Top Chef: Southern culture on the skids

There was a lot of pathos in last night's Top Chef finale, but did anyone else think it was a little lackluster? Kinda perfunctory? Just me?

Eh. Anyway, we set our scene at the stately Hotel El Convento, where a couple sisters (Steph and Lisa) have a shot at being either the first female or first hideous she-beast Top Chef. Richard, it's worth noting (and Tom Colicchio has noted this in recent interviews), would be the first faux-hawked winner of Top Chef. Which pull of destiny would be the strongest?

Obviously there's no Quickfire, as the chefs walk up to Padma, Tom, and three glittering stars in the heavens of cookery. April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig, Dan Barber of Blue Hill, and the deliciously marble-mouthed Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin stand at the ready. I must admit, I was a little concerned for their well-being; with the increasing amount of meat primals being broken down on this show, I was worred the chefs might have to butcher and filet these professionals!

But no, the stars stand in front of some lavishly appointed ingredient tables, full of choice cuts of meat. The final challenge is, more simply said than done, to create a four course tasting menu following the convention of fish-fowl-hoof-dessert. Yes, dessert. Thankfully, NO ONE felt the need to utter the famous phrase, "I'm not a trained pastry chef."

The bigwigs will serve as sous chefs for the contestants. First pick will go to the winner of the most challenges, except Richard tied it up with his win last week. Stephanie, winner of a tiebreaking knife-pull, still gets to pick first. She takes Ripert, Richard chooses the artisinal Barber, and Lisa gets the chickypoo April. Lisa's actually a little giddy at the chance to work in a "girl power" environment. Uh oh...happy Lisa. Scary.

Lisa plans on returning to her comfort zone, and despite her new sous chef's total lack of familiarity, she'll be doind a Thai/Vietnamese menu. Richard's chef focuses on a short trip from field to table, which might seem at odds with Richard's various and sundry technological interventions. Stephanie, however, is absolutely wowing Chef Ripert, even though she's concerned that she's annoying him. As head chef over a vastly superior talent, she feels guilty at watching him prep the fish with a critical eye. "He's like, 'Yeah, I know.'" To be fair, Ripert seems to be in a wow-able mood; Richard's Tabasco pelletizing technique, using liquid nitrogen, draws Ripert away from his station to observe with rapt attention.

The next day, Chef Tom waits to ambush the chefs: their sous chefs are done. It's each man/woman/hideous she-beast for him/her/grrBLARGHself. Richard acts nonplussed; "no show, no call, no job," he jokes. But he'd been concerned about his lack of focus at the end of the previous day, and can't be thrilled about losing that extra set of hands. Again, Lisa frightens the audience by being the most calm of the three chefs, with Richard "in the shit" by his own account, and Steph is her usual semi-frantic self.

After impressing Chef Ripert with his Tabasco pearls, initially intended for use with oysters, Richard decides to shelve his liquid nitrogen for everything except a quick-freeze bacon ice cream (yum! seriously, yum). Steph is worried about her dessert too, but it is Lisa who encourages positivity. Who is this creature who looks like Lisa but is calm, cool, chatty, and upbeat? To be fair to my original thoughts, I wasn't sure if this was genuine, or if Lisa was encouraging Stephanie to stick with a failed dessert.

The dining panel is full of luminaries, as we have come to expect. Along with the three sous chefs, the judging crew of Padma, Tom, Gail and Ted are joined by Puerto Rican food afficionado Alfredo Ayala and Tim Zagat of that Zagat. The chefs will serve each course to be compared side by side, and the winner will be the chef who puts together the best overall meal.

First course

Richard prepares a "barely cooked" scallop with mango and a pineapple vinegar. Lisa offers grilled prawns in chili-basil sauce with square potato chips. Stephanie plates seared red snapper over a truffled clam and white asparagus sauce, with green asparagus over the top. Richard's dish, "totally unfamiliar" to his sous chef, is well-cooked but struck some as overly complicated. I must have missed something because it seems like the least complicated of the three. Lisa's chili is too overpowering for some. Steph's, however, is hailed as "elegant" by Ted, and appears to be the best of the round.

Second course

Richard's "Which Came First?" dish asks whether the guinea hen, the chicken egg, or the roasted duck liver came first. It's an age-old question, really. Lisa's poultry course is tom kha gai (a Thai soup) with dumplings. Stephanie sears a quail breast with lobster ravioli, leeks, and a quail egg. Hers is well-seasoned, but lacking a good lobster punch. The leeks, on the other hand, are terrible, undercooked, and totally off-key. No one likes them. Eric digs Richard's complex dish, but it's generally regarded as too unrefined. Lisa's soup is the clear winner here, with Gail calling it "absolutely delicious."

