Thursday, February 26, 2009

Top Chef: Season 5, Finale

Dueling Bald Guys and Carla

Spoiler alert: This is a recap, so that means at the end I reveal the Top Chef winner. Well, more like Padma reveals and then I just repeat it because that’s how I roll. So if you haven’t watched the episode yet and don’t want to know who wins and happen to be carrying a big rock over your shoulder to hide you from the rest of the Internet, then hold off reading this until later. If you don’t care, then carry on.

OK, it’s finally here. The season finale of Top Chef: New York, which takes place in New Orleans. I still don’t get why they go to a different city for the finale except that maybe Padma and Tom Colicchio want a free trip. But with a city so amazing for food like New York, why leave?

Anywho, we get a recap of Season 5: images of Fabio and Stefan, the Euro Twins; images of Big Ho Hosea and Lazy Leah on the couch (forever burned into the Top Chef reality archives and my mind) and lots of images of the Statue of Liberty. Now they’re in the Big Easy with Carla Top as the underdog, even though she won last week’s challenge where we also sent off Fabio.

Padma reviews the prizes for TOP CHEF. Hey, we’re going right into the show without the dancing cheftestants? It’s like a show with no beginning. I can hear the music in my head right now, and can imagine Jeff the Hair winking at me at the end. Oh, I just replayed it for you guys so I guess we don’t need to see it. Ha!

Opening scenes of a river boat and Stefan brushing his teeth. Carla Top is doing downward dog (<--yoga reference) and Big Ho is packing up and leaving. They arrive at what Carla Top calls a paddleboat, which we learn is called the Creole Queen. It looks really cool. The three finalists are sitting on the deck eating beignets for breakfast. I would be so jealous if I were into deep-fried doughnuts piled on with powdered sugar.

Big Ho is talking about how he has something to prove, and I’m thinking, DUH, you hardly did anything this season, so yeah you’ve got A LOT to prove. I feel like he’s the weaker finalist only because he won only one challenge that I can remember and he always lets his nerves interfere with his cooking. But he says he has more at stake because he doesn’t own his own business like Carla Top and Stefan. Can you imagine Hootie as your boss? I bet nothing gets done but there’s a whole lot of lovin’!

They meet Padma and Chef Tom at the Historic New Orleans Collection, whatever that is. Tom says they’re going to cook the best three-course meal of their lives. There are no restrictions and they can use any ingredients. What’s interesting is that in seasons’ past finalists have brought in secret ingredients, but so far the cheftestants haven’t talked about that. Which makes me think either they’re really poor planners, the producers decided to nix the secret ingredient angle, or these cheftestants really don’t have a favorite secret ingredient. In that case I’m so done with them already. (My secret ingredient would be my jar of garlic black bean sauce. I put that in everything!)

Padma says they’ll be cooking at Commander’s Palace, which I’ve never heard of but is supposedly one of the best fine dining restaurants in the world. Chef Tom says they’ll have assistants and out comes Richard, Casey and Marcel. (We just can’t get rid of Marcel can we?)

In past finales, they’ve brought in sous chefs who were renowned chefs like Eric Ripert or former Top Chef winners like Harold. Who does Season 5 get? The runnerups. The people noted for crashing and burning during the finales of their seasons (well, more Richard than Marcel). Yeah, good luck with that bunch.

They draw knives to see what order they’ll be selecting their sous chefs, and Carla Top gets to draw first because she won last week’s challenge. She draws 3, which totally sucks for her. Then Stefan goes next but he—for some dumb play of his hand—lets Big Ho draw next. And of course, Hosea draws 1, which means he gets to pick first.

Big Ho goes for Richard because Marcel reminds him too much of Stefan, which means Stefan picks Marcel because Marcel was the bad guy of the season like Stefan even though he calls Marcel a “twat,” and Carla gets Casey and Carla pretends that she would have picked Casey anyway as her first choice. (Right, like she wouldn’t have charged for Richard.)

