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All We Can Eat
Posted at 09:15 AM ET, 03/01/2012

‘Top Chef Texas,’ Finale: Four courses and a win by a nose

Paul. Sarah. The ‘Top Chef Texas” finale. Their challenge? Create a four-course tasting menu “in the restaurant of your dreams.”

They’ll be cooking in “two of Vancouver’s finest restaurants”: Black and Blue, and Coast. They’ll have “outstanding sous-chefs.” Looks like the sous-chefs end up being some of the previously eliminated cheftestants as well as some of the chefs who were in the initial 29 but didn’t make the final cut. Um, okay.

Joining the sous-chef pool are two great chefs: Barbara Lynch (No. 9 Park, Boston) and Marco Canora (Hearth, New York). What I love about Padma’s intro is that she refers to them as “two of this country’s greatest chefs” — but because they’re shooting in Canada, I’m expecting some killer Canadian chefs. Then the camera pans to Barbara of Boston and Marco of New York. Nice script work, Bravo.

The twist? The sous-chefs have to compete in a Quickfire to earn a spot on the teams of Sarah and Paul. After a quick round of cooking, Sarah and Paul come into the kitchen to blind-taste the 11 dishes before them. They each have to pick their four favorites (without knowing who cooked them) to be their sous-chefs.

Paul gets Barbara, Ty-Lor, Chris C., and Keith. Sarah gets Nyesha, Tyler Stone (the weird, overly confident dorkbag poser who got cut from the kitchen early for being a crap butcher), Heather and Grayson. No one picks Marco (ouch), so Padma invites him to the finale dinner. Paul and Sarah get six hours that day to prep and cook in their respective restaurants, and then three hours the next day to finish before 100 guests and judges arrive for the last dinner of this wretched season. Sarah gathers her team around the table and tells them what she wants (a marriage of her German background and Italian style of cooking). Tyler tells her to sous-vide something, and she refuses. Paul begins menu planning with his team (Japanese with an Asian influence; yes, really), and Barbara gets a little bossy.

They shop, and Sarah heads to Black and Blue; Paul goes to Coast. They prep (with no drama, injured limbs or failed components), and Sarah and Paul meet with Tom and Emeril to sample some of the sponsor’s wines to pair with their dishes. The next day, they get into the kitchen and get to cookin’. Paul is clear, directs his team to their stations and tells them exactly what he wants. Sarah’s kitchen feels a little more like a sorority house. Sarah struggles with Tyler’s annoyingness. Paul struggles with crabmeat that’s gone bad overnight. Luckily, he’d bought prawns as a backup (or for an extra dish if he’d had time), so he swaps those into the dish.

The judges and guests arrive, including Paul’s girlfriend and his family and former cheftestant Ed Lee. Joining the judges (Tom, Gail), in addition to Marco, are Mark McEwan (the Tom Colicchio of “Top Chef Canada”) and Iron Chef Cat Cora. Here’s what Paul serves:

Chawanmushi with edamame, pea shoots and spot prawns.

Grilled loup de mer with clam dashi, pickled radishes and mushrooms.

Congee with slow-scrambled eggs, uni, purple kale and smoked albacore.

Coconut ice cream with puffed rice, kumquats, mangosteen, Thai chili foam and jasmine gelee.

Midway through the meal, Paul is asked to go to one of the tables to take care of something, and finds his family there. The tears are a-flowin’ from all of them.

While Tom and Gail are going through Paul’s tasting, Padma and Emeril bring chef/judge Hugh Acheson, winemaker Bill Terlato and David Myers (Comme Ça, Los Angeles) to Sarah’s restaurant. Her family is seen coming into the restaurant in the background, and Beverly and Chris J. are two of the restaurant’s tasters as well. Here’s what Sarah serves:

Squid-ink tagliatelle with spot prawns and fresh coconut.

Rye-crusted steelhead trout with fennel sauce, pickled beets and gras pista (whipped lardo).

Braised veal cheek with crispy sweetbreads, polenta and a persimmon sauce.

Hazelnut cake with candied kumquat and roasted white chocolate ganache.

The judges in both restaurants seem to have a lot of nice things to say about the menus and what they’ve eaten. In between tastings, Sarah keeps working with her polenta and persimmon sauce because she wasn’t happy with the texture. The judges switch restaurants and taste the other finalist’s food. During the second tasting, we see Sarah head out to the dining room to be surprised by her family where the tears flow freely. She heads up to their table again after their next course to check in, and her fiance whispers to her that he had a small bone in his fish portion. Sarah Flo-Jos back to the kitchen to inspect every piece of fish (finding and removing a few previously overlooked pinbones in the trout). Paul overcooks his chawanmushi for the second tasting, and has to serve the judges an overdone first course. Ruh-roh. Again, the judges are shown saying positive, supportive things. With dinner over, the judges and final two cheftestants head out.

Strolling in to The Judges’ Table Music of Doom, Paul and Sarah stand before Tom, Padma, Emeril, Gail and Hugh. Tom tells them that “in nine seasons, including ‘All-Stars,’ this is the best food we’ve ever seen in the finale.” [Drink!] I don’t know why he feels compelled to say that line at least once every season. It makes it less true for the viewer, methinks. Sarah and Paul say why they are honored and proud to be there. The judges start talking about the food. Sarah’s menu is up first.

Gail tells Sarah her tartare-over-tagliatelle was one of those dishes that was so good, you can’t believe no one’s ever thought of doing it before. Emeril tells her the trout was perfectly cooked, but the beets were a little too raw. Tom tells her the veal cheeks were perfectly cooked and full of flavor and that her risk of using dashi paid off. He thought the sweetbreads were a little dry, and the polenta didn’t work for Emeril (he had the first round of polenta, that Sarah eventually changed, and Gail really loved). Hugh tells Sarah the dessert was her “dish of the night.” Padma tells her, “I hate white chocolate” (me too, Padma; me, too) but that this was one of the best desserts she’s ever had on “Top Chef.”

In critiquing Paul’s meal, Gail loved the chawanmushi (she had the first round), while Hugh admits their version of it was overcooked. Hugh compliments the loup de mer, and Emeril calls it “brilliant.” Padma thought Paul’s congee showed great confidence. Gail questions how it fit in to the whole menu, but Hugh explains it as being a nice, rich followup to the previous fish course, and that the smoked albacore made it stand out for him. Tom appreciated the dessert because he doesn’t like sweet desserts, and felt Paul’s had more of a savory feel; it is perhaps his favorite course of the night. Hugh tells Paul the puffed rice had “probably a little more crunch than you wanted” — meaning it was in the fryer too long.

The judges deliberate. From their comments, it sounds like Paul might be pulling ahead, but only by a nose. Gail points out that Paul’s menu is what Paul does every day, but that Sarah’s menu took a lot of risks. Tom thinks Paul excelled at the little elements and touches that make a dish stand out. Paul and Sarah head back to Judges’ Table, greeted with applause from their fellow competitors and family members.

So, who is this season’s Top Chef, winning $125,000? Paul!

Thanks for following along with me this time around. Let’s raise our glasses to spending the next few Wednesday nights with no tears and some excellent food, in our own sponsor-free kitchens!

By Carol Blymire  |  09:15 AM ET, 03/01/2012

 
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