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Mystery Boxes, Moms, and Masterful Cooking: The Winner Named on the "Top Chef" Season Finale

Was I the only one on the edge of my seat last night?

Last night's season finale of Top Chef ("Season Finale, Part Two") found the final three chefs going head-to-head with the title of Top Chef and a cool $125,000 cash prize on the line. It was really anyone's game as all three remaining contestants have proven themselves not only worthy competitors but also talented and accomplished chefs in their own right. As always, it would all come down to one last challenge.

The task seemed simple enough: cook a fantastic meal for the judges and a panel of esteemed restaurateurs with the bounty of Napa Valley at their disposal. But this is Top Chef and these three chefs are each killer competitors, so the three-course meal at Cyrus in Healdsburg (which is in Sonoma rather than Napa Valley but I'll let this change in locale slip by) quickly turned into a twist-laden multiple-course meal with multiple hindrances and curveballs.

How did the three remaining chefs perform? And who went home the ultimate victor? Let's discuss.

I made no secret of the fact that I was rooting for Kevin going into this final episode of the season. Throughout the competition, Kevin has remained true to himself and his culinary style, ditching affectations and gimmicks in favor of clean flavor profiles and deceptively simple preparations, allowing the flavors and textures on the plate to speak for themselves.

But if Kevin was going to win he'd have to overcome two major hurdles: the Voltaggio Brothers. Michael and Bryan, in their own very different ways, have proven themselves cutthroat competitors and skilled chefs. Michael's boldness and risk-taking have been counterbalanced by Bryan's poise and subtlety. While Kevin was playing for himself, the sibling rivalry between the two brothers would either push them to the top or make them cancel each other out in the final leg of the competition.

As mentioned earlier, the initial brief--cook a three-course meal--was complicated by several twists thrown at the chefs. First, they would have to prepare one course by using all of the ingredients from a mystery box (were the producers watching Food Network's Chopped for inspiration, perhaps?). Second, they would have to prepare a dessert for the third course; no squeaking by with another protein course. (Sorry!) And third they wouldn't have a choice in the sous chefs assisting them in the final challenge as they would draw knives to see which of the previously ousted chefs would assist them in the kitchen.

It was that last twist (which wasn't the final one, in fact) that made me slightly uncomfortable. Yes, Top Chef has brought back previous contestants into the kitchen before to assist but there's usually a choice element to determine who gets whom and because everyone was in the mix (including some fantastically unskilled chefs), it created a very uneven playing field. Bryan managed a major coup by getting Jennifer and Ashley, Michael got lucky by scoring Eli (and Jesse), and poor Kevin was stuck with the abysmal Preeti (and the extremely helpful Ash). Fortunately, no one drew Robin. Otherwise I would have had to chuck my television out the window.

But the final twist, after the chefs got to spend time with their mothers (including Mama Voltaggio, who must have been mightily conflicted seeing both her sons competing), was that they would prepare a first course that was inspired by a childhood dish... and which would be served to the judges and their mothers. I do like the twists that have the chefs cooking on the fly and would have rather seen this be the final twist than have them deal with sous chefs.

So what did they make? Let's take a look, organized by course.

First Course (Childhood-inspired dish):
  • Bryan: Sardine, German butterball potato, heirloom tomato, and panko breadcrumbs
  • Kevin: Southern-fried chicken skin with squash casserole and tomato
  • Michael: cream of dehydrated broccoli, fried broccoli, and spot prawn
All three dishes looked beautiful but I'd have to give this round to Kevin, who once again managed to take something inherently simple--squash--and transform it into something sensuous and complex. Even Tom was raving about the depth of flavor of that squash casserole and its haunting citrus notes. Less successful were both of the brothers' dishes as Bryan failed to season his sardine dish (though Toby Young seemed to prefer it that way) and Michael's delicate spot prawns weren't (A) cooked properly and (B) well served by the popcorn broccoli which overwhelmed the subtlety of the prawns.

