Top Chef Texas: Episode 17 – Finale

If it’d gone the wrong way, this would’ve been a very, very short recap. In fact, at one very dark point just prior to the reveal, I was planning a single sentence. A single word sentence. A single four-letter word. Fortunately, things turned out differently. So I might as well slap a cute picture of the winner up top. Yay Paul!

The Prelude to the Food: Sarah says Paul is the favorite to win (at least she acknowledges that), but she’s on a roll so she’d be nervous if she were him. Should’ve quit while you were ahead.

The Giving of the Challenge: Four course tasting menu for a hundred people. They’ll each serve simultaneously at two different restaurants.

The Choosing of the Sous Chefs:

This turns out to be a lot of fun. Most of the eliminated chefs return (no Beverly, Ed, or Lindsay, I don’t think MotoChris is there, and maybe missing a few others) – but that’s not all. Three of the never-made-the-roster chefs are there, and one of them is the infamous Tyler Stone, who I, like every other recapper, excoriated in Episode 1. Oh, but he so deserved it. “No one got the full picture of Tyler Stone,” he says. Oh, I think we got the full picture just fine.

But also in the pool of possibles are Big Name Chefs Marco Canora and Barbara Lynch. So the spectrum is from the ridiculous to the sublime. I’m wondering if they allowed the eliminated chefs to opt out (because some of them were diners) or if they had some other method for whittling down the group.

Each of the potentials cooks a dish as a blind audition, and Paul and Sarah choose four each based on those dishes:

Paul picks Barbara Lynch; he’s thrilled, but worried about being able to treat her like a sous chef.
Sarah picks halibut with green lentils and pomegranate, and gets Nyesha. Sarah’s happy, because she can do sauces. We don’t hear much from Nyesha.
Paul picks buckwheat noodles, and gets Ty-lör. Also good.
Sarah really wants Heather, and she sees dumplings and knows that’s Heather’s dish but she also sees scallops with raisins and citrus, and thinks she recognizes it as something on Heather’s menu so picks that… except it isn’t Heather, it’s Tyler Stone. Thank you God. Someone mutters, “That’s unfortunate.” Actually, I think Sarah can handle him (meaning squash his ass); he’d undo Paul. Sarah says, “I’m not letting you butcher.” Me, I’d send him out for pizza. No, no, that isn’t fair, give him a chance.
Paul likes the lamb with blueberry mustard and crispy parsnips and gets Malibu Chris, who intentionally used Asian flavors to lure Paul. Sarah had said she wasn’t sure she could work with him because he’s so hot, so this works for both of them.
Sarah takes chicken with black pepper and dumplings, and that’s Heather like she knew it was in the first place. Sarah’s glad because she’s a pastry chef and she can run a kitchen. Wait – isn’t that supposed to be Sarah’s job?
Paul picks dungeness crab and gets Keith. I guess having him go to Sarah, who he butted heads with in his only episode, would’ve been too much to hope for. Just don’t send him out to buy shrimp.
Sarah chooses pasta carbonara with fried brussels sprouts and it’s Grayson. Grayson takes the high road and has very nice things to say about her.

Marco Canora didn’t get picked. Wow, it’s Next Iron Chef all over again. But he’ll get to judge.

The Cooking of the Food:
The teams caucus (as Tim Gunn would say). Tyler is worried because he’s the only guy on Sarah’s team. That’s the least of your problems, sweetie. Sarah says she wants no drama, lots of fun. She’s taking her German and Italian sides and combining them, pushing her comfort zone. Tyler (not Ty-lör, just to be crystal clear) tries to talk her into doing sous
vide, but she’s not buying it; I wonder if she saw Carla go down in flames, or if she just automatically dismisses anything he says. Which isn’t a bad idea, by the way. He keeps pestering her. “I can’t believe the balls on him.” Ok, he’s had his second chance, and he’s still a jerk.

I have to say, if they wanted to create sympathy for Sarah, they’ve perhaps managed to set up the one thing that could accomplish that.

