Top Chef: THE FINALE

There were really only three questions going into the finale of Top Chef Season 5: Will Carla continue her hot streak? Will Stefan's early- and mid-season dominance re-emerge? Will Hosea's two front teeth come together to form the Power Sword and reestablish Prince Adam's dominance over Eternia?

(I was so proud of that joke, I couldn't throw it away with the rest of the tease.)

We return to New Orleans for the last installment of the Season of Stefan, so named because it seems like everyone (Stefan included) was hung up on Stefan. Also because he ran roughshod over the competition for the first nine weeks of the show. After that, Carla very clearly established dominance, winning two challenges and being at the top for the other two. Hosea's just kind of been there. All year.

It's that kind of brilliance and keen grasp of the nature of the competition that leads to the following bon mot from the fish guy: "If there was ever 'do or die' in this competition, this is it." Why yes, Hosea, I think you've nailed it!

Full disclosure: LOST ran long this week, so I missed the first few minutes of Top Chef the first time 'round. So there were certain moments prior to the beginning of prep that resonated as though they were placed into that point in the chronology having come from the end of the action. I'll let them be just in case you're actually reading this to find out what happened.

The chefs arrive at The Historic New Orleans Collection, where Padma and Tom assign them the "make the best three-course meal of your life" task. Each course will serve simultaneously, no desserts necessary, and cooking will take place at Commander's Palace. Twelve guests and judges will be dining.

And in the spirit of Top Chef finales, your extra helpers will be....past runners-up of Top Chef! Out walk Marcel (Season 2), Casey (Season 3), and Richard (Season 4), looking more or less like they just walked off the set. Marcel's much cooler now; did you see them shades? He killin 'em.

Knife block determines the order in which each chef will pick, and Carla gets to draw first. Unfortunately, she draws 3, and will have the dregs. Stefan turns his pick over to Hosea (like the arrogant tool he is--sorry, I'm off the Stefan Train), who in turn picks 1.

Hosea chooses Richard because Marcel reminds him of Stefan (hello, obsession) and apparently doesn't think enough of Casey. Stefan takes Marcel, also not thinking too long on the decision ("He's a bit of a twat, but who's not?"). Carla, always the optimist, tells Casey that she wanted her anyway! Yay!

Prep at the Audubon Tea Room begins contentiously, as Stefan's idly tossed-aside foie gras gets snatched up by Hosea before Stefan can stop him. Personally, I think this is a non-issue, but it makes for good chest-puffing fun. Hosea gets to be magnanimous, and Stefan gets to play the suffering saint.

Hosea's thinking seafood (shock!), mostly scallops, but also is running with that foie gras he nabbed. Stefan on the other hand doesn't want "a bunch of bullshit," unless of course he had gotten his foie gras. Carla, in keeping with her general style, wants to do meat and potatoes, classed up slightly. This turns out to be one of those "drums in the deep" moments where people who have watched Top Chef know that something bad is happening. Casey suggests to Carla, and eventually convinces her, that the sirloin should be prepared sous-vide. Does this sound like something Carla would normally do? Meditate on that.

The mid-break vignette features a "voodoo" fortune teller visiting the chefs, and Stefan revealing that he's still got a non-culinary boner for Jamie. A nice crystallization of how far off-track Stefan's gotten as the season has progressed. Chasing tail and buying voodoo dolls of his competition, rather than actually going out and winning like he always used to.

When the chefs return to Commander's Palace, Tom greets them with a tray of some crazy-ass foodstuffs. Crab, redfish, and alligator (which I must note I have eaten and written about here). The twist? You'll be making a fourth course--rather, a new first course of a passed appetizer featuring one of these ingredients. To decide the assignments, you will.....EAT THIS KING CAKE. BUM BUM BUMMMMMMM.

King cakes are known for having a small baby icon baked into one section, and the person who gets the baby gets a prize. The chefs dig in, and Hosea (drawer of the first knife, lest you forgot) gets the baby. As winner, he gets to assign all three strange meats. Naturally, he takes redfish. You know where the rest is going, right? Arch-nemesis Stefan gets the gator (and a finger in the confessional from Hosea), and Carla is left with crabs. D'oh!

