Top Chef FINALE - Brothers gotta hug

Well stroke Kevin's beard, it's finale time. While it wasn't the most suspenseful arrival at the final three chefs in Top Chef history--if this wasn't obvious to everyone from just about Week 1, it should have been--it's still thrilling to see which of these very talented chefs will pull out a victory.

I should also apologize for the lateness of this post as well as many of my recent Top Chef recaps. I've lost the ability to post to Blogger at work, and between Great Dane dogsitting to Christmas tree hunting to 16 inches of heavy, wet snow, it's been a busy last few weeks. Hopefully I'll have things resolved by the next season.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves! We've got Kevin "Ginger Santa" Gillespie and the brothers Bryan and Michael Voltaggio competing for the sixth Top Chef championship. Kevin's clearly the fan favorite, and if he doesn't win that title next week, I'll eat Eli's Circus Circus soup. Michael's the loose cannon, answering to no one, leaving his precinct captain to explain the bodybags. Bryan has perhaps the most refined skill of the three, but that sometimes comes across as blandness or playing-it-safeness.

All three chefs are fairly comfortable around each other, even if Kevin's tendency toward comfort food irritates Michael. They're in the hotel, giving each other friendly shit, probably all trying to restrain that quivery feeling you get in your gut when you think you're in on a secret no one else knows.

The chefs meet with Padma and Tom, who outline the parameters of the final meal. It's usually a do-what-you-want affair, but this year is different. Course number one will utilize a mystery box, identical for each chef, full of ingredients that must be used. Course number two is a chef's choice course. Course number three must be dessert.

I'm not thrilled about the mystery box thing; it's a little too Chopped for me. But for all the novelty of Chopped ingredients and the questionable decisions of the contestants on that show, I guess we can live with having our trusted and very clearly capable chefs take on the concept.

The diners will be the judges, plus a group of influential restaurateurs. The sous chefs? Of course, out come all the previous contestants from Season 6. Jen leads them all, holding the knife block. Each finalist gets two assistants--one to help today, one to help tomorrow. They all draw knives.

Bryan: Jennifer, Ashley.
Michael: Jesse, Eli.
Kevin: Preeti, Ash.

I think the hierarchy of quality help is pretty obvious.

Inside the mystery boxes, the chefs find such ingredients as rockfish, kabocha squash, matsutake mushrooms, and Meyer lemons. No one's very happy with this at all. As the chefs get their teams working, Kevin's disappointed with how slow and useless Preeti is, and she's only chopping vegetables. At the end of prep, she might as well have been a random person off the Strip.

The next morning, Kevin's mad at himself for getting so upset about Preeti's suckitude, which makes me wonder if he blew up at her at some point the previous day. There's a knock at the door, and it's not Tom, or Padma--it's the mothers Gillespie and Voltaggio. Turns out, the chefs will be adding a new course, a first course dedicated to their moms and a dish that represents them.

At the table, Padma warns the moms to not get upset if the judges say critical things about their boys. The moms will only be dining with the judges for the first course, anyway. In the kitchen, Kevin's expecting a certain level of embarrassing commentary from his mom.

Alongside Tom, Padma, Gail, Toby, and the moms are chef Douglas Keane, Terlato Wine Group president Bill Terlato, and restaurateurs Donatella Arpaia, Stephen Starr, Drew Nieporent, and Sam Nazarian (spellings thanks to Christopher Rocchio at RealityTVWorld).

First course
-Bryan: A play on tuna noodle casserole with sardines (which he suspects his mother has never eaten in her life), German butterball potatoes, shaved fennel and panko bread crumbs.
-Michael: Cream of dehydrated broccoli with spot prawns and fried broccoli florets.
-Kevin: "Chicken and fixins," comprised of fried chicken skin, tomatoes, and a liquid version of squash casserole.

Here's an example of Bryan's subtlety coming off as blandness. The judges are underwhelmed, although he nailed the "mom's probably never had a sardine" prediction. Kevin's dish is very evocative of the South, and Tom is in awe of the levels of flavor in the squash. Mike slipped up in picking spot prawns, as they're very delicate; he's overcooked them.
Apparent winner of the course: Kevin.

Second course
-Bryan: Rockfish sous vide, curry kabocha squash.
-Michael: Butter-poached rockfish, sweet and sour crab salad, tomato kombu.
-Kevin: Rockfish cooked in duck fat, roasted squash, crab broth, roasted matsutake mushroom.

Kevin's broth (an area of emphasis we've seen time and time again this season) is the star of his dish, with rich flavors--but his mushroom is a complete misstep. Bryan's dish comes off as bland and lacking in texture as well. The fish was cooked well, but it was the safest dish of the three. Michael, however, nailed the combination of Meyer lemon and the kabocha squash in a very well-balanced dish.
Apparent winner of the course: Michael.

Third course
-Bryan: Venison saddle, Brussels sprouts, sunchoke puree, orange-juniper sauce.
-Michael: Fennel-scented squab breast, pistachio cassoulet, mushroom in three textures.
-Kevin: Slow-roasted pork belly, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, caramelized ham jus.

