Top Chef Finale Recap: Ending With a Whisper

Well, that's sweet.
Well, that’s sweet. Photo: David Moir/Bravo

It’s over! The white smoke rising from Andy Cohen’s clubhouse chimney signifies that a new Top Chef has been elected! We open this season’s finale with a montage of judges’ table critiques, a frustrated Padma saying this is the tightest finale ever, and an exhausted, eleven-months-pregnant Gail saying they could debate the outcome for another sixteen hours, but that they need to make a decision. After four and a half months, eighteen judges’ tables, and more strands of beads than I can count, we have finally reached our conclusion, and it may have been decided by a coin flip.

We then flash back 48 hours to the night before the final Elimination Challenge is announced. Nick and Nina are chilling with their ever-present post-elimination glasses of pinot grigio, already stressing just a bit about what’s ahead. Nick says, “In every kitchen I’ve ever worked in, I’ve been the best chef, but in Top Chef, it wasn’t like that anymore.” Nina agrees that the show makes you step it up, and here we see the differences between our two finalists: Nina is ever the professional, certain of her skills and bluster-free. Nick will never get to a point where he doesn’t feel compelled to tell you he’s classically trained, tell you he’s taking risks, tell you he’s good at what he does. I want to eat at his restaurant, but I need for him to find some peace.

Nick and Nina’s final challenge is to make four-course meals that prove why they should be the winner. And then into the finalists’ suite stream the other Top Chef New Orleans cheftestants, six of whom will assist Nick and Nina as sous chefs; Nick’s prize for having won part one of the finale is that he gets to pick his three first. A real advantage would be to pick Nina’s three and give her Michael, pouty Sara, and that guy who iced down his dashi in episode one, but doing it this way is probably for the best. (I still can’t get over that iced-down dashi, you guys.) Nick chooses Jason (the handsome guy who got the ax in episode two), Brian, and Louis. It’s going to be a very bro-y kitchen, this one.

Nina takes Shirley, Stephanie, and Travis, and one of the women says, “Girls against guys!” HA HA GET IT BECAUSE GAY MEN ARE NOT REALLY MEN AT ALL. Travis laughs a sheepish laugh, because he hasn’t yet learned that he doesn’t have to take that shit.

The bros hash out their plans.Photo: David Moir/Bravo

Nina says she wants to win it for her father, who was a powerful figure on the enchanted isle of Saloosha. I’ll say he was; turns out Nina is the daughter of the former prime minister. They never say this on the show, by the way; I looked it up. I wonder if Nina would still have seemed like the scrappy underdog if that tidbit were revealed during the show. (Probably; for all I know, everyone on St. Lucia gets a turn as Prime Minister.)

Oh, also, there are a million unexplained, totally gratuitous shots of Padma frolicking in the Hawaiian surf in a red bikini. It’s like those few frames of scary faces they slipped into The Exorcist — they will keep us engaged even if they have to turn us on subliminally. (Speaking of turned on, my crush on Nick has survived the season, despite the editors’ best efforts. He has sad eyes, emotional issues, and the complexion of a young Lady Elaine Fairchild. I’m in love.)

Back to food: Nina is going to make what she calls “a collabo of everything I’ve learned so far in my life as a chef.” She decides to end her meal with a nice ice cream, so she stocks up on eggs and milk on the Whole Foods run, then finds out from her advance team Travis and Stephanie that her kitchen doesn’t have an ice-cream machine. Whoops. Nick is going to focus on Hawaiian flavors, and will address his lack-of-seasoning issue. He puts Louis on a hamachi/tuna crudo, Jason on the scallop noodle that is his specialty (and which is actual noodles made of actual scallops), and Brian on duck (which our show-opening flash-forward has already warned us will be undercooked).

All the sous chefs are so much lighter and more energetic now that they’re not cheftestants themselves. Stephanie doesn’t look like she’s going to projectile barf. Shirley is somehow even smilier. Travis has the relaxed affect of a guy who’s just come out to his father on national television and didn’t get disowned. In Nick’s kitchen, it’s maybe a little too relaxed; Jason flattens his scallops in between two kitchen bins by standing on top of them. “200 pounds of pressure on that bitch,” he says. “65 pounds of it is my hair and ego. Straight hood shellfish press.” Also, later, he gives us an “I know my noodles are bangin’.” The world does not need a handsome Guy Fieri, Jason. Knock it off.

Back in Nina’s kitchen, Tom and Emeril try to convince her that if the ice cream plan isn’t coming together, maybe she doesn’t need a dessert at all. And since she’s more a cheese-course kind of gal anyway, this gets her all in her head. And then her braised goat isn’t tender enough at the end of the day. But does she freak out? Not our Nina. There’s a future for her in life coaching if this culinary thing doesn’t work out.

The first day of cooking ends in a big beach dinner for the finalists, with Tom and Emeril, and special guests Nina’s husband and brother, and Nick’s wife and mother. They have to know this is coming, but they boo-hoo all over the place anyway.

Nick’s restaurant will be called Kris, after his wife, and Nina’s will be Canouan, after the island where her late father was born. Nina tastes her goat and pronounces it “chewy as fuck,” but instead of raising her voice, she just decides to add two extra courses. A couple of Nick’s servers show up late and he throws a fit. It is the beginning of much front-of-house trouble for Nick, and I think he brings it on himself; while Nina’s restaurant has a chilled-out energy, Nick is immediately imperious and condescending to his staff. For whom would you do a better job?

