Top Chef Seattle: Episode 17 – Finale (Finally)

ADDENDUM: Tom Colicchio appeared on UP With Chris Hayes on Saturday, 3/2/13, starting out with a couple of solo segments to talk about the release of the documentary he just produced on Hunger in America (“A Place At The Table“) then a broader discussion, on a full panel of four, about food politics and economics, school lunches (including shots from the S7 school lunch challenge), and the restaurant industry. I was impressed; he held his own along with the activists and policy wonks. The videos of the segments start here and should chain from there.

I was looking forward to this finale.

No matter what the outcome, I figured I’d be happy. It isn’t that I didn’t care who won; it was more like I wanted them both to win and kept going back and forth, but I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed (or outraged) either way. Unless, of course, someone made a horrible mistake and won anyway. But that didn’t happen.

I’m guessing the producers saw they were dealing with two likeable contestants with strong skills and low-drama styles. And panicked. No hissy-fits? No back-stabbing? No trash-talk? Just solid cooking with a few unusual accents and standard foods combined and presented in slightly different ways? What kind of finale would that be?

So they wrecked it.

I suppose it’s better than making a big deal out of a single serving of fish with bones in it, or ramping up some phony suspense about whether a dessert would set in time. Or featuring an extra leaf of arugula as a major flaw (love you, Paul!) only to have Tom backtrack in his blog the next day.

No, I take that back. It isn’t.

Ok, so I’m an old fart, and I’m resistant to change; I know these things. But it was nearly unwatchable. Oddly, I’d just left a comment for minxeats complaining about (among other things) the unwatchability of The Taste (all those flashing lights and dynamic camera angles obscured what was actually happening). So imagine my disappointment that TC decided to go that way as well.

It wasn’t unwatchable, but it was close.

For Starters:

Instead of the usual boring opening sequence, we have Padma playing Game Show Hostess. What I truly loved was that for the first ten seconds of her little spiel, her face was covered by the TV Parental Guidelines square. Hint: Producers, when you’re using a world-famous model, don’t put her in the upper left-hand corner for the opening.

iron chefWait: the kitchens, the judges, the audience, 160 diners (including the families of the two contenders and all nine former TC winners) are all visible in a huge open studio. It’s Kitchen Stadium. Did they knock-off Iron Chef America? Why would they do that? Just to show they could? Or to return Alton Brown’s smackdown?

We join things in progress: the chefs have already chosen their sous chefs (in whatever mysterious way: was it random draw or alternating choice? Why should we care what’s actually going on, let’s just look at the flashing lights and dark space and fast shoulder-cam pans and marvel at the confusing visual. ADDENDUM: Kristen’s post-show interview with TV Guide fills us in). Brooke has CJ, Stefan, and Kuniko; with Kristen are Lizzie, Sheldon, and Josh. I wonder again about Kristen’s ability to choose a team, and admire Brooke for not going for the last-eliminated, but focusing on who might have skills she can use. I love Sheldon, but Kristen does French; unless she’s going to be making breakfast, what good is Josh? But she was thinking about egos, or lack thereof. I guess that means they selected. So it tickles me that Stefan is on Brooke’s team.

I wonder if Brooke’s fears include stage fright. If so, she’s in for a rough night.

First Round:

I’m not sure what’s going on, but it seems they’re doing a First Course. Though Padma calls it Round One, without explaining how many rounds there will be (TC, The Mystery Version). Brooke warns CJ not to fry something; cut to CJ flaming pig ears (aha! Knew she’d work them in), drawing displeasure from Tom and Emeril, but no chiding from Brooke, who’s busy. Kristen frets that her comfort zone is cooking for ten, not 160, so she needs to stay calm and not throw up. Yep, not throwing up is good. Kristen expresses herself using bodily functions a lot. That might not be the best style for a chef.

Kristen serves Chicken Liver Mousse with Frisee, Mustard, Prune, Hazelnuts, and Pumpernickel. Emeril notes it’s not the first time she’s done chicken livers on TC, but he loves it; it’s simple and classic and very her. Tom likes the seasoning and balance. Gail thinks it’s perfect, velvety and airy, but the lettuce and croutons piled on top make it hard to find. Its a perfect metaphor for the finale.

Brooke finally gets to serve the Crispy Pig Ear Salad with Chicory, Six-Minute Egg, Apricot Jam, and Candied Kumquats that she developed over the break. Sounds kind of breakfasty, doesn’t it? Tom loves the flavor; the eggs and puree (presumably apricot?) worked together. Emeril loved the dish, but his cracklings were overcooked, thanks to CJ’s flambé technique while Padma’s were delicious and not burned at all. Hugh praises her knowledge of balance in salad dressing, which sounds like damning with faint praise (how many times have the judges scorned a salad as an offering) but he emphasizes how important it is. I think it’s the best-looking dish of the night.