They head to the Audubon Tea Room to prep for two hours, and there’s a mad dash (well, really just Stefan and Big Ho) for the proteins. Stefan looks for the foie gras and apparently Big Ho grabbed them all, and at the same time I think that’s really greedy of the Big Ho but he’s right when he says it’s a competition. But really, is it fair to just run to the shelves and grab everything off and say it’s yours? Stefan and Big Ho get into a minor tiff about the foie gras and Big Ho tries to compromise by going halve-sys but Stefan is so done with him already. This scene is repeated again a few minutes later when Stefan discovers that Big Ho has all the jars of caviar. (Again, Big Ho is really greedy and selfish, but this is a competition so maybe he’s screwing with Stefan. I’m thinking, gosh, Stefan must be really slow when grabbing ingredients and what exactly did he grab first?)

It does seem like Stefan is a bit more frantic in this episode than the whole season when he could care less. So I think Stefan is off his game a bit.

Carla Top, on the other hand, seems her calm self, and she’s talking to Casey about doing a bouillabaisse and comfort meat and potatoes dish, but all Frenched up. Casey suggests cooking the beef sous vide-style, which is the slow cooking in the plastic bag that I’ve said before I’m not a big fan of. (Mostly because the coloring of the meat makes it look raw.)

Time runs out and they pack their things in the obligatory Glad plastic containers (OK, I admit I use them too!) and they head home.

Commercials. Are they still advertising that stupid epic “Australia”? It should have gone straight to DVD in the first place. Those Campbell V8 soups look so thick that it looks more like polenta. Now that’s something you can eat with a fork.

For a final stupid mini Top Chef clip of the season, they show this voodoo lady coming to the three finalists’ suite as they unwind from the evening. It’s their special treat to have their fortunes told, and Stefan asks her to see if there’s a future between him and Jamie, who he’s lusted for all season. The woman says there’s a possibility Jamie could be his girlfriend, and then we see her credibility fly out the window.

On the day of the challenge they arrive at the Commander’s Palace’s kitchen and Chef Tom is already there standing in front of a bunch of weird ingredients. Big Ho guesses correctly that a twist is about to grab them by their boxers and give them a mean wedgie.

Tom tells them they have to make one more course—an appetizer (more specifically what he calls a “pass through appetizer” which means something people can eat while standing up as servers passes by them with the trays). And they have to use ingredients from New Orleans: blue crab, red fish and black alligator. Yum.

To decide, they each have to find the gold baby in the traditional king cake. That’s the popular local specialty that looks like a bundt cake where they bake a tiny baby inside. Whoever bites into the slice with the baby gets good luck (and technically has to buy the next king cake). And I’ve always wondered what sick mind thought it would be cool to bake a baby in a cake? Even a plastic one. And I still don’t understand if they can invent a plastic baby that doesn’t melt when baking, then why does my plastic spatula always melt when I accidentally leave it on top of my stove top? I need answers people!

So each of the three finalists grab a large piece of cake and start eating away and Big Ho gets the tiny golden plastic baby. Then he does this little weird baby dance in his voiceover interview. Not only does he get to choose which ingredient to make his appetizer with, he assigns the remaining ingredients to the others. So he picks the easy red fish for himself and gives Carla the crab and Stefan the alligator. And this is the part that makes Hosea such an unworthy competitor because while talking about giving Stefan the alligator, he also flips him the bird (pixilated of course) in his voiceover interview. Geesh. Way to take the high road, dude.

Their sous chefs arrive and they start cooking. Stefan chops into the alligator’s tail and decides to make soup. Carla Top cries out and it turns out that a crab pinched her with her claw and Stefan had to help pry it off her. (I feel ya, sister. The same thing happened to me but it was with an ornery Dungeness crab and they’re bigger than the blue crabs she was dealing with. I had a mean cut on my finger that took weeks to heal.)

