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The Big (Not-So) Easy: The Final Three Square Off for the Title in the "Top Chef" Season Finale

Color me very surprised.

If there's one thing that Top Chef has remained in five seasons of culinary challenges, Quickfires, and Eliminations, it's that it's always unpredictable. At times, frustratingly so. The judges are quick to remind us that every chef is only as good as their last dish and this week's season finale of Top Chef: New York, in which the final three chefs face off at Commander's Palace in New Orleans, was no exception to that rule.

Had you asked me at the beginning of this season whether I could have predicted that the final three chefs competing for the title would have been Carla, Stefan, and Hosea, I would have laughed. Sure, I figured that Stefan would be in the mix as he's been consistently amazing throughout the season, dazzling the judges with his precise execution and innovative flavor profiles, even as he rubs his fellow contestants the wrong way with his brazen arrogance. Carla has been the underdog for the last few weeks but reminded the judges (and the home audience) that she is a classically trained chef who cooks from her heart... and managed to take home quite a few wins as a result. And Hosea? I haven't been too impressed with Hosea throughout this season. He's had a few good dishes but he hasn't wowed the judges too often and seemed to coast by in the middle of the pack more often than not.

So who won the title of Top Chef and a cool $100,000 to start their own restaurant? And who went home empty-handed? Let's dish.

It wouldn't be a Top Chef season finale without a few twists or two. I loved the inclusion of Richard, Casey, and Marcel as the contestants' sous chefs in the final challenge, rather than bring back other ousted competitors from this season, which has now become a bit of a cliché. It was fantastic to see these three competitors, who placed extremely well in their respective season finales but failed to take home the top prize, pair up with the final three. I had a feeling that Hosea would select Richard (I would have), that Casey would end up with Carla, and that Stefan would pick Marcel.

But I didn't imagine that Casey would completely derail Carla's chances at taking home the top spot. I think Casey's intentions were completely honorable and she genuinely thought she was helping Carla by making some suggestions about what to serve. But Carla has excelled this season when she has cooked from her heart and cooked what she loves to cook. That passion and love has infused her dishes with a soul that is lacking in some of the dishes created by the other chefs (cough, Stefan). Sadly, Carla was completely swayed by Casey and as soon as they decided to sous-vide the New York strip steak, I knew that Carla was sunk.

I also appreciated the fact that in addition to cooking a three-course meal, the chefs were blindsided a little bit by the inclusion of a passed hors d'oeuvres course that would involve either alligator, redfish, or crab... and sure enough Hosea drew the lucky knife and stuck Stefan with the alligator.

Still, the hors d'oeuvres that the chefs created were each remarkable. Carla's shiso soup with blue crab and chaote squash looked gorgeous and had an intense combination of flavors while still retaining the very essence of the blue crab. I thought the presentation on Hosea's blackened red fish on corn cake with creole remoulade was outstanding and the execution and conception were spot on. Even faced with alligator, a tricky ingredient if there ever was one, Stefan turned out an amazing alligator soup with celeriac and puff pastry. Well done, all around.

The starter course on the other hand was a bit of a mixed bag. The judges loved Carla's seared red snapper with saffron aioli, braised fennel, and grilled clam, a deconstructionist take on bouillebasse that just screamed Carla. Hosea underseasoned his starter, a sashimi trio of black bass, hamachi, and tuna with citrus and tempura bits. And Stefan made a rare miscalculation with his smoked salmon and halibut carpaccio with micro greens and American caviar: he never should have frozen that fresh fish in order to thinly slice into millimeter-thin pieces. Yes, the presentation was absolutely gorgeous and it pointed to his strong use of innovative techniques, but the result was a watery serving of fish that lost its intrinsic quality by undergoing freezing. Hmmm...

Up next: the main course which showcased some strong execution and imaginative flavor profiles from Stefan and Hosea... and which quickly knocked Carla out of the running. Her sous vide New York strip steak with seared potato rod and merlot sauce was not indicative of her cooking style, her classical background, or her soul; Carla was far too easily swayed by Casey's insistence that she needed more oomph on the plate and stepped way too far out of her comfort zone. This dish was not a Carla dish by any means and it sealed the deal for her, sadly. Meanwhile, Hosea offered up a dish of seared scallop with foie gras on pain perdu with apple preserves and foie gras foam, which seemed the perfect combination of his vision and Richard Blais' molecular gastronomy techniques; the combination of sweet and savory and the shoutout to New Orleans in the form of the pain perdu (French toast) was a stroke of genius. Stefan offered the judges their favorite dish of the evening with his pan-seared squab with braised cabbage, Schupfnudein, foie gras, and grape jus. It was a dish that knocked the socks off the judges and perfectly encapulated Stefan's approach to food and his signature style in one dish. (And it had me ravenously drooling.)

