Top Chef All Stars: Finale Part 4: Finale

M: Now that’s what I’m talking about!  We got a finale where everyone lays it on the line, no one chokes, and there was great food all around.  Now, as a quick warning, if you haven’t watched and don’t want to know who won, well, for the love of God don’t read a review of the finale.  In other words, thar be spoilers here!

E: Of course, it also turns out that if you watched the promo for the episode, and noticed which way Padma’s head was facing, you knew the winner anyway.

M: So they did give it away?  Wow.

E: I thought perhaps they reversed the film, but Mr. E pointed out that we’d have noticed Padma looking different (and, indeed, she was wearing a one shouldered dress) so they probably wouldn’t have tried that.  Still, I didn’t feel secure in that knowledge until the end of the show.

M: That aside, let’s move on to the guts of the show.  Immediately after Antonia was sent packing Mike and Richard were told that the final challenge was to create the restaurant of their dreams.  No quickfire, just that… four courses, 70 some-odd diners, and the winner get the title and the $200,000.  Plus, they get to sleep on it.

E: I actually think this is a much better finale challenge than the usual.  As Tom said, it’s a true test of a great chef, because it encompassed all the areas in which a chef needs to excel; organization, managing a team not only in the kitchen but in the dining room.

M: I loved it, too.  It really did test everything they need to be a true top chef; creativity, skill and palette when dealing with the food, but also the ability to see a cohesive menu put together, leadership and organization.

E: These guys were tested, and no one could say they didn’t earn our respect.

M: When they woke, they went to the kitchen where they were greeted by all the eliminated contestants, who had already been hard at work creating an amuse bouche, like Mike and Antonia had to the night before.  The spin was that Richard and Mike would taste each of the dishes, not knowing who made them, and pick their top three. The chefs that made the three they picked would become their sous chefs, while, as Spike pointed out as Padma was explaining it, the rest would get to go play on jet skis.

E: Vacation for some, hard work for others.  Although truthfully, they had an hour to plan after the taste-off, and then they could go out and have fun while Richard and Mike went back to their hotel to stew some more.

M: I found this to be HIGHLY entertaining, as Richard and Mike went around tasting (and smelling!) each dish, trying to determine who made what so they could pick who they wanted, and more specifically avoid who they didn’t want (read: Marcel).

E: Yeah, that was pretty entertaining.  It was a bewildering array of dishes.  I actually though it would be much easier than it turned out to be.  You’d think that people like Fabio and Dale and Angelo, for example, would have been easy to pick out.

M: I don’t know, off of one bite, especially when the chefs themselves didn’t know that it would be a blind taste test?  Who knows what they’d make!  Anyway, Mike really wanted Jen Carroll, but ended up with Tiffani from Boston.

E: Now, he doesn’t have the same friendship with Tiffani as with Jen, but she’s still a great pick.

M: Agreed, very solid.  Richard didn’t want “whoever said they have jet ski reservations”, which was Spike, who he promptly picked first.

E: That was pretty fantastic.  But those two are buds, so it’s cool.

M: Yeah, that worked out hilariously well, which we’ll get to later.  Mike didn’t want Jamie and got her in another attempt to pick Jen.

E: Ah, Mike.

M: He closed things out by hitting the jackpot with Carla, while Richard hit two out of the park with Antonia and Angelo.

E: Yep, those were lucky.  Didn’t you expect that Richard would seek out his buddy Fabio, though?

M: I totally did!  I think Spike kind of ended up filling the Fabio role, though, so it worked out for “Richie”.  I also thought that you’d make a snide remark about Mike getting three women…

E: His “angels,” you mean?  Naw, he was actually pretty respectful and enthusiastic about it.  I’m getting a little ahead of myself, maybe, but the sous chefs were no drama, all hard work, and really fantastic.  Despite Spike’s desire to go jet skiing, he and everyone else buckled down and showed what they’re made of.  The way people work together as a team in a kitchen can be really inspiring.

M: A quick aside from the competition…  we discussed the amuse bouche’s not being bite sized last week, and the first thing I noticed with the dishes that the eliminated contestants made was that none of them were bite sized.

E: Some of them were. I particularly noticed Mike slurping some of those big spoonfuls up in one, er, slurp.  But yes. This is an issue.

M: I found it very interesting to see how each of the finalists worked with their former competitors turned sous chefs.  Mike had a little bit of Michael Chiarello in him, shooting down ideas and basically telling them to do what he says.  However, he did this for the right reason, of wanting to really do his food and not compromise on that just because someone else thought it might be better to do something else.  Richard, on the other hand, gave his team much more input.  At different points they showed his sous chefs coming up to him making suggestions, and him green lighting them to try what they wanted.  Of course, since two of his sous’ were The Black Hammer and Angelo, this made me very worried for him.

E: Dude, he didn’t need The Black Hammer.  He can choke on his own.  We’ve been afraid of it all season.

