This week’s episode, while not exactly being the most exciting finale (season three probably has them beat there), was still a blast to watch. I’m sure the end results certainly didn’t hurt with how I viewed the episode, but overall, this season showed some real skill in the kitchen, and while it was obvious from the beginning who the most talented were, the challenges were still inventive and impressed me throughout. Wednesday night started out with Steph discussing how much she wanted a female winner for the season, and was definitely pushing into overkill territory. The Bravo editors aren’t as seasoned as, say, people who work on Survivor, and they aren’t as nuanced in their story arcs or personality development. However, most reality editors know that there are some times where you can bring up an idea so much that it bridges the line between inevitability and simply setting everyone up for a fall. This is what I like to call overkill – Steph had discussed a female winner for so long that everyone either thought she was going to win or worried she wouldn’t since the editors had made it so ridiculously obvious the entire season. Note to Bravo editors – learn the art of subtlety.
Blais goes on to discuss how Lisa has a horribly negative attitude and can’t lead anyone for shit. I’m glad someone is tactless enough to talk shit about Lisa, because I feel like Steph and Antonia were just too nice to call her out on her bullshit immaturity and whining. In other news, this was the episode where I realized I had been spelling “Blais” wrong for the past three months. Lisa talks about how she’s fully aware that Steph and Blais dominated the challenges this season and she had only won one Elimination Challenge. And yet, and this is admirable, she still was certain she had a legitimate shot at winning the thing.
The Top Three walk up to the final challenge where Padma and Colicchio wait for them. Three excessively prominent chefs stand to the side of the host and head judge – April Bloomfield of Spotted Pig, Dan Barber of Blue Hill, and Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin. The final challenge is simple – create a four course meal of your choosing and follow the classic progression – fish, poultry, red meat, and dessert. The fact that they emphasize that dessert is required and Steph freaks out about it is my first clue that she won’t be sliding through this final test easily. Each sous chef is accompanied by a plethora of proteins, and the chef with the most Elimination Challenges is supposed to pick first. However, Blais tied Steph last week and they stand at four victories apiece, so the knife block is brought out with two knives. Blais, being the Southern Gentleman that he is, lets Steph go first, and she picks the knife with the number one on it. She picks Ripert, Blais chooses Dan Barber, and Lisa is stuck with April. Lisa tries to play it off as if she wanted April and shills out some empty girl power praise, and Spice Girls fans the world over squirm with discomfort.
Dinner will be black tie for 9 diners – I instantly start to work this puzzle. You obviously have Tom, Padma, Gail, and Ted. I figured that this season would follow on last season and use the sous chefs from that challenge, so Eric, April, and Dan are fair game. But the last two were a mystery to me – surely not Antonia and Spike. And there have been three past winners, whom they already used in a past challenge, so that’s out, too. Moving along, Lisa wants to use her menu to showcase Asian flavors and her background, especially in Vietnamese and Thai food. Blais wants to show his journey, from classic techniques to molecular gastronomy. Steph is basically just trying to show her style and her flavors. In the three hours that the chefs have to prep, we see Steph try to explain how she wants Ripert to filet her fish, which is hilarious. Then we see Blais try to make Tabasco ice cream from liquid nitrogen to garnish his oysters, which sounds intriguing but most likely disgusting. Finally, we have Lisa talk about how much she loves April since they get along so well, and how she doesn’t cook as well when she’s stressed. Not only is this statement ridiculously obvious, but I feel like it’s a non sequitur in the sense that Lisa always seems like she’s stressed.
The next day begins with the chefs walking into an empty kitchen. Colicchio enters to let them know that the sous chefs have not and will not be showing up to work today and they have to finish the final four hours of cooking themselves. Steph doesn’t seem too fazed, and Blais scores points with me with the classic restaurant phrase “No show, no call, no job.” Steph talks about just staying organized and making it through the rest of the challenge. Lisa starts to discuss her food some more, and says that her food is very similar to her personality – “big, bold, spicy, sweet, salty, sour.” The last one I would definitely agree with, but sweet? Seriously? Did you forget bitter? Or maybe rotten? Putrid might work for you, too, kiddo.
Blais is using the banana scallop for the third time in this competition, and Steph is still freaking out about her dessert. I feel like she’s either gonna rock the dessert or it will be her major stumbling block. Colicchio comes in to gauge all three of them, and he says it could come down to Steph’s dessert. This is when I start getting anxious. The commercial break screams in like a banshee and the final poll is “Who should be Top Chef?” My obvious choice would be to side with Steph, but I am intrigued to see how America falls into play. When the commercial break ends, the final two of the nine guests are revealed to us – Alfredo Ayala, chef and owner of Delirio in Puerto Rico, and Tim Zagat, CEO and cofounder of the Zagat survey. Holy. Fucking. Shit.
First course is as follows –
LISA – grilled prawns with chili basil sauce and crab served with homemade potato chips.
STEPH – seared red snapper over truffled clam and asparagus broth with asparagus salad.
BLAIS – scallop with mango and pineapple vinegar.