As they’re cooking, we get a preview of their menus. Here’s what I could type up really fast (I really should tape these episodes):

Big Ho
Appetizer: Blackened red fish on corn cake
First: Trio of sashimi dressed with citrus
Second: Seared scallops and foie gras and pain perdue
Third: Venison (he says venison is his favorite meat but I’m not a big fan of the gamey, lean texture and flavor)

Carla Top
Appetizer: Shiso soup with cold blue crab
First: Seared red snapper with aioli
Second: Sous vide-style New York sirloin steak with potato rod
Third: Cheese course

Carla initially was going to do a fancy cheese plate with an apple tart but Casey suggests a cheese soufflé, which sounds wonderful but I can’t believe Carla would come up with a soufflé recipe just like that. In past finals, chefs came in already knowing what they want to do for their final dishes, and I’m surprised that Carla is so easily influenced by Casey’s suggested changes. And what’s even more weird is that later on Casey doesn’t even look that concerned, she’s just eating away snacking on different food. So really, not the person I would necessarily listen to. (BTW, later on I read a piece where Casey blamed the “editing” and said Carla had no idea what to cook and ended up actually grilling her sous vide meat to give it color thus toughening it. Meow!)

Appetizer: alligator soup
First: Halibut and salmon carpaccio
Second: Squab with braised red cabbage and schufnuden (sounds like a snuff film)
Third: Dessert with chocolate and crème and banana lollipops

Marcel is chopping up some purple cabbage and they look really purple on the screen right now. Stefan also freezes his fish so he can slice them really thin for his carpaccio, which sounds weird because I thought the idea of carpaccio is to pound the ingredient really thin, so why would you need to slice it thin? Marcel wonders the same thing, but mostly says it seems odd to freeze fresh fish and then serve it.

The judges arrive and it’s a whole bunch of people. There’s Monkey Ass Fabio, which is really odd because how can Fabio be a fair judge when he’s in love with Stefan? Then there’s Rocco DiSpirito, Gail, and some woman from the Commander’s Palace.

Big Ho is trying to plate up his appetizer and he’s got the shakes again. This guy always gets the shaky hands right before serving. What’s that all about? Richard has to step in and take over, and then the appetizer is served along with Stefan’s alligator soup and Carla Top’s shiso soup.

More judges: I spot Chef John Besh (I love him) who I think put New Orleans cooking on the map after Emeril, some woman, Hubert Keller of San Francisco’s Fleur de Lys (which I can’t afford to dine at) and musician Branford Marsalis.

Everyone seems really pleased by the appetizers. Then they sit down to dinner and the table looks lovely. Padma helps us out by identifying more of the judges, including Susan Spicer, a local chef, Tory McPhail, executive chef of Commander’s Palace, and Toby Young returns for a final judging. (I guess they didn’t send him back to London.)

For the first course, everyone is underwhelmed by Big Ho’s sashimi. And I have to say, while I love raw fish, it’s really hard to make it seem special because you’re really just eating raw fish and there’s not much you can do to make it special other than to ensure its freshness. John Besh loves Carla’s red snapper dish, and Chef Spicer says she would order it again at a restaurant. Chef Tom notes the watery texture of Stefan’s fish carpaccio.

For the second course, Stefan made a smart move with the squab because that’s one ingredient that I think can never go wrong. And I’m right because Gail is going on and on about it. She also notes that Carla’s sous vide sirloin is tough, and Tom remarks that the cooking style didn’t remind him of Carla. Chef Besh says Carla lost her soul in this course compared to the first.

Gail says she can’t stop eating Big Ho’s scallops and foie gras dish, and Rocco comments that he’s so tired of eating foie gras, which generates this weird head shake from Gail. (I have to side with Rocco just because I don’t believe in the overindulgence of foie gras and the unhealthy aspect, for yourself and the poor goose.)

In the kitchen, Big Ho is still worried about Stefan. But Carla has more problems on her hands because her little soufflés all look like they’re bubbling in the oven instead of rising. She says she forgot to turn down the oven so now the cheese are all curdling. That sounds awful. And she decides to leave the cheese soufflé off the dish, which sounds like she just killed her chances because that’s like making a chocolate cake dessert with raspberry coulis but only sending out the raspberry coulis. This is not looking good. And there’s Casey chewing on something in the background.

