Thursday, June 12, 2008

Top Chef: Season 4 Finale

They Cook. They Eat. One Wins.

It’s the last show and a long road to get to where we are … Puerto Rico. But before we get the tropical scenes, we get a review of Chicago and how this all began with 16 cheftestants, Pizzeria Uno, munchkins in the kitchen, a wedding to cater, Stephanie’s shaky hands, Lisa’s rice problems, and Dale’s screaming and yelling. Now, three cheftestants, Richard, Lisa and Stephanie, cook the meal of their lives. And we don’t get to try any of it. :(

Tonight we find out who gets the title of … TOP CHEF.

Hey, what happened to the theme song? I miss all the dancing. No last dance? Instead, we go straight to scenes of San Juan and the three cheftestants having breakfast at the hotel. Richard sniffs his egg. It must be hard eating as a chef because I bet you spend so much time inspecting the food before actually chowing down. Just like eating with a food blogger who needs to photograph all the food before chowing down. ;-)

They all interview about how they want to win. Stephanie brings up the fact again that it would be the first time a woman wins if she takes it (or Lisa, I guess). Lisa is so confident it’s crazy, but she does admit that she got to the finals “by the skin of her teeth.”

They arrive at the courtyard and waiting for them are Padma and Chef Tom Colicchio. Also we see three chefs standing behind individual round tables with a bunch of food on top. The guest chefs are the dashing Eric Ripert, the celebrity French chef of Le Benardin in New York, the kind-of-geeky Dan Barber of Blue Hill, also of New York, and April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig of (guess where?) New York.

Richard calls Ripert a “culinary god” and with his now almost white hair, he is kind of Zeus-like. Chef Tom says the final challenge is to create a four-course tasting menu starting with fish, then poultry, red meat and finally dessert. Stephanie’s shocked that dessert is a requirement and not left up to the cheftestant to decide. Yeah, life has rules that way.

The three guest chefs are also going to play the role of sous chefs, which is what happened in last year’s season finale. Padma says the cheftestant with the most challenge wins will get to pick first, but there’s a tie between Richard and Stephanie with four each. So they draw knives and Richard lets Stephanie draw first. And she draws the knife with the No. 1. Richard looks like he just gave away the title.

Stephanie chooses Chef Ripert while Richard picks Chef Barber. So that leaves Chef Bloomfield with Lisa. So of course Lisa’s all “girl power.” This is not the Spice Girls Tour, Lisa.

More scenes of the forts around Puerto Rico and then we’re in the kitchen and the cheftestants start prepping their ingredients with their sous chefs. Lisa says she’s going to go back to her Asian style and doing Thai and Vietnamese dishes instead of last week’s failed Latin flavors. April feels a bit uncomfortable since she’s never cooked Asian, but Lisa chats the chef up like long lost friends and they’re all chatty in the kitchen.

Richard is doing a reflecting of his journey as a chef, which will include molecular gastronomy. He looks a bit stress and frantic. Stephanie, on the other hand, is watching over Chef Ripert, making sure he fillets the red snapper to her liking. HEL-lo? This is the same chef who wrote an entire cookbook about bringing the sea into the kitchen.

There’s actually a lot of cooking going on at this time, and some of the food looks amazing. And all this kitchen scene with the fun Latin music in the background reminds me of those food movies such as “Like Water for Chocolate” or “Eat Man Drink Woman.”

Richard busts out his liquid nitrogen, which he says is the one ingredient that he was allowed to bring with him. He’s thinking of making a tobasco sauce ice cream by quick freezing it with the liquid nitrogen. All the other chefs, especially Ripert, are all curious about it and watches Richard like he’s some kind of wizard. Lisa, of course, says she keeps her food simple. What’s odd is we never hear Lisa or Stephanie talk about what their secret ingredient is that they brought along. I’m not sure they even used it.

So far everyone seems pretty calm in the kitchen, especially buddies Lisa and April who, like I said, are just chatting away. And so far this is the most boring season finale of Top Chef with no twists or surprises. Just cooking. Which is nice if we get to eat, but short of that, I want some drama!

Commercials. A free commercial for Puerto Rico, of course.

The next morning, the cheftestants arrive in the kitchen and it’s pretty quiet. Their sous chefs aren’t there. Chef Tom comes in and informs the three that their sous chefs won’t be showing up for work today. (You know, this was the same routine last year. This finale is so predictable.)