Round One Vote:

Now we find out: each round will be voted immediately, and the first chef to win three rounds will win Top Chef. Sort of like the Super Bowl. For each round, first chef to win three votes wins the round. Which opens up all sorts of possibilities for manipulating the results to stretch things out and add suspense. It also cuts down on the discussion of the food, which Tom acknowledges in his blog. Sure they’d want to cut down on the descriptions of the food, since we’re viewers who can’t taste it and thus rely on the judges’ comments; they wouldn’t want to make it too easy for us. TC, Viewer Challenge Edition.

Kristen wins Round One with Hugh, Gail, and Emeril before Tom and Padma have a chance to chime in. Brooke admits there were execution errors. Be sure to thank CJ for the burned pig ears.

Round Two:

Brooke is using a wide spectrum of flavors. Kristen shouts out direction for a rub to Sheldon: “Four parts salt, one part sugar…” At least I think that’s what she said (yes, the recipe backs that up). She sees Brooke has a lot going on, but she wants to highlight, not cover up, the scallops, so she’s taking a simpler approach. Tom worries that Brooke wasn’t keeping a close enough eye on CJ last round, which resulted in burned pig ears. We hear from Brooke’s family, how she used to watch Galloping Gourmet when she was five years old. Hey, I watched it when it originally aired back in the 60s, back when the Galloping Gourmet still galloped, before he traded in his clarified butter and wine for a calorie chart and a Bible. Stefan is flirting with anything that moves, and on this set, that’s a lot of flirting.

Brooke prepares Seared Scallop with Salt Cod Puree, Speck, and Black Currant and Mustard Seed Vinaigrette. Tom likes the combination; it’s her style to make a version of a basic dish with one thing fighting for dominance, and the scallop is perfectly cooked. Gail wonders why she cooked the scallops so early in the process; she wanted to let them rest. Hugh loves the synergy and earthiness. Emeril’s always a fan of salt cod puree (aka brandade), and this drives it home.

Kristen makes a Citrus and Meyer Lemon-cured Scallop with Bitter Orange, Meyer Lemon and Apple. Tom’s pleased; it’s exactly what he expects from her, flavorful and delicious. Padma: “There’s nowhere to hide on this plate, well done.” Emeril also loves the simplicity.

Round Two Votes:

Gail and Emeril go for Brooke; Tom takes Kristen (people are beginning to talk), Padma ramps up the suspense with a vote for Kristen (forever putting to rest the debate on TWoP about whether or not Padma gets a vote), but Hugh breaks the tie in Brooke’s favor.

Round Three:

They have 34 minutes. Another complaint: no prep time. The first dish seemed to take a while – it had to, for braised pig ears – but everything else is fast food. Add to that the lack of information about whether that is indeed the case. It’s like the Elves are saying, “Just look at the flash and don’t worry your pretty little head about what’s actually going on.” Well, I’ll worry my not-so-pretty-little-head about anything I want, and I want more substance, less sizzle.

Brooke is making chicken wings, then worries this might be too playful: what if the judges don’t want to eat with their fingers? Kristen tells Sheldon all about super-umami bone marrow. Does Sheldon do bone marrow? Does he need to? There’s more family stuff, but that’s when I go get more tea.

Brooke plays with Vadouvan Fried Chicken with Sumac Yogurt-Tahini and Pickled Kohlrabi Fattoush. I thought someone had done vadouvan on this season already, but it looks like that was back in All-Stars E3. Unless I misspelled it. In any case it’s a French spin on curry powder. Fattoush is new to me: it’s a Lebanese bread salad. And sumac is not the same as poison sumac. Hugh was not expecting chicken wings. Brooke defends them as a redemption of her boneless, and flavorless, fried chicken in E12. Tom: I get why you’re doing it, though I’m still not sure why you’re doing it” which is maybe my favorite thing Tom has ever said. He’s also not sure about the salad working with the chicken wings.

Kristen brings out her Celery Root Puree with Bone Marrow, Mushrooms, Bitter Greens and Radishes. She does radishes a lot. Tom asks why the mushrooms were stewed which eliminates their roasty toasty goodness; she wanted the mushrooms as an undertone. Padma wishes something was something, but it wasn’t. Gail isn’t enthused, either.

Round Three Votes:

The judges must’ve been mighty displeased at eating chicken wings with their hands, because Kristen take it 1-2-3: Emeril, Tom (duh), Padma. How did that happen? Tom explains his reasoning, and the deeper failure behind Brooke’s dish, in his blog entry. I say, nonsense. We already know Padma doesn’t mind licking her fingers on camera. Or is it ok if she’s paid for it?