Third course

Richard runs with the pig theme from last week and plates pressure cooked porkbelly with pickled radishes and a mirin broth. Lisa classes up the joint with some wagyu (you might know it as "kobe") beef marinated in coriander, a chayote and cucumber salad, and garlic chips. Stephanie bewilders everyone with lamb accompanied by maitake mushrooms, braised pistachios, and blackbery and green olive tapenade. Richard succeeds only with his radishes, and Lisa's dish is too sweet. Stephanie's trainwreck, which looks on the face to be very similar to Spike's olive-n-grape chicken salad, turns out to be a revelatory experience for everyone at the table. Tom says it's "full of surprises, and it works." That's another round for Steph.

Fourth course

There's a saying about going back to the well one too many times, and Richard throws it right out the window by plating his soon-to-be-patented banana "scallops" with the aforementioned bacon ice cream. Lisa whips up a Thai black rice pudding with lime mango crème and crispy taro chips (speaking of going back to the well, chips again, Lisa?). Lastly, Stephanie runs with her ricotta poundcake with tropical fruit and banana crème, despite her reservations. Those reservations are somewhat well-founded; while her cake is moist, no one likes the banana crème. Lisa's chip reliance is the only critique offered for an otherwise great dessert. And Richard's "scallops" are good, as is the bacon ice cream, but c'mon dude. Branch out! Regardless, it's a toss-up for this round between Lisa and Richard.


It's no use after crying, saying "it's a mistake, it's a mistake"

So there you have it. The last meal of Top Chef 4. Tom is impressed by the contrast in styles, and the makeshift stew room is full of freighted expressions. It's pretty clear, as they sit and wait, that Richard's out of the running. A solid dessert will not make up for the failings of the other three courses.

The Judges' Table commentary pretty closely repeats the in-meal commentary. Stephanie is clearly the winner of the first round, with her beautiful presentation besting Richard's underseasoned scallop and Lisa's really hot prawns. Similarly, Lisa had no real competition for the second course. "Lots of slurping," Gail remarks. Richard's muddled composition and extraneous foie gras, and Steph's sore-thumb leeks had no chance.

The third course was an interesting judgment, because I think the judges all really wanted to like Richard's dish. But he was hesitant to crisp up the porkbelly and risk losing the integrity of the meat, and that is a failure in the judges' eyes. Lisa committed the cardinal sin of doing wrong by wagyu beef; she undercooked it, when the pros all know that the very finely marbled fat needs to be cooked a little bit more to be fully released. Steph's crazy concoction takes the round on sheer audacity, but it was actually pretty tasty too.

My assessment of the fourth course appears to have been charitable towards Richard. While Tom liked the bacon ice cream, no one else really offers a lot of positive commentary. Padma, with a note of thinly veiled disappointment, asks Richard semi-rhetorically, "You won the dessert challenge with this dish, didn'y you?" Cue The Price is Right failure music. Stephanie's poundcake was nothing special, unrefined; Tom tells her he had problems with her banana crème. Lisa gets the most props, and will likely take the crown for this course.

Each chef is given the opportunity to add any final commentary to the judging, and they all do so. Steph feels like she violated a cardinal rule (and Dale's advice from last week) by second-guessing herself on her dessert, and accepts it as a failure on those grounds. Lisa, expectedly, is proud of her menu and feels like a top chef. And then there's Richard, who had been teased in promos as saying something flabbergasting. It wasn't the anti-Lisa tirade many of us were expecting; it was more surprising than that. "Okay, I'll say it, I think I choked tonight." He thinks he overthought, and I can't fault him there.

Richard's mouth-smacking back in the stew room made me feel for him; it really looked like he was fighting back the urge to puke. Gail is totally shocked at Richard's comment, and while it was surprising, I'm not sure I'd say it was shocking. He did overthink things. He only gets credit for his dessert, though, and at this point we can be sure that Richard is done.

The other two know it too, as Lisa ponders out loud which chef took each round, and gives no props to Richard. Steph looks over at him, and you can see the sympathy/pity in her expression. The question for the judges is simply, Which meal would they want to have again? That's key, because it smoothes over the potentially contentious task of deciding whose fuck-ups were worse.

And here, the winner becomes very clear to those of us who have watched this season unfold. There's no question that, while Lisa can craft a pretty good dish now and then, over the course of an entire meal, Stephanie is the chef we'd most like to re-visit. And in a very lackluster end sequence, Padma declares Stephanie the winner of Top Chef 4.

Sure, the pathetic balloon-drop last year was hard to watch, but c'mon. Have a little fun! Focus on Stephanie for crying out loud! We see Richard kibbutzing with Dale (who looks like he's wearing one of Nick Verreos' outfits) and Tom, and we hear Lisa expounding on her pride once again, but so little from our little Steph. But I guess that's fitting for the most demure contestant this season, who's just a little blown away at the moment.

Congrats, Steph!

***

So, that's the season for me, too. I'll put some thoughts together for the reunion show next week, but then that'll be it! I really want to thank everyone who showed up here to read and comment on this total moonshot of a column. I have enjoyed this immensely, and if anyone has any suggestions or requests, I'd be happy to consider doing the same thing for another show if the vox populi willed it so. Food is what I do, but I'm flexible.

Anyway, thanks again for reading. Please come back now and then!