I think there has been and will be as much discussion about the finale’s format as there will be about the result, which is somewhat unfair to the two chefs, but, in my opinion, a little unfair to the format itself. Switching to cooking live in front of an audience and serving the judges one course at a time for what appeared to be on-the-spot decisions was somewhat reminiscent of Iron Chef, although that show’s “live” judging element was merely a trick of the cameras anyway. This Top Chef format was far more transparent than previous finales (and than Iron Chef) because viewers could see the judges’ decisions on each plate and heard detailed opinions from a majority of the judges on each. It also insulated the judges from outside interference, accusations of which have appeared in the past, prompting vociferous denials from Tom. The end result of the format change was a greater emphasis on the food, which is what we want, right?
The main criticism I heard from you on Twitter was that the new format reduced suspense or drama because at the 52-minute mark, when the show went to commercial, it was obvious who had won because there wasn’t time for the opposite result. Given how much criticism the show took this year for the elimination of Kristen, which was painted (rightly or wrongly) as a move to raise interest in the show and in Last Chance Kitchen at the expense of choosing the best chef, I’ll gladly take a reduction in drama in exchange for feeling like the best chef won – and understanding why she did so.
On a related note, does Stephanie Izard go into therapy now? Her entire identity has been cut in half!
* It is so odd that Top Chef is now a brand (or sub-brand) of frozen food. Is that not kind of antithetical to the idea of the show? Chefs get sent home for using frozen or previously-cooked ingredients.
* On to the show – Brooke and Kristen come out from back stage and seem overwhelmed by the space and the size of the crowd. One advantage neither mentioned: They have tons of space to move and for the heat to dissipate. Each has chosen two teams of three sous chefs from eliminated chefs. Brooke goes for skills, choosing Stefan, CJ, and Kuniko (great choice). Kristen says she just wants “good people, no egos” and takes Sheldon, Josh, and Lizzie. Sheldon and Lizzie might have been the two least egotistical chefs of the season, and all three of hers made it very far in the competition. Editing can be misleading on something like this, but I thought Kristen’s team was humming the whole night – we saw no discord, almost to the point where they were quiet, like they’d worked together for ages. Brooke’s team wasn’t loud, but we saw more of them, which is usually not a good sign.
* The format is a five-course meal, judged one course at a time, so the first chef to win three courses wins the title. I’m surprised no one is agitating for a best-of-seven format. Meanwhile, chefs from smaller markets are arguing for a one-course play-in meal.
* The only restrictions beyond time are that the chefs must use scallops in the second round and red snapper in the fourth round.
* Brooke says she’s “going for bigger, bolder flavors.” Kristen is going for “simple and clean, nicely executed, and pretty.” I don’t know that either of these is a clearly superior game plan, but Kristen does “simple and clean” like Greg Maddux “threw strikes.”
* So three hundred people are there to watch three hours of cooking? That’s longer than any of this year’s Best Picture nominees. I hope the conversation was good.
* Gail points out to Stephanie Izard that there will finally be another female Top Chef. Seth Macfarlane is still waiting for the nude scene.
* Brooke’s pig ear salad sounds amazing, and she has it on her menu at the Tripel. I need a report, people.
* Kristen says that at Stir Boston she’s typically cooking for just ten people. I can see why cooking for such scale would be intimidating – look at how many plates they had to do for each course.
* I love how the sous chefs are all so clearly into it even though it’s not their fight. Some of that is professionalism, much of it is probably love of food, and I’m sure a small part is that everyone likes the two finalists. Is there a tradition where the winner buys her sous chefs something, like a quarterback taking the offensive line out to dinner?
* The food! Course one: Kristen does a chicken liver mousse with frisée, mustard, prunes, hazelnuts, and pumpernickel. Emeril loves the mousse and chicory, calling it “very classic.” Tom says mousse was well seasoned. Gail loved the mousse, velvety airy texture, but also admits (in so many words) to being a bit of a chicken-live mousse harlot.
* Brooke serves that crispy pig ear and chicory salad with a six minute egg, apricot jam, candied kumquats. That sounds amazing, probably better in the description than Kristen’s, but it sounds like CJ overcooked enough of the pig ear strips to knock it down a peg. Hugh says the salad dressing was really balanced and that Brooke has a real knack for that.
* The vote: Kristen gets votes from Hugh, Gail, and Emeril and wins the round. I don’t know if that meant she got all three, or if we just saw the three who voted for her.
* Brooke’s scallops are huge so she cuts some in half and begins searing them, which seems to me like a big risk of overcooking them. For years I was just so-so on scallops, but I’ve had several great scallop dishes recently – one at the Catbird Seat in Nashville and one at Citizen Public House here in Scottsdale – and I’m finally coming around.
* Stefan’s harassment of Kristen always kind of annoyed me, even though she seemed cool with it, but his trash-talking here, when he tells Kristen he chose light blue “for the baby’s bedroom,” did make me laugh, mostly because of how he baited her.
* Am I the only one who tends to forget that Kevin Sbraga was a Top Chef? Granted, that whole season had probably the least talented crop, but he did win it.
* Brooke talks more about her phobias, which I’m glad to see, obviously. Exposure therapy is huge.