The cheftestants seem a bit stress but all handle the news well. I mean, they probably knew they had to make their own dishes by themselves. This is when we get an idea of their individual menus. Here they are:

Lisa: Grilled prawns, Tom Kha Gai soup with dumplings, Wagyu beef and black rice Thai pudding.

Richard: Scallops, guinea hen and foie gras, pork belly and banana “scallops” with bacon ice cream. (Richard, again with the banana scallops? If you recall, this is the dessert he made that’s going to be in the Top Chef cook book when he won the dessert challenge. Except that time he made it with a big slab of avocado and chocolate. Hopefully he won’t do that again.)

Stephanie: Seared red snapper, quail with lobster ravioli, medallions of lamb and ricotta pound cake. (Hmm, that sounds good. I love pound cake, but it’s been a long time since I ate one.)

Chef Tom comes back to the kitchen to do his typical chef chats with each cheftestants. Richard seems a bit stressed of all the three and tells Tom that his menu so far is “abstract.” I’ve always found abstract food to be so vague. Tom finds Lisa really calm and Stephanie worried about her dessert. Again, I never really get anything from Tom’s visits. Are we near the half-way mark yet?

Back in the kitchen, Richard says he’s not going to make his tobasco sauce ice cream, and instead will just make bacon ice cream with his liquid nitrogen. Stephanie is indeed stressing over her cake after taking a bite, and Lisa tells her to be more confident like her.

Night arrives and they’re in a beautiful formal dining room. They’re probably still at the Governor’s Mansion. Padma looks hot in that red dress and I love how they did her hair. It’s a bit more breezy.

Commercials. Yuck, I hate mosquitoes.

Padma talks to the sous chefs. Ripert felt relaxed working with Stephanie, but Barber felt anxious with stressed out Richard. April felt humble in the role of sous chef. The cheftestants come out and meet the other guests, including Chef Alfredo Ayala of Puerto Rico and Tim Zagat, CEO of Zagat. Of course, there are Gail, Ted and Tom.

The cheftestants each give a brief description of their approach. Richard is talking again about his journey, Lisa is all about Southeast Asia and Stephanie wants to hit all the flavor points in their mouths. (I didn’t realize you had different flavors on your mouth. Interesting.)

They go back and they make their final preps. I’m still waiting for the curve ball, but nothing yet. Just fancy dishes and pretty food. They serve, and here’s how it went down.

First course: Lisa’s Grilled Prawns with Chili Basil Sauce and Crab with homemade potato chips, Stephanie’s Seared Red Snapper in Truffle Oil Clam and Asparagus Broth (in a cute cup) and Richard’s barely cooked Scallops with mango and pineapple.

Mr. Zagat felt Richard’s scallop dish was a bit too complicated, and Chef Ayala felt Lisa’s prawns were too spicy. Eric like the infusion of the truffle oil in Stephanie’s broth and Chef Ayala declares it the best of all three.

Second course: Lisa’s Tom Kha Gai with Dumplings, Stephanie’s Seared Quail Breast over Lobster Ravioli and Quail Eggs and Richard’s Which Came First dish with guinea hen, foie gras and sous vide cooked chicken eggs.

Chef Eric likes the complexity and earthiness of Richard’s dish but found it hard to figure out the ingredients. Everyone loves Lisa’s soup, and Gail says she could eat a whole bowl. Tom is bothered by the leeks in Stephanie’s dish. (It’s odd how one ingredient can throw off a dish for Tom, and then he obsesses about it. Don’t worry, he brings this up again later.)

Third course: Lisa’s Wagyu beef, Stephanie’s Medallions of Lamb with Maitake Mushrooms and Braised Pistachios and Blackberries, and Richard’s Be The Bacon with pickled radish, miron broth and pork belly.

Chef Ripert is surprised at how Richard’s food lacks seasoning, but he says the pickled radish on the pork belly is “bordering on genius.” Barber wanted the pork belly to be more crispy on the side (which is why I don’t like sous vide style cooking). Lisa’s dish was just OK although people thought the sweet sauce on the meat was the same as the prawn dish. Gail thought Stephanie was going to crash and burn with her concept but she totally loves it and Chef Ripert points out that this is the first time people have been throwing the word “love” when describing a dish tonight. Tom summarizes the three cheftestants so far, saying Richard’s dish needs work, Lisa is pedestrian and Stephanie is full of surprises.

Dessert course: Lisa’s black rice pudding, Stephanie’s ricotta pound cake with tropical fruit, and Richard’s banana scallop and bacon ice cream.

Chef Barber thinks Richard’s dessert is exciting. Mr. Zagat likes the rice pudding. People agree that Stephanie’s cake was just, meh.

