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Tongue & Cheek: Fois Gras Ice Cream and Pepperoni Sauce on the Season Finale of Top Chef

"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." - Virginia Woolf

Is it just me or was that a Top Chef season finale showdown for the ages?

Last night's finale was so tense, so filled with suspense and anticipation, nerves and anxiety, that I actually found myself nauseous from stress watching it. After dozens of Quickfire Challenges and Eliminations, broken dreams and chances of redemption, which of the final two chefs would walk away $200,000 richer and be crowned the winner of the first all-stars edition of Top Chef?

Would it be visionary Richard Blais, whose expansive skill set, precise palate, and dazzling creativity are the stuff of Top Chef legend? Or would it be dark horse Mike Isabella, who returned to the competition energized, refreshed, and determined? I don't think many of us thought that Mike would make it this far or offer such a huge obstacle for Richard to overcome, but he's managed to surprise throughout this season, and particularly in the last few rounds in the Bahamas.

Both of these talented chefs brought their A-game last night as they faced off in a challenge designed to test their creativity, consistency, stamina, and leadership abilities. Given free rein over two restaurants, they were challenged to come up with the restaurant of their dreams and cook a four course menu that would highlight their strengths.

There would be no eleventh hour trickery, no curve balls, no producer-sanctioned shenanigans here. The objective was to cook their hearts out and produce the best dinner and the best experience that they could for the judges and the diners.

So how did they do? Let's take a look.

I dare say that you couldn't have picked two more different chefs than Richard and Mike to go into the final round. Both have very different styles of cooking, but both pushed themselves into new directions here: Richard created a rustic dish, while Mike delivered a stunning haute cuisine plate. Surprised? You bet, but both of these chefs wanted to win so badly that each was more than willing to challenge themselves to step outside of their comfort zones and upend the judges' preconceptions of what type of food they would produce.

Richard's food, at the aptly named Tongue & Cheek, was whimsical and playful, but also showed restraint when it needed to, and he was able to course-correct, rather than "choke" under pressure when a dish didn't quite work the way he had intended. Mike's food was far more rustic, but also showed refinement and thought in the presentation, the flavor profiles, and the overall composition than we've seen from him previously. This was not an easy challenge and, after seeing the performance of both men, the judges would definitely have a difficult time choosing one to crown the winner.

But let's get down to the finer points and take a look at the menu that Richard and Mike prepared...

Richard Blais:
  • Amuse Bouche: Raw oyster with lemon-horseradish ice cream "pearls" and salsa verde
  • First Course: Raw hamachi with fried veal sweetbreads, Asian pear, pickled radish, and garlic-Sriracha mayonnaise
  • Second Course: Pork belly with a black cod cutlet, bone marrow, beets, Brussels sprouts, and kumquat
  • Third Course: Beef short rib with mushrooms, red cabbage marmalade, and celery root-horseradish puree
  • Fourth Course: Cornbread with foie gras ice cream and whipped mango

Richard took a risk with adding an extra dish to the already complicated lineup, but it was a calculated risk that played off. Adding the amuse here was a stroke of genius as much as the dish itself, beautifully played and setting a playful note to the courses to come. The coolness of those "pearls" was perfect for the raw oysters and established the tone and range of the food ahead. That hamachi dish had my mouth watering as Richard combined the silkiness of the fish with the exterior crunch of those velvety sweetbreads (yum), the sweetness of the Asian pear, the sourness of the radish, and the heat from the mayonnaise. Beautifully presented, artfully executed, it was a stuninng dish that was quickly followed by the meat course, a genius combination of disparate items--pork belly, black cod, bone barrow, and beets--that harmonized elegantly. Just... wow. While the judges seemed a little less than taken by his third course, an intensely rustic dish of beef short ribs, they were beautifully glazed and everything was executed perfectly, the real feat with tackling something that's inherently less refined. And, while he struggled with the fois gras ice cream (first doing it as freeze-dried powder and later as more of creamy ice cream), Richard proved that he was able to course-correct and adjust based on reactions from the first serving. All in all, just a gorgeous, staggering menu that showed off Richard's strengths as a chef, his creative spark, and his range. Well done.

Mike Isabella:
  • First Course: Spiced beets with mozzarella, chocolate and truffle vinaigrette
  • Second Course: Halibut with kumquat marmalade, cauliflower puree, and pancetta crumbs
  • Third Course: Braised pork shoulder with pepperoni sauce, roasted cabbage, and turnips
  • Fourth Course: Rosemary caramel custard with pine nuts, citrus, cherry, and apple

While Mike did dazzle me with some of his later dishes, I was hugely disappointed by that first course salad. With $200K on the line, you make a salad of mozzarella, some leaves, and a chocolate vinaigrette? I get where Mike was coming from at Restaurant Iz, with his nonna's culinary influence and childhood flavors, but this was an extremely underwhelming start to the evening, especially compared to Richard's amuse and the hamachi that followed. Mike regained some momentum with his perfectly steamed halibut, which Tom Colicchio hailed as the best fish ever on the competition and that he had ever eaten (however, he quickly changed his opinion later after tasting Richard's hamachi). Still, this was an elegant dish that showed refinement and thought, as well as restraint, a perfectly executed plate that was different than we would normally expect from Mike I. It was the third course that truly showed off his mischievous streak, combining pork shoulder with a pepperoni sauce. (I'll let that hang in the air for a bit.) An ingenious combination of high and low cuisines, it was creative, unexpected, and playful. But while the judges seemed to like Mike's dessert at judges' table, they all seemed less than pleased while eating it. The caramel custard was cooked too quickly at too high of a temperature, creating air bubbles within the custard. It was also a little too simple, compared to the "wow factor" of Richard's fois gras ice cream (which was originally going to be Captain Crunch ice cream, in fact).

You can't fault either of them overall. While certain courses went to one or the other, they both delivered amazing experiences for the judges and the dinners and some of the best food ever on Top Chef. This, really more than any other season to date, would be the closest of close calls, a case of splitting hairs at judges' table to determine whether it was Richard or Mike who had the better dinner overall.

I loved what both of them said when asked about why they should be named Top Chef, particularly Richard's tearful admission that, as a chef, he's had to do things and make choices that were financially-motivated in order to survive, in order to care for his family. (Tom seemed particularly moved by this as well.)

As I mentioned earlier, I spent the final minutes of the finale almost throwing up from tension, before it was revealed that the winner of Top Chef: All-Stars and the owner of $200,000 cash prize would be... Richard Blais.

Fitting? You bet. No one has cooked as consistently, as thoroughly, or as creatively as Richard throughout this competition and he more than redeemed himself from the last time he made it to the finale. I'm more than chuffed that Richard won and I'll admit that I got a little emotional, to boot.

What did you think of the finale? Did Richard Blais deserve to win? Would you have given the win to Mike? And which restaurant would you have rather eaten at? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Top Chef, it's the reunion episode, where the all-star competitors come together one last time to share their memories and reflect back on this tough season.

Comments

Kate said…
I agree. It was a great finale to a great season. I also wanted Blais to win, but admit that is colored by my sense that he's just a really good guy.
Tillie said…
a) thanks for not spoiling the winner last night on twitter!
b) I loved the finale. This whole season has been amazing. Richard totally deserved to win. I am glad that Mike gave him a run for the money but Richard was hands down the best there.
Michael Lewis said…
These were some of the most innovated dishes from all the seasons. Both Richard & Mike rose to the occasion.

How can I obtain the recipes for Mike’s dishes? Richard’s are posted on Bravo on Top Chef, however, Mike’s are not.

MichaelLewis@Hotmail.com

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