The initial judging seems a bit muted. though the prawn is deemed to be almost overly spicy and Steph’s dish is praised as delicate by Alfredo.
Second course is as follows –
LISA – tom kha gai soup with dumpling.
STEPH – sealed quail breast over lobster ravioli with mango lobster sauce and quail egg.
BLAIS – guinea hen, chicken egg, foie gras, and spring vegetables.
Everyone at the table is in love with Lisa’s soup and discusses the universal wish for seconds. However, Steph’s quail is cooked perfectly, although Tom starts to bitch about the leeks on the plate. When Gail blindly follows, like usual, Tom is utterly baffled by her presence at the table.
Third course is as follows –
LISA – wagyu beef with chayote and cucumber salad, hot sauce, and garlic chips.
STEPH – medallions of lamb with maitake mushrooms, braised pistachios, and blackberry and olive tapénade.
BLAIS – pickled radishes, mirin broth, and pork belly.
Pickled radish has most flavor in Blais’ dish, but the technique is genius. Disagreements abound at the table on these dishes, as some praise Lisa’s sauce, while Eric reminds them that they had basically just seen it on the prawns. Gail appreciates the acidity of the salad that Lisa used. For Steph’s dish, she has successfully recreated the pistachio and the olives surprisingly work quite well in the mixture of flavors. The entire table loves Steph’s dish. Colicchio says, “Richard’s dish just needs work, Lisa’s dish is just pedestrian, Steph’s dish is full of surprises and it works.”
Fourth course is as follows –
LISA – black Thai rice pudding with lime and mango créme, taro, and coconut.
STEPH – ricotta poundcake with tropical fruit and banana créme.
BLAIS – banana scallop with bacon ice cream.
Lisa has chip issues, but overall they like the dish. Dan likes the dish that Blais made and the table agrees that they like the flavors. Steph has an okay dish, but the flavors are unrefined. The table doesn’t think it’s horrible, but it’s certainly not good.
Once everyone arrives at the Judges’ Table, the discussion of the real nit and grit starts. The scallop from Blais was too bland, and some people think the sauce from Lisa’s prawn was too spicy. Everyone loved Steph’s appetizer, and Gail noted that the fish was cooked perfectly. On the second dish, Blais said maybe he would take out the foie gras. Gail basically mentioned that the dish was overwhelming, and the integrity of each portion was lost since the flavors were so mixed up. Lisa created a phenomenal soup, and had everyone at the table coming back for more. Steph had a good course, but Tom bitches some more about the leeks, their irrelevance, and how he thinks they weren’t even cooked. Steph’s look of bemusement is heart breaking.
The third course has some real meat to the criticisms, with no pun intended. The judges want to know why Blais didn’t try to sear the meat to possibly create a crispy skin, and Blais responds that he thought it would compromise the integrity of the meat. Look, I totally respect Blais and what he’s trying to do here, but it’s not like he’s fucking campaigning a pork belly for President. If the judges think it would make the dish better, it’s worth considering. Lisa’s beef was barely seared, but Tom still criticizes her use of the Kobe, saying that she executed her cooking poorly. The dish overall was unbalanced, and the sauce she made threw them off, with some calling it too sweet. Steph’s lamb was cooked perfectly, and her braised pistachios AND blackberry/olive tapénade blew their minds. She was literally full of surprises with this dish. The fourth dish was her downfall, though. Tom didn’t like it too much, and the banana créme was unidentifiable; overall, the dish was a miss. Lisa, surprisingly, did quite well with her dish. Despite the table’s overall tepid reaction at first, the judges seemed to like her dessert more in hindsight. Padma went so far as to call it delicious. She also called out Blais on his bullshit of using the same dessert dish three times in the competition, even though she only caught this as his second. His response? A flustered “it was a different variation” excuse. Hey Blais, they’re not morons. Try not to act like a tool when they call your bullshit.
Steph finishes up by apologizing for her mistake of a dessert, Lisa still talks about how awesome she is, and Blais admits that he choked and seemingly removes himself from consideration. The judges agonize for what is clearly hours, because they don’t actually come with an answer until the morning birds are chirping. They go through some bullshit course by course decision, but it basically only shows that Blais isn’t really a contender. At this point, I’m completely terrified that Lisa could actually win this season and end my life as I know it. I write down that Steph won the poll of Who Should Be Next Top Chef with 60 percent of the vote and my notes stop there
The reason? Steph won and I was literally jumping up and down in my living room, screaming at the top of my lungs. I was so ecstatic for her, so legitimately happy for her, that I didn’t even care about taking notes. I remember Lisa being upset, and Blais crying about losing, but both doing so gracefully and admirably. I remember Dale talking to Blais, champagne being passed out, Steph doing an adorably awkward jig. But not much else. And I don’t really need to remember that much else, because my favorite and my episode one pick won the entire show. I picked the winner the first two seasons, and in the third, my pick won second place. But it never felt as good as this.
Here’s to one hell of a reunion and a great fifth season…