Anyone who knows those ingredients will recognize immediately that there's no way Bryan could pull off a bland dish this time. Indeed, all the diners are fascinated by it, and like it universally. Michael's squab is also texturally impressive, but his formed mushroom made of mushroom is a gimmick that the judges could have done without. Kevin's pork belly was undercooked for most, but his sauce was a hit.
Apparent winner of the course: Bryan.

Fourth course
-Bryan: Sheep's milk and white chocolate "dulce du leche" cheesecake, fig sorbet, dried caramel, basil.
-Michael: Chocolate caramel-filled coulant, butternut squash brulee and ice cream, candied pumpkin seeds.
-Kevin: Roasted banana, toasted peanuts, chocolate-bacon mousse, bacon brittle.

Chef Starr bitches about how it's so popular right now to put bacon in sweet dishes, but he just doesn't want pork with his dessert. Boo friggin' hoo. Most of the other judges like it all right, including Gail. Michael's cake forms were filled too high by Eli, but Michael also baked them for too long. They were very dry, and all the judges noticed; Gail seems to give it a lot of credit for being a good idea mis-executed. No execution problems with Bryan's dessert; Gail calls it a "pastry chef's dish," and everyone else appears to enjoy it as much.
Apparent winner of the course: Bryan.

By my count, that's two courses for Bryan, one for Michael, and one for Kevin. Kevin's happy with his execution, but that could just be gallows confidence. It doesn't seem like he's got a chance of winning. Michael's worried about his cake mistake and what it'll do to his chances of winning. This looks like Bryan's contest to win.

The judges pick one good thing and one bad thing to discuss with each chef. Bryan's mystery box course was a textural failure and seemed overly restrained. They all loved the venison dish, though. Kevin's mom-inspired dish was extraordinarily flavorful and complex, more than the sum of its parts. Toby describes the feeling of being let down by the pork belly, but Kevin defends it pretty straightforwardly (although not quite as straightforwardly as he did on Twitter during the episode's run). Michael stuck the landing on his matsutake mushrooms, and the pickled tomato was a "flavor bomb" for Toby--that's a good thing, trust me. But what happened with that promising dessert? Michael blames the timer. Hey, at least he didn't put it all on poor Eli.

The chefs are asked why they should each be the winner. Bryan thinks his dishes have revealed his style as a chef and his beliefs in food, and that expressing his cuisine is most important to him as a chef. Michael, who initially drily states that he just doesn't want Bryan to win, goes on to explain that he's never gotten a paycheck for anything other than cooking, and this is his life and he loves it. Kevin says that his food speaks to his soulfulness and how he feels that food can and should bring people together and make them happy. Can't say I've heard a better three answers to that question in any of the Top Chef finales.

So, in the judges' summary. First course: Kevin seems to be the consensus, although Toby liked Bryan's dish the most. Second course: Michael showed more risk and imagination, and Kevin's mushroom was a lower low than Michael's tomato, in her estimation. Bryan's dish was a non-entity. Third course: Gail found Bryan's venison dish to be flawless, but contrarian Toby liked Michael's squab more. Kevin's pork bell confounded their expectations of Mr. Pork. Fourth course: Michael's cake failure was obvious and acknowledged, but Gail seems to continue to give him points for what the dish could have been if he'd done it right. While Kevin's dish came up a little short, Bryan's dish was one that the judges would all want to eat again.

The phone poll goes decidedly for Kevin, but that might as well be the fan favorite vote; he's got no chance. Bryan's got to have it in the bag. The judges reconvene, and not Top Chef. Please see Richard Blais for your "Atlanta chefs shouldn't fuck up" prize. Everyone's pretty sure that they've never explicitly eliminated someone in the finale; this is odd. So, with sentiment out of the way, it's Bryan. Right? Congratulations can be addressed to Voltaggio.

Michael Voltaggio.

That's right. The winner of one of four courses, and the one who totally cocked up his dessert, takes the crown of Season 6. There are a lot of similarities to Season 4, actually. Stephanie Izard produced a lackluster cake, but Richard Blais' bungled pork belly dish and bacon-inflected banana dessert took him out of contention compared to the overall meal produced by Izard. This year, I guess Michael's concept and occasional strong execution excused his poor spot prawns, pistachio cassoulet, and tomato kombu in the face of Kevin's pork belly and bacon dessert "missteps," to say nothing of Bryan's two exceptional courses and two non-bad-if-boring courses.

I know I said you couldn't really have a problem with any of the final four chefs winning, but I kind of have a problem with the circumstances leading to Michael winning this season's competition. I just don't think we saw the same meal the judges used to evaluate the chefs; I'd like to know what didn't survive editing.

Hopefully, the reunion show this coming Wednesday will clear things up. But in the meantime, congratulations Top Chef Michael Voltaggio! Try not to be a dick about it.