It’s time for that boring pre-finale episode, when we’re all sick of the season and just want it to be over already. Occasionally we get some wonderful surprises; last season’s Fire and Ice comes to mind. But… not this year.
Some will disagree, as Top Chef has stolen the concept of “home visits” from Project Runway (which probably means the Elves merely transplanted their own idea). Problem is: what makes the PR home visits work is Tim Gunn. Top Chef has no Tim Gunn (remember one of the first things Tom said back in Season 1: “I’m not a mentor, I’m a judge”). What they do have are two finalists with lovely families, and I suppose the producers just couldn’t resist the opportunity to show that off. Not to mention get a trip to Hawaii. For me, the most interesting nugget was that Brooke’s husband is a guy she originally hired as her sous chef. The Animal guys are sighing about What Might Have Been right now.
After ten minutes of cooing over children and watching Brooke and Sheldon in their native habitats – their restaurant kitchens – we get to the business of who won Last Chance Kitchen. I got my reality TV confused here: I was trying to figure out how the teaser from last week, the “We have something that needs discussion” in the Stew Room would fit in… except that was Tim, on Project Runway. Yes, I got Padma and Tim mixed up. Can you tell I’ve already moved on?
Turns out Kristen won LCK, to no one’s surprise. Seriously, did you think Bacon for Breakfast was going to win? And Lizzie was overlooked and underrated all season, but she never quite made magic. It had to be Kristen. CJ was just a placeholder.
Which brings us to the cooking part of our cooking competition, finally.
The three chefs will be serving at Craft, Tom’s LA hangout. Each must make an app, an entrée and a dessert. Tom, Hugh, and Emeril do drive-bys during prep, to distract the chefs and get some footage. Tom expedites; boy, does he expedite, though Hugh assures us, post hoc, that he’s ” calmer with these chefs than he would normally be.” I like it when Tom goes into the kitchen for service; it’s a good opportunity for him, as a judge, to see them function in an actual restaurant setting, and I would think that’s important. It’s also fun to watch Tom in his native habitat.
Martin Yan and John Besh join the dining table. I’m truly embarrassed; in my notes I typed “John Boehner” instead of John Besh when I first saw him. Sorry, Chef, you didn’t deserve that. First I mix up Tom and Padma with Tim, now Besh and Boehner. Maybe I should set up a doctor’s appointment; this is getting alarming.
Brooke is a little distracted by too many choices which seems to include everything but pig ears (she’d wished for them during her Home Visit, since her restaurant featured them that night). She isn’t sure exactly what she’s doing with her dishes when she starts. That seems to be her creative process, and it’s worked for her (fried chicken aside) pretty well so far. Hugh visits with her while she’s trying to figure out what to do, and he praises her creativity but warns her to clean the sweetbreads. She’s behind for most of the service; Tom’s constantly at her. But she gets the food out, and there are no disasters:
Crispy Veal Sweetbread Salad with Kumquat, Beets & Mustard: Padma loves the intensity; Yan thinks the beet is a stepchild; Hugh wishes the sweetbreads were cleaned better and weren’t cut as thin, as he misses that “milky softness” in the center. Someone’s gotta make a gif of that.
Braised Short Ribs, Parmesan Sauce, Nettle Puree & Squash Dumplings: Yan and Hugh are crazy about it; Emeril praises the nettle puree. Wait… nettles? Oh, I see, it’s a British tradition, I should’ve known. Especially with Noma turning weed cookery into the Next Big Thing.
Brown Butter Cake, Whipped Goat Cheese & Blackberry Sauce: Yan and Besh are crazy about it; Yan particularly likes the texture and balance the berries add, and makes a “yin and yan” pun.
Judges’ Comments at JT: Tom liked the sweetbreads, but Hugh wished she’d cleaned them more. Turns out she was cleaning them to order, which sounds bizarre to me, but I’ll admit my understanding of sweetbreads is, shall we say, limited. Or, more accurately, nonexistent. Tom: “You have to be prepped and ready to go.” Yeah, we got that from all the nagging you were doing during service. Her short ribs were delicious; Emeril loved the Parmesan sauce. Padma, who is feeling like she isn’t getting enough attention, turns up the bitch again: “Your sauces were great, I wanted to sweep up the sauce with Kristen’s tuna.” Was that really necessary? Brooke’s dessert earns high praise from Emeril, but Tom Was Not Impressed. It was nice, but it’s “not a restaurant dessert.” That’s because restaurants have pastry chefs. Making a delicious, well-made and balanced dessert that goes with the meal is the level they should be shooting for here, and she hit it. But I suppose they had to throw some kind of suspense into the mix, since Brooke’s food was clearly the best of the night.
Kristen wants to simplify, since her downfall has been overcomplicated dishes that can’t be executed properly. Well, that was her downfall once, when she wasn’t the actual cook, but ok. Tom visits her during prep and points out that may be why she did so well in LCK; the limited time forced simplicity. She agrees she didn’t have time to overthink. Whether she really did well in LCK or whether Tom just wanted her to win so he pushed her through, I don’t know, but I’m happy either way. She admits her dessert is an afterthought. Which is too bad, this is someone who made a cake in a tin foil pan to win a Quickfire. I question her taste in one-liners: “I’m sweating in places I didn’t know I could sweat” was ok, but “I peed in my pants a little” thanks to Tom’s frightening expediter persona may replace “I threw up in my mouth a little” as my least favorite disgusting tag line. Kristen, a little advice: no matter how the producers encourage you in that interview room, stick to food.
Chestnut Veloute, Duck Rillette & Brussels Sprouts: Good soup, but needs pickles. Pickles?
