This episode was called “Comida Final.” It’s Brooke versus Shirley, no mas.
* I could be reading way too much into facial expressions and body language, but I don’t think these two like each other. Either they’re really just sick of being so close to each other all the time, or they are just not mutual fans. It happens.
* They’re facing the classic Top Chef finale challenge: Prepare a progressive four-course meal. They pick their sous-chefs from the season’s contestants to date, with Shirley choosing Casey (because she thinks Brooke will take her), Brooke taking Sheldon (who would have been my first pick), Shirley taking Katsuji (who deadpans “because I’m Mexican?”), and Brooke taking Sam. I think Brooke won that draft.
* The third sous-chefs turn out to be the two contestants’ chefs de cuisine, which is kind of cool for those guys – they tend to be a little anonymous below their famous bosses.
* Shirley is clearly crafting a story across her four dishes, basing it on food memories with her family. Brooke’s seems less focused on a narrative, but says her theme is “definitely local ingredients.” I don’t think the story matters unless the judges can’t decide who won. Has anyone in a Top Chef finale lost after clearly outcooking his or her opponent?
* They’re shopping at some sort of open-air market – more like a grocery store than last week’s farmers’ market – with 10,000 pesos, about US$500.
* Brooke says “There’s a lot of Shirley yelling … and there has been for months now.” Yeah, I don’t think they like each other. Oh well.
* So it sounds like Brooke forgot to order pork belly. Then it gets really weird: She asks to use Shirley’s, which is awkward enough, but then it turns out Shirley ordered it for a ‘backup’ dish in case she doesn’t like the suckling pigs (piglets) she bought. Doesn’t Shirley have every right to say no? Granted, Brooke has short ribs as her backup plan, but ultimately ordering the correct items is the chef’s responsibility.
* They’re having a pre-finale dinner at Dreams Resort in Tulum. I really want to take a very long vacation down there. They’re surprised by their families at the dinner table – Shirley’s husband, Brooke’s husband and son Hudson (who, by the way, has gotten so much bigger since her last season on the show). I can’t imagine being away from my daughter for the amount of time this show requires – and she’s done this twice!
* I’m always surprised when I see how much ink Brooke has. Not that I think anything of it, but for whatever reason it doesn’t line up for me.
* When they walked in the kitchen, I was reminded again how much stronger I think Team Brooke is.
* Shirley, to her great credit, ends up giving the pork belly to Brooke. Meanwhile, Katsuji is butchering the piglets – and he’s a kosher chef, so he probably never cooks with pork at his restaurant.
* You don’t see whole red snapper very often as a consumer, but those fish Shirley has look amazing – and particularly fresh.
* Shirley’s making broth for her ramen, and I think she’s trying to make a pork broth, which is a long process, probably not something you can simulate in a couple of hours.
* Brooke asks Sheldon how he cooked his octopus “the other day,” in case you were wondering how compressed the filming schedule was. She’s got Sam making three garlic items to go with it – a garlic oil in which they’ll sear the octopus, garlic chips, and a garlic puree.
* Shirley’s also making noodles by hand for the ramen, and is using an old-fashioned hand-crank that won’t stay clamped to the countertop. This is the main reason I own the overpriced KitchenAid pasta-roller attachment. It works.
* Brooke is making chamomile flan, which turns out to be a problem because of some oven issue, but I just want to say that chamomile is gross. It’s related to ragweed (to which I’m very allergic) and tastes like some sort of grass. I like tea-flavored desserts, but, you know, how about Earl Grey?
* Anyway, the flan takes a lot longer to cook than anticipated (she says “it’s like the oven just took a shit”), so there’s a good chance it’s going to end up eggy and a little dense, rather than the silky texture of good flan.
* Shirlye’s mom and sister are there along with her husband. Her sister is adorable. Brooke’s folks are there; her dad has some strong mustache game going.
* First course: Shirley does snapper crudo with chili soy vinegar and crispy shallot. She calls it “Let me take you to Lijiang.” Brooke does a raw, warm oyster with grilled swiss chard and bacon. Daniel Boulud praises the presence of bacon flavor without fat, while Jonathan Waxman loves the amount of liquid in the shell.
* Jonathan Sawyer, who has the most metal hair we’ve ever seen on Top Chef, thinks Shirley’s dish was beautiful, but the elements weren’t balanced – Tom points out that you can’t get all three elements in one bite. Tesar is there too, and says Shirley’s dish was nice but calls Brooke’s “soigné.” I know that’s a compliment, but that word was tired the moment it moved out of the fashion world.
* Second course: Shirley serves top ramen with egg, kimchi, purslane, rendered pork fat. I’m not bothering with her goofy dish names. Brooke serves charred octopus with orange annatto broth, radishes, garlic puree, garlic chips. The octopus is an enormous hit; Padma calls it “finale food,” and Sawyer says he’d put it on any menu, anywhere, and would recommend it to anyone. Boulud praises the two presentations of garlic, and how it still doesn’t dominate the dish. I’m having a hard time imagining that much garlic in a dish without that becoming the predominant note.