Final prep and cooking begins with Stefan unceremoniously chopping off an alligator tail (nauseating many a Top Chef live-tweeter, from the looks of it). Carla gets pinched by a crab, but worse is getting sidetracked by them. She doesn't feel like she's focusing on her main three dishes.

Hosea's plan includes a sashimi trio, scallops with foie gras over pain perdu, and venison. Stefan has in mind a meal of halibut and salmon carpaccio, squab with braised cabbage and schupfnudeln (potato noodles that I'm fairly certain were spelled incorrectly by Bravo), and ice cream. Yeah, basically ice cream. Woo. Sous chef Marcel, meanwhile, is quite dubious of Stefan's plan to freeze the salmon in order to slice it very, very thinly.

Carla's got ideas for red snapper with saffron aioli, that sous-vide New York strip sirloin, and a cheese plate that would include a custard tart. In steps sous chef Casey, who opines that it would be just smashing if Carla swapped out the tart for a bleu cheese soufflé. Let me say that again: A SOUFFLÉ. DECIDED ON THIS LATE IN THE GAME. You know you hear it. ::DOOM....DOOM::

The meal is about to begin, and we get to meet the luminaries that will be dining on the finale meal. There's Fabio! Ti Martin, proprietor of Commander's Palace. Renowned French chef Hubert Keller. NOLA chefs Susan Spicer and John Besh (who lost out to that giggling weirdo Michael Symon to become the newest member of Iron Chef: America). Rocco, Toby... Oh, and in a kind of cool random inclusion, Branford Marsalis.

PASSED APPETIZERS

Hosea's blackened redfish on a corn cake with Creole remoulade, corn shoots, and micro salad VS. Stefan's alligator soup with celeriac, parsley, and a puff pastry "crouton" VS. Carla's shiso crab soup with chayote Thai salsa

This course is almost a complete wash. All three chefs put together strong dishes that each offer something exceptional. Hosea's presentation meets if not surpasses his flavor, while Stefan's puff pastry nugget is a welcome change from the usual crouton, and Carla's managed to once again bring out the best flavors of her main ingredient.

FIRST COURSE

Stefan's smoked salmon and halibut carpaccio with microgreens, American caviar, and a citrus vinaigrette VS. Carla's seared red snapper with saffron aioli, braised fennel, and grilled clam VS. Hosea's tuna, hamachi, and black bass sashimi with hot fennel oil, citrus segments, and fried tempura bits

Since when is Marcel so prescient? His disdain for frozen salmon is repeated nearly verbatim by Tom, who notes the watery presentation of Stefan's carpaccio. The winner of this round is Carla, whose flavors are well-balanced. Hosea's dish has promise, but is a bit bland. I would put a hurt on a bowl of tempura bits, though.

SECOND COURSE

Carla's sous-vide sirloin with seared potato rod and a merlot sauce VS. Stefan's pan-seared squab with braised cabbage, foie gras, schupfnudeln, and a grape jus VS. Hosea's seared scallop with foie gras over pain perdu, apple preserves, foie gras foam, and candied pecans

Oh, Carla. When has a chef sacrificed his or her vision for someone else's and succeeded? Seriously, never. Her sirloin by way of Casey is tough and clearly not "Carla," as multiple diners note. Her sauce, however, is great. What's really great, though, is Stefan's squab. It's Tom's favorite dish of the night, and surpasses Hosea's perfectly fine scallop (although High-Livin' Rocco is frankly tired of scallops and foie gras--good on Gail for rolling her eyes!).