For the final course, they briefly talk about Carla’s sad looking plate. Then they talk about Stefan’s ice cream platter, which is a nice way to end a meal but Chef Tom was all “meh.” Gail adds that the plate looks a bit dated, 1982 to be specific (but unlike a dessert from 1981).

Fabio, to his credit, says Stefan’s last dish didn’t leave a good lasting impression on the dinner, compared to Big Ho who had a more valiant venison dish to end his meal. Then we get the whole debate about whether a tasting menu should end with dessert even though the cheftestants were told they did not need to make a dessert course.

You can tell Chef Tom believes you don’t need to end with dessert while Chef Hubert Keller says it’s a cop out when a chef doesn’t even bother to make dessert. Ouch.

In the kitchen, Richard is so cute because he just asked Stefan if he had any leftover braised red cabbage because “that’s my thing.” Oh Richard, how we miss your dopey faux hawk molecular gastro goofiness.

Commercials. Oh, I didn’t pay attention. Sorry. I was trying to decide what to wear to work tomorrow. I wish I wore a uniform so I didn’t have to decide every day. I should be a real chef, yeah? That way I can just wear the same chef’s jacket and weird checkered pants everyday.

They arrive at judges table, facing Toby, Padma, Tom and Gail. Congratulations all around and then they start dissecting the meals, starting with Carla.

They say they liked the first two dishes but Toby says the meat and potato dish was too refined when he wanted something bold. In her explanation, Carla mentions Casey’s name quite often so it’s almost like Casey came up with the menu. She also goes over again the sad, sad news about the bubbling soufflés that were ruined. Tom says she let her sous chef talk her out of “cooking the food that got you to the finale.”

For Big Ho, Toby loved the appetizer but wasn’t a fan of the sashimi because it didn’t have enough citrus flavor. Gail thought the foie gras dish was his best and they talk a bit about the venison. But then Toby talks about not doing a dessert and saying his meal seemed like it had a beginning and two middles but no end.

For Stefan, they praised him for his alligator but didn’t like the carpaccio. Chef Tom calls it bland, but they tell him his strongest dish was the squab (told you), which was the best dish of the night. Stefan talks about how he wanted dessert plate to have a proper ending but Gail asks if that’s really the right last note he wanted and Stefan says yes but you know that was more a rhetorically question from Gail.

Then Padma asks the typical “Why should you be Top Chef” question that she asks every year. And basically Stefan says he’s very consistent and deserves to win, Big Ho says he put himself out there and was bold, and then there’s Caral. Poor Carla, she says she’s proven that she can make delicious and flavorful food when she cooks “her food.” She holds back tears and I’m trying to send her the love through my computer. Stefan is so moved that he runs over to try to give her a hug but that doesn’t keep her from crying.

They leave so the judges can deliberate, and the judges off the bat take Carla out of the running because of her sad dessert debacle. So it comes down to Big Ho and Stefan, two very different people although they both have bald heads. Tom says Stefan is classical in his approach and Padma says Hosea was more thoughtful in planning out his meal. Chef Tom says Hosea has a stronger ending, but that prompts Toby to bring up the whole issue again about whether a chef should end with dessert. Tom closes the discussion by basically saying it’s a moot point because the cheftestants were told they didn’t have to make a dessert. And Toby basically looks at them with this look that says: “well, bloody hell, why am I sitting here offering my opinions if it is all for naught?”

Chef Tom says Hosea’s dinner had a nice arc that began with the blackened fish appetizer and got progressively stronger until the final venison. And I have to say, I would definitely have liked to try Hosea’s tasting menu compared to the others. Tom says there’s no soul in Stefan’s food, and Toby, not knowing when to shut it, says that if it’s based on soul then the prize should go to Carla.