Seared Ahi Tuna with Veal Mustard Jus & Meyer Lemon Puree: Yan loves it, but Padma thinks the lemon curd is a little too harsh, and Besh got a little too much salt in one bite. He blames it on Tom.
Curry Chocolate with Cashews: The picture is really interesting, because there are leaves on top; ince recipes are not provided, I don’t really know what they are. Yan is surprised by the curry-chocolate combination, though Padma approves; Hugh thinks it’s not much of an idea; it’s a basic dessert.
Judges’ Table: They liked her soup, though Hugh felt it was one-note and safe. Well, yeah, that was her theme for the evening, keep it simple. Emeril liked the perfectly-cooked tuna, but the lemon was bitter. “I was going for bitter,” says Kristen. With some people, I’d call that bullshit, but not here, probably because I’m a Kristen fan. Tom: “The bitterness in puree didn’t work.” That’s making it clear. She laughs when they ask if she was happy about the dessert. “No, of course not, I gave you a bowl of chocolate.” Yeah, well, why’d you do that? Hugh calls it a badly thought out pot de crème. Emeril liked the flavor; it could be something, but it wasn’t tonight.
Sheldon knows Brooke has some high-falutin’ stuff in her arsenal, so to hone his skills he staged at the impossibly upscale Vintage Cave in Honolulu, a private club based on prehistoric cave art. He hears spot prawns speaking to him in the cooler, and they’re saying, “Pick me, I’m gonna make you win.” He found that really good weed he was wishing for on the glacier, didn’t he? “May the best man win, and you heard that right – the best man, not woman.” Sheldon, see what I said to Kristen above, about not letting the producers goad you into saying dumb things in your interviews? He’s never made dessert either. Well, not never, but it’s way out of his bailiwick. I’m getting a bad feeling about this.
Sashimi Spot Prawns, Court Bouillon, Radish & Asian Herbs: Emeril loves the radish and sea beans; Yan finds it delicate; Besh thinks it’s a difficult dish to pull off.
Roasted Quail, Pine Nut Puree, Garam Masala & Tangerine: Sheldon knows roasted quail with pine nut puree is out of his comfort zone, but he want to show he’s grown as a chef. Yan salutes the brave. Hugh isn’t crazy about the eau de Pine Nut hummus; it’s not Sheldon. Emeril wonders if he’s been brainwashed.
White Chocolate Mousse with Apple & Fennel: Padma loves the flavors, but Besh and Yan are distracted by the raw fennel.
Judges’ Table: Emeril loved his spot prawn, and Hugh was happy with a simple starter. But then the quail… Tom liked the seasoning but not the chalky pine nuts. “Did you roast the pine nuts?” Um, no, was I supposed to? It’s a replay of “They feed chum to the dogs.” He goes into the “I’ve grown” thing, but Emeril tells him there was nothing wrong with the Old Sheldon; he landed in the finale-before-the-finale, in fact (though his last three dishes failed). Hugh thought the quail was well-cooked, but not what they expect from him. A lot of this criticism could be read as, “You’re Asian, make Asian food” like they did with Hung, but I don’t think that’s the case here; I get the impression it just wasn’t a very good dish. He also gets spanked for using raw fennel in the dessert; it was an incomplete dish. Seems he made up the dish on the fly; he was saving his “real” dessert for the finale. Note to future contestants: have more than one dessert ready to go, please.
Tom joins the dining table and discusses his view from the kitchen, primarily that Brooke was in the weeds all night. We bid Besh and Yan adieu; only Emeril and Hugh get to stick around for Judges’ Table.
Top Chef is Not…
…a man. Sheldon’s out; I’m sorry, Menehune, I really like you, but you had a lot of trouble towards the end of this series. Fatigue? Maybe. I hope you win every award on the books and come back to TCM in a decade or so to show us all.
But this means the next Top Chef will be a woman; that “so far” Stephanie tossed in, way back in E7 was foreshadowing.
Based on what we were shown, they got it right. I’m a little surprised John Tesar and Stefan didn’t do better along the way, though I’m sure they’ll tell you (and I agree) it isn’t about who’s the best chef, it’s the best chef under these conditions. Kuniko could tell you that, too, if she wasn’t too busy opening new restaurants with David Myers. Anyway, I couldn’t be happier with this result: Brooke has been a star all season, and while Kristen stumbles once in a while, she’s also shone a lot; in fact, before RW, she and Brooke were trading off wins regularly. I’d have a hard time choosing between them. I think Brooke may have the upper hand, if only because Kristen has gotten tangled up in her complexity and now is also tripping over simplicity. But I’m sure of one thing: I’m going to be very happy with this season’s Top Chef.
Well, what do you think it is?
Addedum: It’s always exciting when worlds collide. On Saturday, March 2, Tom Colicchio will be the guest on UP with Chris Hayes, a weekend morning political panel show (it’s on MSNBC so it comes with strong liberal leanings). He’ll be talking about hunger, and promises to “make over the UP pastry plate.” For those who don’t know, UP has a plate of some of the biggest, unhealthiest goodies available plopped in the middle of the table every weekend. The plate is incredibly popular (it even has its own Twitter account) possibly because it’s so incongruous, sitting there amongst all those prescriptive liberals fretting about sugar and junk food. There’s even a bit of sport around seeing who, if anyone, dares to actually take a pastry on any particular day.
Yes, this is how I spend weekends from 8-10am. Then I spend from 10am-noon with Melissa Harris-Perry, who has fruit on her table. But she’s wonderful anyway.
I’ll post a link to Tom’s segment when it’s available (probably by that afternoon) in the Real Finale post.