No matter how the servers pour this, Nick will find something to get upset about.Photo: David Moir/Bravo

So let’s get into the food. Here’s what Nina made:

Amuse-bouche: Breadfruit with whipped foie-gras butter with a little curry salt on top. She loves her breadfruit.
First course: Tuna/escolar tartare with a tomato-water & jalapeño granita. Tom tastes all the elements, Random Diner Man says “I really taste the islands.”
Second course: Roasted goat sugo with orecchiette, cherry-tomato confit and whipped goat cheese. The goat finally achieved its desired yumminess level at the very last minute.
Third course: Swordfish with squash purée, braised kale and smoked onion jus. Tom says the kale fights with the brightness of the fish. Nobody at the judges’ table seems to like it.
Intermezzo: Compressed dragon-fruit and frozen papaya with a little simple syrup. Tom calls it “Just what we needed — a little something extra.”
Dessert: Chocolate zeppole with macadamia nuts and passion-fruit creme anglaise for dipping. It is noted that this ends the meal “with a whisper and not a bang.”

Over at Kris, Nick barks that there are “sixteen diners just sittin’ there.” And he’s cooking for Masaharu Morimoto first, which has got to be daunting when you’re doing fish. “No matter what I do to this fish, it’s going to be wrong,” he says. God, my boyfriend is exhausting.

First course: Hamachi and tuna crudo with green-apple wasabi, celery and Maui-mayer lemon. Morimoto approves of the fish, but again everyone complains about underseasoning. Carlos, who’s probably been waiting for this moment for months, complains that there’s no big flavor on the plate.
Second course: Shrimp bisque, scallop-and-daikon noodles with Thai basil and shaved abalone. Morimoto approves of the abalone, but wonders why the scallop noodles are happening.
Third course: Kombu-cured seared duck breast with kabocha squash, hijiki, and ginger. Nick realized the duck was a little underdone in the kitchen so he had the boys take it from medium-rare to medium. The judges think it’s packed with flavor, but Emeril’s is tough.
Dessert: Caramelized white-chocolate panna cotta with almond-cocoa crumble and tropical fruit. Nick wants redemption on that panna cotta. It is roundly deemed delicious, but not jiggly enough.

Through it all, Nick’s servers are giving lousy service. He learns that a mysterious Table 9 hasn’t received its first course, and shouts “GOD DAMMIT” loudly enough for Gail and Tom to hear it at their table way out in the center of the restaurant. It is a great big Top Chef Don’t. But flavor-wise, Tom says Nick’s second course is the best dish he’s had all season, and that he peaked at just the right time. Nick goes in to kiss his mom after the whole thing is over and she recoils in terror, and we all have a lot more information about Nick’s whole thing now.

Pretty much everyone agrees that Nina’s amuse-bouche is a bright start to the meal, but that her swordfish/kale thing is muddled, and her dessert is weak dipping sauce. Hugh says: “Do I think this is the best dessert Nina can do in the Top Chef finale?” and then shrugs his shoulders and makes his lips disappear in the universal signal for “not really, but I’m not going to say it out loud.”

Now that’s a tableside pour.Photo: David Moir/Bravo

In the commercial break, Nick and Nina are both in the promo for Watch What Happens Live, and Nick sways uncomfortably, while Nina radiates Salooshian calm. This means nothing, but I re-watch it for signs.

And then we are at our final judges’ table! They bring in Nick and Nina and go through their meals course by course. Tom points out that Nick’s first course was underseasoned, Padma and Tom are torn on the scallop noodles, Emeril reiterates that his duck was chewy, and everyone agrees that the panna cotta was maybe a little overset, but nobody complains about the flavor.

On to Nina. Hugh says her amuse was palate-all-econompassing in that patrician way of his, everyone agrees that the orecchiette was awesome, everyone is polite about the fish/kale thing but you can tell nobody was feeling it, and Gail says of the doughnuts that it “didn’t feel like a full dessert,” but to me it felt like there wasn’t a fucking ice-cream maker in the kitchen of a restaurant so it would be a shame for Nina to lose for something like that.

And then it is our final deliberation of the season, and you know what? When you get right down to it, people arguing about food you didn’t taste is just never going to be all that interesting. The judges think it was just too close, so should it come down to where each chef concentrated their energy, in which case Nina’s forgettable extra couple of courses keep her from winning? Should it come down to the best course of the night, which was Nick’s noodles? Or should it come down to the worst dish of the night, which was Nina’s swordfish? Should it come down to who’s been consistent (Nina) or who’s grown over the season (Nick)? Oh, it’s a pickle, you guys. They argue into the wee hours, leaving Nick and Nina to chug five bottles of pinot grigio and take a nap.

The Toyota thing at the bottom of the screen tells us that Bravo viewers think Nina should win by more than a 5-1 margin. But sweet, stoned ol’ Padma isn’t here to give you what you want: Nick wins.

Your winner!.Photo: David Moir/Bravo

Please do not cry for Nina, though. The chances of her getting a spinoff are good, the odds of her having a best-selling island cookbook are basically even. And Nick still has to be Nick; you know he’s watching this finale, looking for things to be angry about.

And that’s a wrap on this season! It has been a pleasure. The Grub Street gang has been a joy to work with, and your input in the comments section reveals that you’re a smart, discerning bunch. Thanks for reading, chers. Now pack your knives and go.

Top Chef Finale Recap: Ending With a Whisper