She rides him pretty hard (“I try to make him feel like he’s part of the team, and like I give a sh*t” which is mean – and it’s incredibly stupid of her to say such a thing on camera, but that’s what happens when you drop out of high school to go to cooking school [yes, that's mean, too, and maybe someday I'll apologize and say we're best friends since that seems to make up for everything in her mind] – but I’m giving her a pass on this; yes, I know it’s hypocritical, but the guy goes out of his way to be a problem), as he’s all over the place making suggestions, telling her how to do something differently than she wants it done, and generally being a pain in the ass. Didn’t he learn from the pasting he got on Facebook last time that this is not the way into people’s hearts and minds?

But Sarah can handle him. “Just chop the celery,” she interviews in frustration. Cut to scary-uncertain knifework on celery. I’m not saying it was Tyler – it could’ve been some cameraman, we just saw hands, and I wouldn’t put it past the Elves – but I have better knife skills than that, and I can’t feel my hands.

Paul talks about doing Southeast Asian; Barbara says something about sesame seeds that seems to throw him, but he interviews he’s not going to let anyone get in the way of his vision. From the little we saw of her, she didn’t seem very nice, doing a somewhat snide interview about if he wants to win he has to know what he’s going to do and not wing it when he buys some shrimp “just in case.” But in the end she gave Paul some nice praise – “working with him in the kitchen is amazing, he’s got passion, drive, and wisdom.” He says none of his chefs know what he’s doing, but I thought Ty-lor had some Thai experience. At least he said he spent time in Thailand. I assumed he was cooking….

They have five hours to prep on the first day, then Tom and Emeril treat them to a wine tasting and answer questions. They’re advised to remember Restaurant Wars. Paul remembers he was intimidated about stepping on toes, and he needs to take the lead. Sarah remembers it was Beverly’s fault. Even though they won.

On day of service they have three hours. Keith points out the crab is funky because it sat overnight; Barbara and Paul agree, they’ll have to change the game plan. I don’t understand, did it go bad? Was it left out or otherwise mishandled? Or does crab just do that sometimes? They use the shrimp instead. Which is why he got the shrimp just in case, Barbara, see? Paul’s done this seventeen times now, he knows how to play the game. And high five to Keith for catching it before it got dumped on the dish.

Paul and Sarah’s families show up at their restaurants, though they aren’t aware of it yet; they get pulled out during service, which seems a little distracting in terms of timing. However, Paul says it puts him at ease to see his father crying like a baby. They’re both very glad to see their families, and there are many tears.

The judges are in two teams:
Gail, Marco, Mark McEwan, Tom, and Cat Cora start out at Paul’s restaurant;
Padma, Emeril, Hugh, David Myers, and one of the product placement wine guys start at Sarah’s.

The Service of the Food:

Paul’s menu: Gail comments there seem to be two fish and two egg courses, which sounds disapproving. Uh oh.
First course: Chawanmushi, edamami, spot prawn. They love it; the texture is exceptional, and Gail loves the saltiness. For the second service, however, the chawanmushi gets overcooked (Paul is a grown-up and doesn’t blame Keith, since he followed instructions) and the texture is off; he’s out of eggs so he has to serve it.
Second: Grilled sea bass with clam dashi, mushrooms, and pickled radish. Tom loves how aromatic it is, and they like the smokiness and saltiness of the clams. Someone gives him props for a good aesthetic eye.
Third: Congee, scrambled eggs, uni, kale, and smoked albacore. Tom thinks the rice and fish are too similar in texture; Cat thinks the abalone is amazing but doesn’t see where it fits on the menu.
Fourth: Coconut ice cream, puffed wild rice, kumquats, mangosteen, and Thai chili foam. Gail loves the spicy foam; someone thinks the first mouthful is a power punch, and the contrast is beautiful. Someone thinks the rice is a little too crispy.
Someone calls it a sexy meal. Call me stupid, but I never know what that means. But I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing.

