato chips, and pea tendrils. The judges seemed thrilled by this dish but it didn’t really wow me (maybe because I don’t care at all for prawns); I also agree with Tom that it was way too overtly spicy and aggressive (huh, just like its maker) for a first course. Still, it seemed to be a definite hit among the judges. Grr. Up next was Lisa’s Tom Ka Soup Dumplings with chicken, golden threads, toasted chili, and cilantro. I adore Tom Ka; this traditional Thai soup is perhaps one of my favorite soups, perfectly balancing sweet, spicy, and sour, and when done correctly can be utterly transcendent. Still, Lisa described it as her version of “chicken soup”: delicious, filling, and simple. While it may have been delicious, it really didn’t wow me at all, not in the way that other contestants’ dishes have in the past. Tom had it right when he described her food as “pedestrian.” Still, in order to hype up the dramatic stakes, I am sure the producers played up the success of her soup course. If she won this thing, I’d eat one of Spike’s hats.

Up next was a disaster of a dish: Wagyu beef with cucumber-chayote salad and garlic chips; while the salad seemed to work, Lisa had not correctly used the Wagyu to its full advantage, rendering it chewy and tough rather than making the fat melt into the meat. For the dessert course, Lisa created a black Thai rice pudding with caramelized coconut, mango cream, and crispy taro that may have tasted delicious but looked absolutely revolting. I also criticize her for the use of “chips” on nearly (or, hell, even all) of her dishes on the menu. Enough is enough.

Poor Richard really did seem to choke under the pressure, rather than use the challenge to devise some incredible dishes and push himself into new and unexpected territory. Instead, he seemed to deflate entirely. Sure, having Eric Ripert hang on your every word as he explained the use of liquid nitrogen in making Tabasco “ice cream” was as terrifying as it was invigorating but he seemed to lose all of his energy and drive as soon as the “sous chefs” left the kitchen. I was pretty depressed to see him fall so far; this should have been the cook-off to end all cook-offs between him and Stephanie, a culinary battle to the death. Instead, our man Blais went out with more of a whimper than a bang.

As for his dishes, they showed signs of Richard’s genius but fell way short in the execution. His first dish—scallop with radish, mango, and pineapple vinegar—sounded absolutely amazing but the judges didn’t seem all that taken with it, especially in comparison to Stephanie’s dishes. His second dish, the playfully entitled “Which Came First?” consisted of Guinea hen, duck, foie gras, a chicken Egg, and spring vegetables. It could have been a daring, sophisticated, and whimsical dish but fell under the weight of its own ambitions, a muddled dish that didn’t properly distinguish between its ultra-rich ingredients. Up next was pork belly with pickled radish and a mirin broth; the pickled radish rosette was a thing of beauty and a genius stroke but the entire dish seemed under-seasoned (a culinary faux pas if there ever was one) and the pork belly didn’t have its fat rendered at all; rather than be crispy (a delicious feat) it was far too chewy and thick. I thought his efforts with the bacon ice cream portion of his dessert was phenomenal but he’s attempted the banana “scallop” far too many times in the past and I was really surprised that he opted to do it again with so much on the line. Sigh.

And then there was Stephanie. While she seemed to lack confidence in her own skills (except at judges’ table), she absolutely proved that the cream does rise to the top. Her menu was thoughtful, elegant, and sophisticated (with the exception of that awful dessert) and it was one that I would order over and over again if I was paying. For her first course, she created a dish infused with the essence of springtime, a sautéed red snapper filet with truffled white asparagus and clam broth. A beautiful and delicate dish that reminds us that, while her specialty is simple, homey fare, Stephanie also can deliver high-end, conceptual dishes that use seasonal and local ingredients. Up next was a seared quail breast with butter-poached lobster ravioli, quail egg, and mango with a sauce made from lobster shells and quail bones. If you haven’t shorted your computer keyboard with saliva by now, you are far stronger than I.

For her meat course, Stephanie offered up roasted lamb medallions with braised pistachios, blackberry, and green olive; I too was terrified by the flavor combinations but at the same time I could see the brininess of the olives counterbalancing the sweet nuttiness of the pistachios and the luscious sweetness of those blackberries. And sure enough the judges felt the same way, raving about the braised pistachios, a totally novel way of using the nuts in a dish that was utterly inventive and inspired. (I knew she had it in the bag right there.) Her only failure (besides, yes, crispy leeks) was her dessert, a ricotta pound cake with lime glaze, pineapple and salted banana cream, a low point in an otherwise perfect meal.

It was obvious who was winning this final challenge and that Lisa actually stood in front of the judges and said that she had all of the qualities of a Top Chef was laughable. If anyone there deserved to be there it was Stephanie and Richard and Richard had sadly fallen short of this intense challenge. Rightfully so, Stephanie became the first female contestant to win the title of Top Chef and I think that the judges chose perfectly. I cannot wait to see what this talented chef does next and I definitely think that this isn’t the last we hear of Stephanie.

And, if karma has anything to do with it, that we haven’t heard the last of Richard Blais either.

Fingers crossed.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Ghost Whisperer
(CBS); Most Outrageous Moments/Most Outrageous Moments (NBC;); Friday Night SmackDown! (CW; 8-10 pm); America's Funniest Home Videos (ABC); Hollywood Homicide (FOX; 8-10 pm)

9 pm:
NUMB3RS (CBS); Dateline (NBC; 9-11 pm); According to Jim/According to Jim (ABC)

10 pm:
NUMB3RS (CBS); 20/20 (ABC)

What I'll Be TiVo'ing

9 pm: Doctor Who on Sci Fi.

Season Four of Doctor Who continues tonight with "The Unicorn and the Wasp," as Donna and the Doctor travel to 1926 where they meet Agatha Christie (guest star Fenella Woolgar) and stumble into a murder mystery.

10 pm: Battlestar Galactica on Sci Fi.

On tonight's episode ("Revelations"), which marks the midseason break for the final season of BSG, a hostage standoff unfolds as the rebel Cylons hold Laura Roslin captive in order to bring the Final Five out of hiding aboard Galactica. This is it, true believers: everything changes.


Unknown said…
They should really just have all these competition reality shows feed into this season's America's Got Talent. They're just like breeding rabbits.
Anonymous said…
Lisa even being there was completely ridiculous especially as she can't compete in the same room with Stephanie and Richard. I am happy that Steph won as it was great to see a woman take home the prize and I was really sad to see Richard choke like he did. Hopefully they'll have him come back for the inevitable Top Chef All-Stars.
Anonymous said…
Are they really doing a top chef all stars?

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