March 31st, 2011
10:17 AM ET
After 16 episodes and more than 30 challenges, we have a new "Top Chef."
(And if you don’t want to know who it is, stop reading now.)
“All-Stars” has pushed the chefs throughout the season, so the final challenge last night wasn’t the standard “cook us the best meal of your life.” Instead, Richard and Mike are charged with putting together a four-course tasting menu for the restaurant of their dreams.
The final two consider who from this season's eliminated contestants they would or wouldn’t want to work with as sous chefs. Mike would love to work with Jen and wants to avoid Jamie. Richard would pick Jen, Dale or Angelo.
The season’s contestants are indeed back for the finale (except Dale L. for some reason), but it isn’t a simple schoolyard pick. Instead, the eliminated contestants make an amuse bouche, and Richard and Mike pick their sous chefs based on a blind taste test.
(I had the chance to watch last night’s finale at a viewing party hosted by Richard's restaurant here in Atlanta, with a crowd that was pulling for their hometown hero. That move definitely got a big “Ohhh!!!” from the audience.)
Richard gets Spike, Angelo (who received a big cheer from my fellow viewers) and Antonia (another big cheer).
Mike picks Tiffani, Jamie (I now know what it sounds like when 75 people guffaw at once) and Carla (cheers, which I think were more for Carla than for Mike selecting her).
On paper, it would seem that Richard has the stronger team. But Mike’s Angels (his words, not mine) prove to be just as capable in the kitchen, including Jamie.
The planning period with the sous chefs does provide interesting insight into different approaches to the challenge, though. Richard encourages collaboration from his team and finds ways to play to their individual strengths. Mike also hears lots of input, but ultimately decides to go with his own ideas.
Some people might argue that Mike was being dismissive of his team’s ideas, but this is supposed to be HIS restaurant and HIS vision. I think it’s completely in bounds for him to say, “listen, this is what I want to do, now go execute it.”
That’s especially true in this challenge, which is like Restaurant Wars Part II. We see from both Mike and Richard that there’s more going on than just cooking. You have to prep the wait staff, select wines and keep the kitchen running smoothly. All on top of preparing what’s likely the most pressure-packed meal of your career.
In the run-up to service, two interesting things happen at Richard’s restaurant. First, he decides to serve foie gras ice cream as part of his dessert. This got a big response from the viewing party, because Richard’s had a foie gras milkshake on the menu at several of his restaurants, and it’s a big crowd-pleaser.
The second thing is that he employs Spike as his front-of-house spy. So if a dish doesn’t get the best reaction from the judges (say, if the foie gras ice cream is considered “controversial”), he can change it on the fly for the second wave of judges.
Ultimately, both meals are incredible. First course goes to Richard’s hamachi over Mike’s beet salad. The second course (fish from both contestants) goes to Richard as well, following this exchange:
Padma: Now, Tom, you said Mike’s fish was the best you’d ever tasted on the show.
Tom: I tasted that before I tasted Richard’s.
Third course went to Mike, whose pork shoulder (with pepperoni sauce that Gail is probably still raving about) outshone Richard’s beef dish. The fourth course went to Mike as well, thanks to a dessert that was more universally embraced than Richard’s risky ice cream.
So if you heard an explosion around 10:59 p.m. E.T., that was just the sound of my eardrums bursting as the viewing party erupted at the following five words: “Richard, you are Top Chef.”
Mike had a great season, showed growth (both in his cooking and his personality), and put out a tremendous final meal. But in the end, Richard was just better. He’s one of the best chefs - if not the best chef - to appear on any season of the show. I think he’s spent more than two years agonizing over his initial finale loss, so it was great to see the joy and relief on his face after this victory.
Do you think the right chef won? Any surprises for you in the finale? Sound off below!
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