For the final course, Carla and Stefan opted for dessert while Hosea took the opportunity to move towards a richer, heavier course that was in keeping with his menu's progression from light to heavy. Carla once again had the opportunity to do her own thing but instead listened to Casey and turned her blue cheese custard tart into a souffle... but neglected to turn down the oven, which resulted in a boiled mess that she refused to serve. Instead, she offered up the other elements already assembled on the plate: an apple tart coin with blue cheese and walnut crumble, micro greens, and kumquat marmalade; once again, she was undone by Casey's influence and she knew she had lost her shot.

Hosea's main course consisted of a beautifully cooked pan-roasted venison with chestnut and celery root puree, wild mushrooms, and carbonated blackberries, courtesy of Richard. It was a sophisticated dish and the contestants were told explicitly that they didn't have to prepare a dessert. His menu did showcase his talents, his style, and his vision and it did have a nice progression, even without dessert.

As for Stefan, I expected more. He's wowed the judges with dessert courses before so I expected him to concoct something truly show-stopping with his offering. But the judges thought that his dated combination of stracciatella ice cream, chocolate mousse, vanilla syrup, and banana lollipop wasn't sophisticated nor was it the best note on which to end the meal.

If Stefan hadn't frozen the carpaccio and had created a different dessert that better showcased his abilities and offered a nicer progression of richness in the menu, I believe he would have won last night. After all, he had been consistently at the top of the pack throughout the season and this was his game to lose. Yet his overconfidence did him in, I believe, in the end. This wasn't his best performance and two of his courses left a lot to be desired. I hoped that Carla would be the one to dethrone him but even she knew--and tearfully admitted to the judges--that she hadn't cooked her food and hadn't showed them her soul on the plate. And then there was Hosea; he offered up a beautiful menu with the least amount of missteps and displayed a confidence and belief in himself and his style of cuisine that seemed to win the judges over.

Still, I can't believe that they awarded the top prize to Hosea. I was shocked beyond belief that the season played out the way it did and that Hosea, whom I had pretty much written off, was declared the winner of Top Chef: New York. Just completely flabbergasted. Yes, you are only as good as your last dish and he did present the best menu overall (though not the judges' favorite dish, I might add) but shouldn't overall quality throughout the competition count in your favor? Isn't being a Top Chef also about always delivering the very best quality, consistently and repeatedly?

What did you think of the outcome? Would you have awarded the top prize to Hosea if you had a say? And were you heartbroken when Carla cried in front of the judges? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef ("Watch What Happens Reunion"), watch what happens when Bravo's Andy Cohen reunites the contestants of Top Chef: New York with the judges to find out what really went on behind the scenes of the latest season of the culinary competition series.


Wow. This was a tough one. I was kind of hoping that Carla would pull it off but knew she was done for as soon as she started listening to Casey's suggestions. I feel bad that Casey's input derailed Carla but, ultimately, it was Carla's responsibility. She should have told Casey no but instead went against her instincts and took Casey's advice not once but twice!

Stefan is, overall, a better chef than Hosea but Hosea did manage to pull off the most consistently good dishes in the challenge. (Where this consistency was all season, I don't know.)

Honestly, if I would have been at the judges table, I think I would have just given the top prize to Richard Blais who encapsulates both the skill and passion that they were looking for in a Top Chef. Hosea was very lucky to have him on his team.
Anonymous said…
My roommates and I argued over this a little, but ultimately agreed that Carla was 100% at fault for her missteps. She NEVER should have tried out a new technique for her steak. Also, who sous vides a steak? As for the dessert, Carla is a trained French chef and knows full-well how to cook a souffle. Casey suggested something that Carla thought was a great idea; Carla simply made a mistake in execution.

Hosea said it best at the end: he played to his strengths and cooked what he wanted. If Carla had done that, she may have won. It's really too bad.

As for Stefan, although he was obnoxious during the solo "interviews," he was actually always pretty nice when around people. He was the one who helped Carla shuck oysters in the last episode, he helped Carla get unpinched by the clam in this episode, and there plenty of other moments throughout the season.

All in all, this was a pretty disappointing finale. I definitely did not want Hosea to win, but he was the clear-cut winner this season.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the great review, Jace. I've missed your Top Chef posts and always appreciate your comments on both the show and (especially) the food!
Cyndi said…
I've missed your reviews as well. I was surprised that Josea ended up winning. Carla had been steadily becoming stronger this season, and Stefan had pretty much stomped most of them. Sometimes it bugs me that the judges don't take into consideration the chef's performance throughout.

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