(it's at this point in the kitchen, as Stefan is riding Hosea for doing venison when doing glorified chocolate ice cream himself, that Carla royally fucks up the Casey soufflés and chooses not to serve them)

THIRD COURSE

Strefan's straciatella ice cream and chocolate mousse with vanilla syrup and a banana lollipop VS. Carla's apple tart "coin" with bleu cheese, walnut crumble, and cress salad VS. Hosea's pan-roasted venison with chestnut celery root puree, wild mushrooms, and carbonated blackberries via Richard

Gail throws down some serious commentary in this round, expressing relief that Carla didn't come up with such an incomplete and unimpressive dish as her final product, but that it's extremely disappointing that the full course can't be served. She also slams Stefan's dessert as "very 1982" in its construction and presentation. While Hubert thinks it's weak to back out of doing a dessert course because you're not comfortable with it, Fabio repeats exactly what Hosea expressed much earlier in the episode: a sucky and half-hearted dessert is not the last dish anyone wants to serve on Top Chef. Hosea takes this round, though not uncontestedly.

In the kitchen, Carla knows she blew it. She repeats a sentiment expressed way back at the beginning of the episode, one of the ones I withheld at the time, about success being born of continuing to do what got her here. "The parts that my heart and soul were in, were good." Absolutely and truly heartbreaking.

At Judges' Table, Carla cops to taking Casey's advice on the sous-vide and the soufflé. Other than the appetizer, she didn't create a meal that reflected her as a chef. Hosea's glee in being able to assign alligator to Stefan was not hidden from Tom, although it really didn't amount to much. The venison, his best dish of the night, was a good progression but the blackberries were a throwaway gesture. Hosea defends his choice to abstain from dessert. Stefan challenged Tom to say that his frozen salmon didn't taste good, and Tom lived right on up to that challenge. Stefan almost seemed surprised (that's his problem in a nutshell). More praise for the squab, and more delusion from Stefan in defending his dessert as the best way to close out his cooking on Top Chef.

Then, the question no one likes: "why do you deserve to win?" At least it's not "why should X be eliminated?", which is even worse. Stefan points to his (nearly) season-long dominance. Hosea argues that his food represented him and it tasted good. Carla, clearly out of the running, clearly cognizant of what went wrong, simply states, "When I cook my food, it's really delicious." She cries. Stefan, of all people, comes to her shoulder also in tears. For a sometimes-boring ass season, this was some genuine and honestly compelling emotion.

So it's down to Hosea and Stefan (just like Hosea predicted, over and over and over and over...), and the judges start breaking it down. Stefan's squab was the best dish of all of them tonight, but his salmon was a letdown and his dessert was boring and played-out (despite the fact that Toby liked it, but then he's boring and played-out too). Hosea's progression of dishes was the most intelligent, and his venison was the most satisfying final course of the three.

Toby questions Hosea's abstention from dessert, and Tom reminds him that it wasn't a requirement. Stefan's level of soulfulness in his cooking is discussed, and Toby smartly, if pointlessly, remarks that "if we're going to give it to the most soulful chef, we should give it to Carla." At least Carla, my girlfriend comments, got herself a new car.

The chefs come back out, and it's clear they like Carla the best. She gets the most praise, maybe because they can give it to her without spoiling who will win, but maybe because she should have won had she stuck to her guns. As the ringing note of that disappointment dies, Hosea is declared the winner of Season 5 of Top Chef.

Stefan thinks he only lost for the dessert, which is half-true. Carla breaks down for the confessional, but feels vindicated in that she tried to compete in an unconventional way--with love--and succeeded at that. And oh my god, who's that skanky groupie that made it onto the set and latched onto Hos--oh, it's just Leah.

Congratulations, Hosea. I picked you out as a strong candidate back in the first week, and actually thought you had the look of a potential winner in the promos before the season started. I just wish you'd been more exemplary, but then that's the way this show goes: the true innovators stumble now and then, like Richard and Marcel, while the steady and competent chefs generally make it to the end. Carla should have been that chef, but Hosea won it fair and square.

Normally, I'd tell you now that you can stick around for Project Runway recaps, but I'm sure you've heard by now that the entire season (including the finale) is in the can and has no set air date. It's gonna be a weird season if it ever makes it to the screen. I'm not holding my breath. So in the meantime, I'll continue blogging about food, and LOST, and other random crap, and I hope you stay and read.