Second Course (Mystery box):
  • Bryan: sous vide rockfish, kabocha squash, curry, Meyer lemon
  • Kevin: Pacific rockfish, roasted squash, crab broth, and roasted matsutake mushroom
  • Michael: dashi-glazed rockfish, sweet and sour crab salad, squash, and Meyer lemon
I was very intrigued to see just what the chefs opted to make from their mystery box of ingredients, which included rockfish, crab, kabocha squash, Meyer lemons, and anise hyssop. Not an easy assortment of ingredients to work with nor to get onto a single plate but all three chefs managed to turn out dishes of complexity and thoughtfulness, though some were less successful than others. Here, the advantage went to Michael, who created a gorgeous and self-assured plate that spoke volumes about his skills and his culinary ethos. He wisely fried the matsutake mushroom until it was crispy and used all of the ingredients to their best possible advantage. Bryan once again fell short by underseasoning his dish and also by playing it too safe; there was no boldness in his dish and everything seemed muddled by a lack of distinct texture. Kevin's fault was that matsutake mushroom, which he roasted and rendered too chewy and dense. Advantage to Michael here.

Third Course (Chef's choice):
  • Bryan: venison saddle with puree of sunchokes and orange-juniper sauce
  • Kevin: slow-roasted pork belly with Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and caramelized ham jus
  • Michael: fennel-scented squab breast, pistachio cassoulet, and textures of mushrooms
All three looked absolutely divine and I would have been happy to pull up a plate of any of them. Bryan shined in this round, in my opinion. He wisely went for seasonality, serving up a dish of venison that not only allowed the protein to shine but also gave the supporting members--the vegetables--equal time in the spotlight, giving them two preparations and proving to the judges that he is a skillful and passionate chef capable of delivering a knock-out meal. Michael was let down slightly by that cassoulet, which some of the judges complained about, and that gimmicky mushroom mold, which was too playful and blunt at the same time. Kevin, the pork king, was staggered later to learn that the judges weren't crazy about his pork belly dish. Yes, it should have been cooked more and I agree that he could have perhaps pared it with another preparation of pork but I understand what he was going for here: the clear, pristine quality of pork belly presented on its own. But he was perhaps let down by the tightness of the time frame and by the, rather ironically, simplicity of his dish. Advantage to Bryan, I'd say.

Fourth Course (Dessert):
  • Bryan: Sheep's milk and white chocolate "dulce de leche" cheesecake with fig sorbet, dry caramel, poached pear, and basil
  • Kevin: roasted banana, toasted peanut, with chocolate-bacon mousse, and bacon brittle
  • Michael: chocolate-caramel coulant, butternut squash brulee, toasted seeds, and butternut ice cream
While Michael's dessert did get overcooked and dried out (thanks to not setting the timer), I think it was easily the most ambitious dessert of the three. His use of fall vegetables here, presented in brulee and ice cream form, and seeds was unexpected and nicely counterbalanced the rich earthiness of chocolate and caramel in his coulant (which, yes, should have had more of a liquid center). While it wasn't perfect, it was the most assured and ambitious of the three plates in this round and showed a real sense of vision; this is a dish one would expect to find in a Michelin-starred restaurant. I'd give a very close second place then to Bryan for his cheesecake and dry caramel; it showed some innovative techniques (the dry caramel, the liquid nitrogen-frozen fig sorbet) and some nice flavor combinations. I love the use of the sheep's milk cheese here instead of say cream cheese or ricotta and I think the dish was gorgeous and well thought out. (Though considering Michael's coulant was dry, Bryan could have taken this course.) Kevin's dish failed to hit its mark, sadly. Like Gail, I don't mind bacon in my dessert (LA restaurant Animal does an amazing and addictive chocolate-bacon bar, for example) but it was the banana that really let him down the most; the roasted banana just looked rather sad and didn't have enough texture or body to anchor the plate in the way Kevin desired.

