Our months-long journey ends in a culinary Thunkerdome: Top Chef’s finale is taking place in front of a live audience Ã la Iron Chef, the famous Japanese cooking show in which restaurant owners run around in a panic trying to make dinner out of ingredients like goose knees and factory-farmed corduroy.
Padma wastes no time in bringing us up to speed: It turns out Kristen and Brooke have already started cooking with their teams of former Top Chef contestants. Brooke has Stefan, CJ, and Kuniko on her side. Kristen uses Lizzie, Sheldon, and Josh; “Good people; no egos,” is her assessment. I think Kristen should’ve picked Josie, just to walk along the razor’s edge, but I guess with $125,000 on the line the razor’s edge is not where you want to be.
Our two finalists will each prepare five dishes. The first person to win three dishes will be anointed Top Chef and receive a magical golden fork that turns any vegetable into honey-crusted diamonds. Either that, or a bunch of Healthy Choice Nutrient-Parcels.
There’s a nice shot of Green Mountain Coffee cups sitting on a shelf. They look expectant, full of promise. Alas, their quiet dignity is overwhelmed by the boisterous scale of this finale. There’s a live audience of 300 people, including previous Top Chef winners. (I wonder if Top Chef winners are contractually obligated to appear at future Top Chef events, like reluctant superheroes?)
I have to say: This spectacle seems a bit much. The cheering audience, the frenetic camera work, the chanting countdowns ... what happened to good ol’ fashioned cooking in shamed silence?
Anyway, CJ burns the pig ears while Tom and Emeril wince from the rafters. (Did I mention that Brooke is making her famous pig-ear salad? Maybe you couldn’t hear me over the sound of my own screams.)
Here’s what they cooked for their first dish:
Kristen: Chicken-liver moose with frisee, mustard, prune, hazelnuts, and pumpknuckle. Emeril rubs his fingers very quickly while reminding Kristen that she’s served chicken-liver moose before. Whoa — the judges are giving immediate feedback, dish by dish. It reminds me of sports, in which a coach will tell his or her players how they’re doing during time-outs. This is a high-stakes game!
Brooke: Crispy pig ear and chicory salad, six-minute egg, apricot jam, and candied cornquats. Emeril complains that his “cracklin’s” (I assume he’s referring to the pig ear?) were overcooked. I don’t understand what makes a six-minute egg different from any other kind of egg. Was it only in the chicken’s butthole for six minutes? I will consult my Encyclopedia of Poultry Buttholes to determine the answer.
Padma’s like, “Kristen, you currently have two votes for best first dish — if you win one more round then you’re doing well, so Brooke, that means if Kristen gets another vote for best dish, then you need three more votes for the next two dishes.” My hosts are cacophonous in their disdain for this baroque gamesmanship.
Round 1 goes to: Kristen! Padma turns to Brooke: “Brooke, you need to catch up.” Padma’s dropping some pretty heavy strategic wisdom.
The next dish must feature scallops, the doorstops of the sea. (Sheldon seems to be messing around with some huge clams.) Kuniko, meanwhile, is washing scallops for Brooke — and she’s washing them really well, because scallops can taste like fish if you don’t wash them carefully. (I feel like Kuniko was the season’s hidden weapon, and she will become more powerful than her former opponents can possibly imagine, like when Obi Won Kanobi was stabbed in the gut by Darth Vader in a famous movie called Star Wars.)
Because there’s not much to do while Kristen and Brooke cook their scallops, Gail wanders over to Brooke’s family’s table and asks them a bunch of questions: “When did you know Brooke was going to be a chef?” “What’s your darkest fantasy?” etc. Brooke’s family seems nice. It’s a sign of their devotion that they’re willing to sit in this arena for three hours and watch her cook from afar. (Although her son, to his eternal credit, has gone the fuck to sleep.)
Kristen thinks Brooke is making her scallop dish too busy, but her (Kristen’s) scallops look raw, so I’m rooting for Brooke because I think raw seafood is bad for you.
Brooke: Seared scallop with salt cod puree, speck, black currant, and mustard-seed vinaigrette. It looks delicious! There’s also juniper and romanesco in the dish, which she almost forgot to mention. Tom announces: “I really enjoyed the combination.” Apparently, there’s no fighting among the flavors, which is good. Gail asks Brooke if she was worried about how early she was cooking the scallops? I have no idea what she’s talking about. Who cares when food is cooked, as long as it’s warm when you eat it? If it’s still warm when it enters your mouth, it was cooked at the right time. Or maybe the flavors get jumbled if it sits at room temperature for too long? Man, food can be exhausting. Emeril says something interesting: “I’m a big salt cod lover.” Then Brooke ups the ante by admitting salt cod is her “favorite flavor in the world.” I’ve never heard of salt cod but I will definitely try it, as long as it doesn’t taste like fish jerky.
Kristen: Citrus and lavender cured scallop with bitter orange, meyer lemon, and apple. This dish is a loser: Who would mix fruit and seafood? Also, it looks pale and cold, like an Arctic researcher’s belly. But Tom thinks it’s delicious. Padma: “There was nowhere to hide on this dish and you did the scallops proud.”
Gail votes for Brooke’s dish; Emeril votes for Brooke; Tom votes for Kristen; Padma votes for Kristen; and then Hugh waits for like twenty minutes before choosing Brooke. I can’t believe our two chefs are tied! Now we’ve got a real nail-biter on her hands. They head back to the kitchen (i.e., the center of the arena) to prepare their third dish, which one of them will win to take the lead among the judges’ voting, if Padma is to be believed.