Sarah’s menu: Emeril is surprised to see unusual ingredients he doesn’t think of as Sarah’s thing, like dashi, on the menu.
First Course: Squid ink tagliatelle, spot prawn tartare, coconut. Emeril loves it. Someone was worried about all the different regions, like coconut plus shiso, but she pulled it together. Tom calls it very successful.
Second: Rye crusted steelhead trout, fennel sauce, pickled beets, gras pista. They love the crust; the beets taste very raw, like they’re not pickled enough. Her fiance whispers in her ear that his fish had a bone in it, so she goes over all the fish again. Tom says it’s perfectly cooked. No bones. The moral of this story is: If you’re going to serve fish with bones, serve it to your fiance, not the judges.
Third: Veal cheeks braised in dashi and sweetbreads over buckwheat polenta with persimmon sauce. She doesn’t like the way the polenta and persimmon look on the plate; her team reassures her. Hugh thinks the polenta or buckwheat is like breakfast porridge and he wants to put cranberries in it: is that good or bad? Padma loves the veal. Someone else isn’t wild on the porridge texture. She reworks it for the next service, to get it smoother, and it seems to be more successful. Cat wants more crunch but it’s delicious.
Fourth: Hazelnut cake with kumquat and roasted white chocolate ganache with peppermint fernet branca ice cream. Hugh loves it, and says they’re all going to rip it off for their own menus. Someone says she turned white chocolate into caramel. Emeril says it’s over the top (in a good way). Cat and Gail think it’s great. Here’s the issue: she had a pastry chef on her team. I wonder if that gets figured in.

The Judgment of the Food:

Tom says it’s the best meal ever at a finale, which is probably bullshit, but that’s what they say every year, isn’t it?

Sarah’s criticisms: the beets were raw; the texture of the polenta in the first seating was bad.
Paul’s criticisms: His chawanmushi in the second seating was texturally off; maybe the congee fit in the progression (Hugh), maybe not (Cat); the puffed rice in the dessert had too much crunch.

The judges talk. Sarah took more risks, though Paul handled the details better. I got a bad feeling about this.

During the break, there’s a live promo for WWHL and I’m downright scared: Sarah is smiling – beaming! – and Paul isn’t.

I tried really hard to convince myself this doesn’t matter. In the grand scheme of things – so what. Who wins, doesn’t matter. Tornados are destroying hospitals. Wars are waging, leaving people dead and maimed. Kids are shooting each other in the cafeteria. Who cares who wins Top Chef? But… it does matter, and I know it.

And you know what? In this one small thing, the universe works. Paul wins. Usual blather. Sarah says something along the lines of, “I should have won but I had a bad night.” I don’t think anyone said she had a bad night. I think she had a great night. Paul had a transcendent night, that’s all.

The Natural Consequence of the Food (if you get my drift):

WWHL: Harold Dieterle is bartending. I don’t get the role of bartending. They hardly get to say anything. But it’s nice to see him. A few cool things happen. Sarah’s hair is compared to Justin Bieber’s. That scares me, because not only did I say I liked it a lot when they started in Vancouver, it’s also very much like mine just before it drives me crazy and I get it cut. Does this mean I have Bieber hair? Does my gray cancel that out? Then Beverly gives Sarah her Plead the Fifth questions. Apparently they’ve kissed and made up because now Sarah claims Beverly is her very close friend. When asked what fellow chef she’d hook up with, Sarah says Ty-lör. “Your sous chef?” Andy asks. Sarah’s horrified, and clarifies:
“Ty-LOOOORE.” She also declares Chef Boyardee to be the most overrated celebrity chef, which is a complete cop-out. Paul is wearing ninja socks, and gets softballs for PTF questions; why don’t they ask him who he’d like to hook up with?. And apparently Malibu Chris is campaigning for fan favorite. I think Andy said Martha Stewart will be guest after the reunion show next week. Which is good, because I can skip that one. Oh, wait, Fan Favorite will be announced. Nah, I can find that on All Top Chef, I don’t have to watch this ridiculous mess of a show to find out.

Next week: Yes, of course there’s a next week, what, did you think that just because someone finally won this incredibly stupid season it’s finally over? No. There’s a Reunion to get through. And apparently Heather doesn’t think she owes Beverly an apology at all.

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