Round Four:

They’re tied 2-1 so Brooke needs to win to keep the game going. But since it’s 10:45 by the time they finish the commercial and start, I’m thinking this is the last round. When the voting starts at 10:55, it’s pretty much a sure thing. For the usual 10:40 interstitial, they feature the former winners giving advice. And they go out of their way to make Ilan look like a jerk. Not that it’s hard… Surprisingly, his advice does not include head-shaving. Kristen practiced this dish; Brooke is going Surf & Turf. And there’s a restaurant supply company getting a lot of product placement time.

Brooke serves Braised Pork Cheek and Red Snapper with Collard Green Slaw and Sorrel Puree. Hugh’s glad to see collards; Tom likes the combination. Emeril loves the sorrel, it perked everything up. Gail loved the play between pork and snapper, and the pomegranate gave it the juice it needed.

Kristen makes her Red Snapper with Leeks, Little Gem Lettuce, Tarragon, ad Uni-Shellfish Nage. Tom’s happy Gail likes the textures, but the leeks, served long and stringy, are hard to eat; they have to be cut. Hugh loved the braised leeks, and didn’t mind that he had to use his knife to cut them. For the record, little gem lettuce isn’t that much of a big deal.

Round Four Vote:

First, Tom asks Kristen about her comeback from elimination, then, at 10:52, we cut to commercial. Spoiler, Bravo. They also show a poll that Kristen is ahead of Brooke for Fan Favorite by 56 to 44, but this seems to be a different Fan Favorite than the important one that earns them money (which I’ll get to).

At 10:55, Gail votes for Kristen’s dish; it was a little more harmonious, and she loved the use of uni. Emeril also goes for Kristen. Brooke looks sad. Kristen looks nervous. And Tom gets to cast the final vote (of course; he is head judge, and you know they aren’t going to let Padma seem to elect the new Top Chef) for Kristen. And Hugh, well, he already got to do a tiebreaker.

In case you weren’t paying close enough attention: Kristen wins Top Chef. Both of them have red eyes and trembling voices in their after-interviews.

I’m happy. I was surprised to discover, during the show, that I was hoping Kristen would pull it off. But I wouldn’t have had any complaints at all about Brooke, either; she seems to know what she’s doing, she seems super-nice, and I admire how she did the boats and the helicopters and all the other crap all season long. She did a great job, and she came off well, and I have no doubt that’s going to serve her well in the future. Maybe not as well as $125,000, but if she wants to get investors together for a restaurant, I don’t think she’ll have any trouble finding them. And if she wants to go the media route, she’ll find herself welcome there, too.

The Unspeakable Andy Cohen Show

I don’t watch this show. I don’t even know the actual name of it. I barely watched it last night, just during The Daily Show commercials, but enough of interest happened to comment.

For instance: in spite of the poll put up during the closing segments of the episode, Sheldon won Fan Favorite and $10,000. Which is super-cool; he is incredibly likeable, and if he hadn’t had those stumbles over the last three episodes, it could’ve gone a different way. When asked on air by phone how he was going to spend the money, Sheldon said: “I’m going to pitch out my 2013 Product Placement Make Model”. Or something like that; Andy Cohen couldn’t manage a clear phone connection to Hawaii, because, well, beyond the shotski and a fondness for showcasing obnoxious housewives, the man’s talents are limited.

And a caller asked Kristen to say three nice things about Josie. Kristen had no trouble:
1. She’s got a wonderful spirit.
2. She’s a great alarm clock (“She woke me up every morning.”)
3. I’d eat her food. She can cook, TC wasn’t the right platform.

Next Week:

I do Calculus on Thursdays instead of recaps. Which is going to do wonders for my comprehension of derivatives and optimization.

If you really, truly haven’t had enough, you can read Francis Lam’s behind-the-scenes; as much as I liked Francis Lam as a TCM judge, it’s nowhere near as interesting or informative as the less-prestigious Nosh Pit article from July.

See you next season. I hear they’re casting already.

2 responses to “Top Chef Seattle: Episode 17 – Finale (Finally)

  1. “Hey, I watched it when it originally aired back in the 60s, back when the Galloping Gourmet still galloped, before he traded in his clarified butter and wine for a calorie chart and a Bible.”

    Me, too! I’ve never gotten over Graham Kerr’s conversions to religion and healthy food. I lost all respect.

    • Mo, I should’ve known 😉 He told the goofiest stories and made the silliest expressions. I didn’t taste clarified butter (on lobster) for years after that; it’s always tasted like crayon wax to me.

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