I knew, even before the judges deliberated, that it would come down to one of the brothers rather than Kevin. And I got a little teary-eyed when Padma told Kevin that he wasn't Top Chef. He's played a good game and cooked some amazing dishes and changed my preconceptions about Southern cuisine. Sadly, this wasn't his night.

I wasn't surprised then when Michael Voltaggio was named the ultimate winner. I wondered if it would come down to a final showdown between the two rather intense siblings and sure enough they were the last two standing this season. Of the two, I think Michael is the more self-possessed, bold, and assured chef; Bryan is more thoughtful, more introspective with his cooking (and his personality).

Sure enough, the judges felt the same way, giving the win to Michael. I'm actually happy with the decision (though I would have loved for Kevin to win): Michael Voltaggio is a culinary star in the making and his use of modern techniques, innovative flavor combinations, and pitch-perfect presentation make him a force to be reckoned with. I can't wait to see just what the chef, currently at the Langham Dining Room in Pasadena, gets up to next...

What did you think of the season finale? Would you have awarded Michael the title of Top Chef? Where did Kevin and Bryan go wrong? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef ("Watch What Happens Reunion"), host Andy Cohen brings together Season Six chefs and judges, who cook up more culinary drama while dishing on the highs and lows of the season. (Note: the reunion special will air at 9 pm ET/PT rather than in the series' typical timeslot.)

Top Chef Preview: It's the Top Chef Las Vegas Reunion:

Comments

Bella Spruce said…
All three chefs did an incredible job and all three really were deserving of the win. I think what gave Michael the edge is that he is truly forward-thinking and innovative with his dishes and I'm excited to see what he will do next.
Greer said…
I can't believe that Kevin got stuck with Preeti who was definitely more of a detriment than an asset. I think they should have gotten to pick their sous chefs (like in season's past). Can you imagine if someone would have been saddled with Robin? I know that, as a great chef, you have to rise to the challenge but that would have just been cruel.
Paige Madison said…
I couldn't believe my eyes while watching Preeti prepare food! She's supposed to be a professional chef? Her preparatory skills just looked atrocious. I think by drawing Preeti, Kevin was mentally out of the game. In his twitter feed, he still seems to disagree with the judges on the proper preparation of pork belly.
ChrisMCtv said…
I really, really wanted Kevin to pull it off, but his dishes just didn't have the technique to compete with the V. Bros. When he didn't nail his flavors with the Pork, there was nothing to save him from elimination. At this level, and with these chefs, you need more than a roasted protein, vegetable and jus on the plate.

The crafty editing made it seem like Bryan would win the Top Chef title. But I grew suspicious just before the final segment at judges table. Whenever Padma says "Well, I think we have our answer," I always second guess myself. While Bryan would be a terrific Top Chef, his brother Michael is more exciting, more dynamic, and more of a personality. Michael has a bright future in the kitchen, and on Bravo/Food Network. Last night he handled a cooking segment on Conan with poise and charisma. I'm becoming a fan.

Oh, and last I heard, Preeti was the executive chef at Google. I wonder if her appearances on the show has affected her employment, as they're known for hiring the best of the best. Hell, Google could hire Thomas Keller to run a hot dog stand in the parking lot if they wanted. Is Preeti as inept as she appears, or is she just used to ordering other people to cut her vegetables and shuck her shellfish?
Sue said…
I was rooting for Kevin the whole season, but alas he fell a bit short during the last challenge.

If not Kevin, then Bryan would've been my choice. Yes, Michael is bolder and more ambitious (and not to mention arrogant), but somehow I cannot agree with awarding the honor of Top Chef to someone who undercooks and serves a runny egg to Padma, and then overcooks something simple like a cake in a final challenge. And, as for Bryan's dishes, other than the lack of seasoning, I didn't hear any other complaints.

But, I am not a foodie by any means, so my comments may be based more on personality vs actual food preparation. :o)

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