Brooke is making fried chicken, to redeem her fried chicken disaster from earlier this season. Kristen is making marrow, which is the meat inside a bone. Think of a Twinkie filling. (Personal note: The last time I ate marrow, I threw up in somebody’s bathroom.)
In a cutaway, Kristen says if she wins the money, she will visit Korea, where she came from before she was adopted. (She grew up in Michigan.) Gail visits with Kristen’s family at their table and asks them about Kristen. Sure enough, Kristen is their daughter and they are proud of her. They seem like good people. (Little do they know that I have already predicted that Kristen will win Top Chef!)
Brooke: Vaudevillian fried chicken with sumac yogurt-tahini and pickled kuhlrobby fattoush. Padma licks her fingers after eating the chicken. (Brooke forgot to provide the judges with wet-naps.) Hugh: “I was not expecting chicken wings!” Emeril says the wings are delicious with a kind of grandfatherly ecstasy. (I’m glad I got to recap this show because I saw a different side of Emeril. He’s not just a boob who yells “Pow!” while throwing onions around the room; I think he knows a lot about food, and he certainly seems to enjoy it more than the other judges, who always seem a little intellectual in their feedback.)
SIDEBAR: There’s a shot of a bottle of wine being poured up in the stands and my host (wine store owner, regular Top Chef viewer) says: “They’re finally pouring a decent bottle of wine!” He’s impressed. The wine is called “Sanford Chardonnay,” which is a kind of white wine. Then my host does some Internet research and exclaims that Sanford has been bought by the big wine company that usually supplies wine on Top Chef, so it all comes back to a massive wine conspiracy, just like I suspected.
Kristen: Celery root puree with bone marrow, mushrooms, bitter greens, and radishes. This dish looks a lot like her scallop: pasty, wet, and cold. As far as visual appeal, I’d say Brooke is cleaning Kristen’s clock with her plates. Emeril, however, praises the dish’s earthy tones. Padma: “I just wish it was hot. It wasn’t.” Uh-oh, will Kristen lose this round because of her cold dish?
Answer: No. Emeril chooses Kristen; Tom chooses Kristen (her offering had “more developed flavor”); Padma gives it to Kristen. Kristen wins the third round! If Brooke loses the next dish, she loses everything. She bemoans her “crucial mistake” of making fried chicken. Sometimes you just need to let bygones be bygones, or should I say “fry-gones” — and yes, that is the best joke I have ever made.
(My notes: When are they gonna start cooking with Canada Dry ginger ale?)
Kristen and Brooke are both sweating while cooking their red snappler, a kind of fish. Brooke is pairing it with a “pork cheek.” Between that and her pig-ear salad, I think Brooke would be a good person to know if you’re stranded on a desert island where the only thing to eat is a bag of pigs’ heads. Me, I would look at a bag of pigs’ heads and say, “Nothing to eat here,” but Brooke would be like, “I can make 30 entrees out of this one head, you idiot,” and I’d say, “Well, excuse me for not knowing how to make a meal out of a dumb pig’s head,” and she’d be like, “What’s wrong with knowing how to cook a pig’s cheek?” and I’d be like, “Actually, I think it’s cool that you know all that stuff about food — in fact, I watched you on Top Chef,” and she’d say, “I figured as much because don’t you remember how we were both on the Top Chef Cruise, which sunk, which is why we’re on this desert island in the first place?”
A lady starts flirting with Stefan from the stands, momentarily distracting him from his work on behalf of Brooke. I hope Kristen paid this Mata Hari to compromise Stefan’s focus.
Brooke: Braised pork cheek and red snappler with collard green slaw and sorrel puree. This is a fancy version of “Surf in Turf.” If I recall correctly, Brooke’s collard greens are the closest we came to seeing kale all season, which is a shame. (I’ve literally eaten kale every day this week. I’m telling you: Bagged, pre-cut kale is a game-changer.) And no sooner have I realized this then Hugh smirks: “If collards are the new kale, I’m all for it!” Hugh, you are officially un-invited to be an investor in my Kale City restaurant franchise. You can kiss $10 million good-bye. Gail says, “I love the play between the pork cheek and the snappler.” At first I thought she was talking about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but she’s talking about the balance of flavors in Brooke’s dish.
Kristen: Red snappler with leeks, little gem lettuce, tarragon, uni, and shellfish nosh. Again with the beige watery stuff! Brooke’s dishes all look cooked and Kristen’s all look raw. Gail complains about the stringy leek, but Hugh says he doesn’t mind because he’s good with a knife, and there’s a quick shot of Gail looking like she wouldn’t mind taking a knife to Hugh, but it’s all in good fun because food brings us together.
Padma does a nice long build-up about “Who will win round four?” but there are only 30 seconds left in the show so obviously Kristen won because there’s not enough time for a fifth round.
Sure enough, Gail votes for Kristen; Emeril looks indigestion-wracked for a moment and then picks Kristen; and finally Tom picks Kristen. So Kristen wins! She’s our new Top Chef! She’s the best chef in all the nation. My prediction is she will become very famous and powerful.
Brooke weeps with frustration. But she’ll probably have a few good years of cooking. After all, she won more challenges than anyone else and she already owns a restaurant.
And then everybody hugs and the show ends! And then a screaming man announces that Brooke and Kristen will appear LIVE on his show RIGHT NOW, and so my hosts and I watch for a minute. Brooke and Kristen both wear a lot of eye makeup. I ask my hosts if I can borrow a bottle of wine and they agree, and then I go home and spend five hours making mash-ups and then I write this recap and now it’s almost 7 a.m. and I should go to bed.
Good-bye, everybody! I thought Top Chef was a cool show and I really hope you enjoyed these recaps.