The judges chat a bit at the end of the meal, and it’s really the typical glowing compliments you hear from like Paula Abdul on the finale of American Idol. You know, things like “they’re all winners” and “they’ve all grown since they started this journey” blah blah blah. Did I say earlier that this was the most boring finale of Top Chef history? There was no crisis in the kitchen. No missing ingredients. No curve ball. And Puerto Rico was barely featured. Can we just name Dale Top Chef and end the misery right now?

Commercials. I can’t believe there are so many car commercials. Who’s buying a car these days?

Judges’ Table. Everyone seems excited about the meal. Tom feels they delivered. The cheftestants come in. Has Richard been wearing those military shorts all this time? I didn’t notice it before. It must have looked weird when he entered the formal dining room dressed like that.

Padma asks how each cheftestant felt they did and they get some previews of the critique from the judges. Richard is taken aback by some of the comments, like how they felt his scallops were under-seasoned. Tom tells Lisa her prawns were too spicy and she says she was just representing her spicy self. I say Stephanie won this round.

For the second course, Gail tells Richard his foie gras and eggs dish was a bit muddled. Again, he looks taken aback by the reaction. But everyone loves Lisa’s Thai soup. And again, Tom brings up the leeks in Stephanie’s dish, telling her that they were uncooked and she’s shocked that they weren’t. I say Lisa won this round.

For the meat course, Ted asks Richard why he didn’t sear his pork belly and he says something about the integrity of the meat. Tom tells Lisa that Kobe beef shouldn’t really be served so rare like regular American beef because of all the fat. And just the thought of all that raw fat is making me kind of queasy right now. But everyone loved the surprises, especially braised pistachios, of Stephanie’s dish. I say Stephanie won this round.

For dessert, Richard says he eats banana every day for breakfast so that’s why he did that dessert, but Padma does call him out and says he’s done it before earlier this season. They says Lisa’s rice pudding was delicious and Tom says Stephanie’s banana cream was unidentifiable on her cake. So looks like a tie between Richard and Lisa for this round.

So if you go round by round, looks like Stephanie took two rounds and a split between Richard and Lisa. So I say Stephanie’s going to be named Top Chef.

Padma asks if the cheftestants have any last words, and there’s an awkward pause before Stephanie speaks up about how she second-guessed her dessert and that’s why it wasn’t successful but she learns from her experience and that’s why she’s Top Chef. Lisa and her bravado basically tells the judges to give her the title of Top Chef now. Richard shocks the judges by saying he felt he fucked up and gave up his opportunity to be Top Chef by overthinking his dishes. He’s totally really honest or A GENIUS trying to get the sympathy vote.

The three go to the stew room and Gail’s all shocked by what she just heard from Richard. Although Tom’s all like “I can see where he’s coming from.” They talk about the courses again and Tom does a poll, but you know what? I just did that above so Tom, all you need to do is just read my notes above. The judges comments are so repetitive.

We hear the birds chirping as a new morning arrives and I’m shocked that they filmed so long. I feel like the sun’s about to rise out my window now as I try to finish this recap so I can post it early because tonight I’ll be at the Yankees game in Oakland. (Go Yankees!)

Commercials. Get Smart, I loved that show growing up. Who didn’t?

The three come back to hear the decision. Tom says they cooked tremendous meals and were amazing competitors. He says Richard’s food is whimsical, playful and outrageous. Lisa is big, bold and all about her. Stephanie is surprising. He says the decision was made on which meal they would have gone back and eat again. And Padma says that meal would be the one cooked by one Stephanie. Stephanie is named Top Chef, the first female winner and the first one who I believe is from the host city (Chicago).

Stephanie’s surprised, of course, and the other rejected cheftestants sneak up from the back to give hugs. Lisa interviews that she’s all fuck that she didn’t win because she should have, and Richard is disappointed and near tears. He feels he gave up on himself at the last minute. He directs the show to cut so he can cry alone.

Stephanie doesn’t care about crying on Tv because she’s won the big money so she can cry all she wants. She says this is a reaffirmation that she is meant to be a chef. This from a woman who opened her own successful restaurant and closed it to reevaluate her future. So I guess the future is another restaurant, and I would definitely try it if I’m in Chicago.

Photos courtesy of Bravo TV's Web site.


SteamyKitchen said...

what a great recap! i really didn't get into TC this season, distracted by learning how to do videos on the blog.

I recorded each episode and 2 nights ago watched them all - but out of order

jackiecat said...

I really miss your Jamie at Home blogs.