The tone and energy level of the finale was, for us, really encapsulated early on in the episode: when Padma announced that first pick of sous chef and proteins would go to the cheftestant with the most Elimination challenge wins, we figured, given that Richard and Steph were tied at four, there’d be a final, brutal, clarifying Quickfire. Instead, Stephanie drew a knife with the number “1” on it, and even she seemed surprised that that was all it took to get the go.
And, star-struck, she was all over Eric Ripert like…orange on Ripert (hey, that’s not very nice!), but Eric seemed more interested in Richard’s liquid-nitrogenated hot chili balls than anything else. All the attention gave Richard a freeze-on, and unfortunately, it was the highlight of day for him.
Meanwhile, Lisa adopted a catty zen as she chatted up poor April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig (which we’ve been to and recommend), annoying the world with sympathetic details of her child labor line cooking. At first we thought, when she was saying things like “you know what, I’m about to beat you, so…”, Lisa was having a Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf moment, but honest to blog, we got scared right before the last commercial that she might get the win.
Because each of the judges was careful to articulate that based on this dinner, with much regret belied in their intonation and facial expressions, a winner was clear. And since we laminated the public’s collective hatred of Lisa (although she did go up from 3% to 4% of the audience pick during the final ten minutes of the finale) onto the judges, we could only assume they meant the worst.
Honestly, given the judges’ reactions to the various courses, it was plausible. Poor Richard, who deployed his puppy face to much success this episode, failed to execute his dishes to the satisfaction of the judges, and moreso, to his own. His admittance of such during the final cross-examination didn’t hurt him as much as it’s hurt other reality contestants over the years, but that’s because he was already at the bottom. It wasn’t just one flimsy piece of flabby pork belly skin that stood between him and victory, but, close enough (also, it might have been his gender).
Lisa and Steph traded top honors on most of the courses. Dare we say it’s easier to please the American palate with decent South East Asian food than it is with great New American? Yes we will say it! Because high-end Thai and Vietnamese is still relatively novel enough to garner wows simply for being, while New American has been the focus of many (most?) serious chefs for decades now.
Which means that when Lisa’s flavors are too “big bold spicy sweet salty sour” (the adjectives she used to describe her personality), there’s less context to judge them against and she gets a pass. And on top of that, girl knows how to make tom kha soup.
Still, none of the twelve dishes garnered praise quite like Stephanie’s medallions of lamb with maitake mushrooms, pistachios and olives. Ted Allen almost shat himself over the creativity of the combinations, and it’s what put her over the edge. Tom pointed out, during judging, that she almost always cooks delicious food, but what really makes her a Top Chef is the ability to pull out a revolutionary, never-before-seen surprise like the pistachios. Except, well, it’s not exactly sui generis. But nevertheless!
Stephanie won because the quality and consistency of her cooking was more and better than any of her competitors. She may not have the attitude of Lisa (which didn’t bother the judges much at all, by the way) and the so-called “artistry” of Richard (we don’t mind calling it that, actually), but the key to being a great commercial chef (and Bravo reality has a penchant for the commercial, obviously) is the ability to churn out top-notch, accessible product with reliability. Being incredibly nice is merely a bonus.
Meanwhile, we’re secretly excited for Top Haircut in two weeks.
[Photo: and that’s why she’s Top Chef, via Bravo]
p.s. we’ve seen Stephanie’s last name, Izard, spelled a bajillion different ways, i.e., with two z’s instead of one. The consensus on Google is Izzard (133k to 45k), but that’s W-R-O-N-G. Disagree? Take it up with Bravo.