In the stew room, Carla is crying and Stefan tries for a minute to comfort her. I’ve now changed my opinion of Stefan because he at least his chivalrous with women. Big Ho is just sitting back running through his menu and counting his money.

Commercials. Who predicted that “Slumdog Millionaire” would win the Oscar for best picture a few weeks back? That’s right, little ole me. You’re welcome.

And now for the crowning of America’s Next Top Model. Oh wait, wrong show. Do they still do that? Don’t real have enough models in the world already? As for the next Top Chef, Tom talks about how this has been the most dramatic rose ceremony ever. Oh wait, that’s the wrong show too. Oh bloody hell, Hosea is named Top Chef!

There are hugs all around, and in comes the other cheftestants who got to stay in New Orleans: Jamie, Jeff, Fabio and, of course, Leah who gives Hosea a big ole hug. Stefan says he’s happy for Hosea but I don’t believe it. Carla in her interview is still sad and she says that she’s glad that she at least played the game differently than others. She competed with love.

Hosea says more generic things like how things will change for him. I’m predicting that in a few months after Season 6, nobody’s going to remember him but we’ll all be treated to his kissing scene with Leah for years.

[[I will note here that I got a feeling that Hosea was going to take it all even though I was rooting for Carla at the beginning. I knew Hosea won when he got the golden baby and during his interview he sounded sooooo happy and I knew it wasn’t just because he got the baby, but because he won the whole thing and he was just reliving the moment for the camera. You’re not such a good poker player, Big Ho.]]

Next week is the Reunion show, one hour earlier at 9 p.m. I’m not planning to recap it but I’ll be watching. I’m so glad this season is over. Now I want Top Chef: Hawaii! Someone get that in the works!

Photos courtesy of Bravo TV’s Web site.


David K. and Ann C.-K. said...

Wonder if they will honestly address Hosea's and Leah's 'off-screen" relationship on the reunion show? I just read that they have been seen making out all over NYC.

I found the finale to be a bit boring....Fabio was my favorite and I think he will be remembered long after this season.

This is "Top Chef" not "Top Scallop"...;)


Anonymous said...

Hey Chef Ben, I'm glad you do these recaps because I got tired of trying to catch up watching my dvr and fast forwarding through the commercials... I guess I wasn't into this season, especially once it moved to New Orleans and there are just too many damn bald guys on the show now!

Anonymous said...

Just like in Casey's season, victory was Carla's to have if she didn't blow it. But she did, just as Casey did in her finale, alas. So sad, so sad. It was nice to see Stefan try to comfort Carla. Maybe he's not so myopic as everyone thinks.

Anonymous said...

After watching Stefan reach out to comfort Carla at judge's table, while Big Ho just stands there, I think more highly of him. He is more of a gentleman then Hosea, and I think the editing made him out to be more of a bad guy than he really is. His extended interviews on various sites show he's much nicer.

And Carla once again listened to others rather than her own instincts. (Remember the Bridal Shower challenge?)

Oh well, here's hoping the next season of Top Chef really does choose a TOP chef, not just a mediocre one who outlasted better chefs.

Single Guy Ben said...

I have to agree with the comments on Stefan. He was really a sweetheart when he couldn't bear to see Carla in her emotional state and tried to comfort her, and I found him to be more charming and fun in the reunion show. Damn editing! ;-)

Narya said...

We didn't bake the plastic baby into the cake; we stuck it in the cake from the bottom after it was baked (and then dumped enough yellow, purple, and green sugar on it to cause comas).

Patricia Scarpin said...

I did not watch the show back when it was aired for the first time - I have been watching all the seasons, one after another, for the past couple of months and finished season 5 yesterday. My favorites throughout the show were Carla, Stefan, Jamie and Ariane. While I loved Carla's food and personality, I thought that the most skilled chef was Stefan, and I would have been glad if either one of them had won. I never liked Hosea's game, not consistent enough.

Oh, and last but not least - what an amazing post! I laughed out loud here with some of your remarks. Superb!