* Joachaim Splichal says Shirley’s broth was very flat, and Tom thinks the rise of ramen in the last decade makes it look worse in comparison. Sawyer also doesn’t care for the noodles.
* Third course: Shirley made braised piglet shanks with wild rice, lentils, blanched spinach, and habanero onions. Brooke made braised pork belly and beans with charred onion and purslane, with a reduction of the bean braising liquid over the top. It’s all rich, comfort food. Tom loves the wild rice; Joachim says, “being German, I haven’t had pork like this since I left Germany.” Graham Elliott likes the choice of cut too.
* Brooke’s dish is just as much of a hit. Boulud “cleaned ny plate.” Sawyer praises the proteins and the sauce; Martha Ortiz there thinks the beans were the star and reminded her of Mexican cuisine. That’s high praise.
* If you can read Spanish, Ortiz’s biography on her official site is something to behold. It makes her sound more like she founded a country than two restaurants.
* Fourth course: Brooke’s dessert is an chamomile and aged rum flan with candied cashews. Shirley’s dessert is rice pudding with tropical fruit (I see dragonfruit, mango, and passion fruit), lemon-lime snow, and some sort of brittle. Joachim says it’s one of the best desserts he’s ever had.
* Brooke’s mom won her neighborhood’s second annual flan cookoff, earning her an ovation from the diners. That was cute.
* You can tell right away that the texture of the flan is off from the diners’ reactions, and everyone says the chamomile and rum flavors aren’t there. (You’d have to infuse the chamomile leaves in the dairy for a while.) Meanwhile, they’re all inhaling the rice pudding.
* We see Shirley’s mom asking her daughter how to say “I’m proud of you in English,” shortly before Shirley and Brooke return to the room. Shirley goes to see her mom and asks “haochi ma?” meaning “how did it taste?” (literally, “delicious?” as a question), to which her mom says “very delicious,” and then says in English, “Beautiful Shirley, I am happy Shirley, I am proud.” It got a little dusty in my living room at that point.
* Judges’ table: Tom calls out Shirley for the lack of enough chili or mint to go with each bite of the fish in her snapper crudo. Gail thinks it was smart to “set the stage” with the light first course. Graham claims Brooke’s first dish was “too much right out of the gate,” but Tom doesn’t find it too acidic and likes the “smack in the face” to start off. Shirley says for her ramen she was trying to mimic the big flavors of the taste of the packet you’d get in instant ramen, but the judges all seem to agree the broth came up short. Brooke credits Sam for the garlic chips, and overall her octopus dish gets perfect marks (that we see). Tom is still raving about the wild rice in Shirley’s pork shank. Graham says that the diners were debating whether Brooke’s was a pork dish or a bean dish, but that I think is a sign of its success. Tom says “everyone here can attest that I like rum,” but neither that flavor nor that of chamomile weren’t in Brooke’s dish. Gail notes the inferior texture of the flan itself. Padma says Shirley’s dessert was her favorite dish of the night; Graham says it was creative and provocative, and Tom loved the textures and flavors.
* Tom says Brooke won the first course, and when Gail says the octopus was her favorite dish of the night, Tom seems to agree. There’s some fake drama here when they discuss the dessert, but I think this was a rout: two dishes for Brooke, one for Shirley, and one toss-up. Tom even acknowledges this when he says that if he looks head-to-head, he “can make a really clear argument for who I think should win.” Yes.
* And there’s little surprise here. Brooke is Top Chef. I had her ranked at the top after episode one, and she never budged. Shirley ending up second over Sheldon or Sylva was the big upset, but Brooke came pretty close to running the table. She’s also now the second chef to come back via Last Chance Kitchen to win, after Kristen, who beat Brooke in the latter’s first time around.
* I’ve criticized this season of Top Chef more than any other season I’ve covered here with recaps, and I think everything I said still holds, but this was a strong finale in every respect. I wanted to eat all of that food. I got ideas for dishes or twists on dishes from the last three courses. (I never prepare shellfish at home, and I’ll leave crudo to folks who source better fish than I can.) One chef cooked well, the other cooked like a champion. And the emotional moments in the finale felt genuine.
* That said, I sincerely hope we are done with the mixed veterans/rookies format, and that wherever the next season takes place, only a few challenges will focus on regional cuisine. I always want fewer gimmicks – you can fire your sudden-death quickfires into the sun, guys – and would like to never see any of these “you can only cook with one hand behind your back, and we’re pumping half the oxygen out of the kitchen” challenges again. I’m truly just here for the food, even if I never get to taste any of it. And, hey, if they want to do Top Chef: Philadelphia next season, I’m just saying the baseball offseasons give me a lot of room in my schedule.
* EDIT: Vulture interviewed the two finalists, where they at least contradict some of my speculations above.