Oh, readers. Dear, dear readers. It’s our last week together to talk about “Top Chef,” and all the things we love and love to hate about this show. I was happy with the promise of the show, not exactly sure it delivered in the way it was intended to, and frustrated by the inevitable over-commercialization of a series I once learned so much from. The high points of this season? Some dishes I fell in love with, seeing Tre’s biceps and the guy who won. The low points? Paula Deen, contrived challenges and a judging panel that seemed perpetually disengaged and distant.
We’re down to Richard Blais and Mike Isabella, going head to head in the finale this week. Their final challenge? “Create the Restaurant of Your Dreams.” They have to do a four-course tasting menu, and have a night to themselves to think, strategize and plan.
The next morning, before Mike and Richard show up in the Top Chef kitchen, the whole cast of cheftestants is brought back to the show. They have 30 minutes to cook an amuse-bouche as an audition to see which of them will be sous chefs for the final challenge. And it’s a blind tasting, so Mike and Richard will be choosing their sous chefs based on the bites of their food they’re tasting. They each get to pick their three favorite dishes, and those will be their three sous chefs. Mike and Richard both try to guess who made each dish so that they can choose the people they want, and avoid the cheftestants they don’t want to cook with (Jamie, Marcel).
Richard ends up choosing Spike, Angelo and Antonia, while Mike gets TIffani F., Jamie (ha!) and Carla (yay!). They have an hour to plan with their teams. They’ll be cooking for the judges, and 70 other people, and will have five hours to prep and cook. As they meet, we see Mike’s team being awfully suggest-y. Richard, on the other hand, or so the edit shows, tells the team what he wants, how he wants it done and takes charge.
They set up their restaurants at already-existing dining establishments at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas. Tom hammers home the point that the word “chef” means boss, and that this challenge is a true test of their skills as a chef -- being a leader, managing a team and making a successful restaurant work.
The judges are split into two groups -- they eat in both restaurants -- and they’re joined by some pretty phenomenal chefs.
Richard’s restaurant is called Tongue & Cheek, and he promises whimsy. Joining Padma at her table there are Lidia Bastianich, Hubert Keller, Alfred Portale, and Bill Terlato.
Richard’s amuse-bouche (which he cringe-ingly keeps calling an “a-moo-ZAY”) is a raw oyster with creme fraiche pearls and salsa verde. Or, a riff on Thomas Keller’s “Oysters and Pearls” dish at The French Laundry and Per Se. As the judges and guest chefs eat, Spike not-so-covertly eavesdrops on their table and brings word back to Richard during each course. Richard also demands to see each plate from the judges’ table as they’re brought back into the kitchen so he can see what they liked.
After his amuse-bouche, Richard’s first course is raw hamachi with crispy veal sweetbreads, garlic mayonnaise and pickled celery. Spike tells him, “they’re licking their plates.”
Meanwhile, over at Mike’s restaurant -- Restaurant Iz -- Carla greets Tom, Gail, Curtis Stone and Art Smith. Mike comes out in a dirty, smeared chef’s coat (gross) to welcome them at the table after they’d been seated. Mike’s first course is spiced beets with mozzarella, truffle, pistachio and chocolate vinaigrette. There’s a significant delay between his first and second course, but once the second course comes out, those cares are out the window. Mike’s second course is steamed halibut with kumquat marmalade, cauliflower puree and pancetta crumbs. It looks absolutely beautiful, and the flavor profile on this one is spot on.
Back at Richard’s resto, he’s serving the second course: pork belly with black cod cutlet, bone marrow, beets, Brussels sprouts and kumquat. I want to make sweet, sweet love to this dish. I wanna kiss it hard and make its toes curl. It looks gorgeous, and everything about this flavor profile speaks to me and the kind of food I love to cook and eat. His third course is beef short rib with mushrooms, red cabbage marmalade and a celery root-horseradish puree, and I am now desperately craving celery root and horseradish puree.
Back at Restaurant Iz, Mike’s serving his third course: braised pork shoulder with pepperoni sauce, roasted cabbage and turnips. The judges love it, especially the pepperoni sauce. Mike’s fourth course is a rosemary-caramel custard with pine nuts, celery, citrus and apple. The judges are not really loving it.
Richard’s dessert is foie gras ice cream with cornbread and whipped mango. Spike eavesdrops and says, “it’s controversial,” so Richard contemplates adjusting the dish for the next round of judge tasting when they swap restaurants. He smoothes out the ice cream and changes the texture a bit.
As the judges wrap up their tasting and prepare to swap restaurants, Tom dings Mike for his pacing. I have to wonder why the show’s editors highlighted that bit. Probably because the food was so stellar across the board that they needed to publicly show some kind of negative aspect to their experience, right?
The judging panels switch places, and we see a shortened version of service and tasting. Everyone seems to love everything they’re eating, and while the show is not exciting, not tense, and not full of forced drama, it’s also, refreshingly, about the food. FINALLY.
Judges’ Table for the finale includes Padma, Tom, Gail and Hubert Keller. Tom tells Mike and Richard it’s the best food of any finale. Which he says every stinkin’ season, even the crap ones. But, seeing what we saw on those plates, I tend to want to believe that this season’s finale did have some of the better dishes across all seasons.
Gail praises Mike’s subtlety and finesse in his dishes. Tom loved the steamed halibut. Gail loved the pepperoni sauce on the pork shoulder. Mike is so nervous, he’s rocking back and forth, nearly toppling out of camera range at one point, and it’s making me seasick to watch him.
Gail says Richard’s dishes knocked them over with flavor, course after course. Hubert thought the oyster was perfect. Padma thought the black cod was flawless.
Mike and RIchard both talk about how much it would mean to them and to their families if they were to win. Mike wants to win it for his wife. Richard says that chefs too often have to make business decisions for financial reasons, and having this money would allow him to do what he loves without compromising his aesthetic. They both get choked up as they sum up their final thoughts. Then, Mike’s wife, mom and sister show up for hugs and support. Richard’s uncle represents his family, since Richard’s wife, Jazmin, was too pregnant at the time to travel.
The judges send them all away so they can deliberate. They loved all the food, and had to work really hard to find any negatives in either meal. They praise both chefs and their restaurants, but decide that when they go dish by dish and preference by preference, one chef’s entire experience shone a little brighter than the other.
Mike and Richard are called back out to Judges’ Table where they’re applauded by their families, and the former cheftestants.
And the winner of Top Chef All-Stars is ... Richard Blais. YEAH! He cries as he’s hugged by everyone, and cries throughout most of his final interview, and I gotta say this is the one time I won’t bust on someone for crying on a reality TV show because HELLLOOOOOO, $200,000!
Congratulations to Mike Isabella, Carla Hall and Spike Mendelsohn for repping DC in this finale better than the entire season of Top Chef did when it was held here. And, heartfelt congratulations to Richard Blais for showing us all how it’s done.
And, a special shout-out to Carla Hall for winning Fan Favorite, and $10,000 smackeroos.
Next week is the reunion show, but that’s all for me, folks. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing about “Top Chef” this season, and have loved hearing from so many of you about the show. Happy cooking, happy eating, and see you soon!