* Michael Voltaggio with the quote of the night: “I’m jealous, dude. I wanna be down there.” The fact that someone who has already won this title and had real-world success as a result could see that pressure-cooker environment and want to grab a jacket and throw down speaks volumes about his makeup, both positive and negative.
* Round two: Brooke serves her seared scallops over a salt cod-potato puree, crispy speck, a black currant and mustard seed vinaigrette, ground juniper, and deep-fried romanesco (a brassica closely related to broccoli). Tom likes the combination of flavors, works really nicely, his scallop perfectly cooked. Brooks says salt cod is her favorite flavor, which would have made a lot of sense if Top Chef were held in 1896.
* Kristen does a sort of crudo preparation, a quick-cured scallop in citrus and lavender, served with with bitter orange, Meyer lemon, and apple. It looks gorgeous, although I’ve never had a cured scallop of any sort. General praise here too, with Padma saying the dish left Kristen nowhere to hide but that she did the scallops proud. If they hadn’t been cruelly ripped from their shells, that is.
* Voting: Brooke gets votes from Gail and Emeril. Kristen gets votes from Tom and Padma. Hugh is the tiebreaker and goes … Brooke. So far, this is pretty TV-friendly, and we’re down to a best of three.
* The chefs have 34 minutes until they need to serve the next plate, which is the first time (I think) the clock has been explained to us. I was kind of confused from the start of this episode – that was probably my main complaint.
* Kristen says she’s going to taking a trip to Korea with some of her winnings to see where she came from – she mentioned in a previous episode that she was abandoned as a baby and was adopted by a couple in Michigan. In an era where international adoptions have become terribly expensive and endlessly controversial, it’s good to have a positive example offered as a counterpoint to the horror stories in the media.
* I can’t believe Brooke made chicken wings. They’re too damn hard to eat, with so little meat relative to the skin and bone. I buy whole chickens a lot but I save the wings for stock. They’re just not worth effort.
* Round three: Brooke serves vadouvan-spiced fried chicken wings with a sumac-yogurt tahini and pickled kohlrabi fattoush. Past winners are saying it’s “ballsy” to serve something so plebeian in a Top Chef finale, although the way she served it was ambitious. She tells Hugh she wanted to redeem herself from the fried chicken challenge, but was this the way? With wings? Emeril loves it but Tom is a little iffy on the side salad.
* Kristen serves a celery root puree with crispy bone marrow, bitter greens, stewed mushrooms, and barely cooked radishes. Emeril keeps raving about the “earthy tones.” Padma’s wasn’t hot enough. Gail liked it. Tom seems unsure of stewing the mushrooms rather than roasting them for caramelization, as she did earlier this season when she won an elimination challenge for making mushrooms and fried onions as side items.
* Kristen gets votes from Emeril, Tom, and Padma, so she’s one away from the win. Padma voting for Kristen despite the temperature issue was a little bit of a surprise.
* Kristen says she practiced her red snapper dish before she got here and was most confident in this course.
* The producers covered the King Arthur name on the bag of flour with duct tape, but really, if you bake at all, you know that logo and color scheme. I would be surprised if they’d used any other brand.
* Michael Voltaggio again with the great quote, saying Top Chef has “made eating out cool.” Even if that’s kind of an exaggeration, I do think the show’s effect on popular culture, especially our culture of eating, is a huge positive, economically and gustatorially.
* Stefan is distracted by a female fan asking about the location of his restaurant. I assume she’s a plant from Kristen. It would have been even better if Tammy 2 was available.
* Round four: Brooke serves a braised pork cheek and seared snapper with a collard green slaw, pomegranate seeds, and sorrel puree. Hugh’s snapper perfectly cooked, and loves collards as an alternative to kale. Everyone praises the sorrel but no one seems to know how to pronounce it.
* Kristen does a seared snapper with leeks, little gem lettuce, tarragon, uni, and shellfish nage. So Gail says she found the leeks a little harder to eat because they were slightly stringy, and Hugh absolutely smokes her with five words: “I’m good with a knife.” I wonder if Gail knows who the Marlins’ shortstop is.
* Brooke offers what I thought was a pretty gracious comment: “I want to prove I wasn’t winning because Kristen wasn’t around.” You know, everyone who watched was probably wondering about that – at least, would some of the challenges have been closer? – but Brooke didn’t have to acknowledge Kristen in that way.
* Kristen gets Gail, Emeril (who was obviously torn by the knowledge he was about to help eliminate Brooke), and Tom, making her the tenth Top Chef winner, the second female winner, and the first of Korean descent. I wonder if this would be news in Korea, where, according to some prior contestants on this show, cooking isn’t seen as a highly respected profession yet.
* Brooke is disappointed, and it has to suck to spend so much time away from your family only to come up just inches short. She might be the best positioned runner-up to benefit professionally and financially from her time on the show, since she had several weeks as the clear leader while Kristen was in the relegation bracket. Speaking of which, Kristen thanking Tom “for having this whole Last Chance Kitchen thing” belongs on the highlight reel.
* I only watched a little of the follow-up show, but Sheldon won the fan favorite voting and earned a $10k prize. He was apparently talking to Andy Cohen from Maui via a tin can, but I’m pretty sure he said was going to use the money to “pimp up his 2014 Avalon.” At least he’s honest, man.