M: That’s not very nice.  True, but still not nice.  Now, like you said when you were getting ahead of yourself, all the sous chefs worked their butts off and did a great job, as did both finalists.  They both came up with creative names for their restaurants (much better than RE-Volt, from back in season six), with Mike choosing restaurant “Iz” (for Isabella), and Richard playing to his whimsy with “Tongue and Cheek“.  I liked Richard’s better, but Mike’s had that trendy, one word feel to it (which Family Guy so fantastically mocked in the episode where Brian and Stewie opened “Place”) that so many highly successful restaurants have these days.  As for the themes, Tongue and Cheek is very much Richard’s style that we have come to know over his two seasons, playful, creative and technically innovative.  Mike, on the other hand, surprised me with his.  Having said in the last episode in New York that he has never cook Italian food professionally, I did not expect Iz to be rustic Italian, albeit an innovative version of it.  I liked that he’s no longer so saddened by the loss of his grandmother that he’s comfortable enough to cook Italian food professionally.

E: I think he’s grown up a lot, I really do.  And for me to admit that, it takes a lot.

M: They split off and took over two different restaurants, and the judges split up and dined with some special guests (like first ever Top Chef guest judge and Top Chef Master finalist Hubert Keller), switching restaurants after they finished the whole menu of the first.  Richard added an amuse bouche to his menu, coming at the start before his four courses, which was an oyster with “pearls” of frozen creme fraiche.  It was a big hit with the judges, but as Tom Colicchio notes in his blog, was not counted toward judging as it was outside the parameters of the challenge.

E: That’s a total shame.  I was initially pretty confused by that, actually, when they were counting the dishes.

M: In the first courses, Mike made a beet salad with a chocolate vinaigrette, that the judges liked, but deemed to be the worst dish of the night (which goes to show how well both contestants did).

E: Indeed, and I have to tell you, I’d like to try that.  Chocolate vinaigrette?  Really?

M: Richard made a raw hamachi dish that, as Spike, the James Bond of Top Chef, relayed back to Richard, had the judges licking the plate clean.  Clear win for Richard.

E: I thought Spike’s lurking was rather pathetically obvious.  The man makes for good tv, though.

M: I thought it was absolutely hilarious.  I mean, how do you “spy” while wearing a fedora?  Still it was fantastic strategy and really helped during dessert, but again we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  The second course brought us a pair of fish dishes.  Mike made a halibut dish that he cooked to perfection and had Tom stating that it was the best fish he’d had on the show to date.  Of course, as he revealed at judges table, he ate it before he ate Richard’s black cod.  Combine that with restaurant Iz having a very lengthy delay between the first and second courses, and Richard again took this round, but ever so slightly.

E: That sounds about right, although I understand Gail had some issues with her piece of cod, so that wasn’t true of all the judges.

M: For the third course they both did a braised short rib, and here Mike did his best work, creating a pepperoni sauce that had the judges, especially Gail, all atwitter.  Richard’s dish was very good and refined.

E: I thought they said rustic, actually – maybe even too simple.  Or at least, part of why Mike “won” that round is that his dish was more creative.

M: It came down to Richard making something that was good, but lacked a wow factor, and Mike blowing their socks off.  Both were properly glazed (there was a great clip of Mike and Jamie talking about how Tom always chastises contestants for not glazing their braised beef), but the pepperoni sauce was the big hit, so Mike took that course.

E: Aren’t you dying to know what the heck pepperoni sauce is?  Seriously, I want that recipe.

M: Totally!  The dessert dish was, in classic Top Chef fashion, the one area where both of them had issues.  Richard had planned on making an ice cream with Cap’n Crunch somehow mixed into it, but decided that it wasn’t well thought out enough, and scrapped it in favor of foie gras ice cream.  His first batch of it didn’t work at all, while the second batch was significantly improved.  This is where Spike’s spying came in.  After the first batch was received so poorly, he went back and helped Richard figure out how to fix it based on what the first group of judges had said.  Across town, Mike made a custard dish that he didn’t cook properly, and even had he would not have been a big hit with the judges.

E: Well, they didn’t remotely hate it.  And they did really like Richard’s cornbread; I think you’re making it sound like they were bad, when really it’s more like they just weren’t in love with either dish.  Not like Kevin’s Singapore Sling, the most successful dessert in the history of Top Chef.

M: Ok, you’re right, they didn’t hate it, but they did say that the desserts were no where near the level of the other three courses.  Because of that, dessert was not much of a factor in the overall decision.  It was kind of a wash, if not slightly to Mike because of Richard’s first batch of foie.  Personally, I would have liked to have seen the Cap’n Crunch ice cream, that sounded fun.

E: Yes, and foie gras ice cream?  Not so fun sounding.  I’m wondering, though, if Richard didn’t get points in the restaurant running category for fixing that desert on the fly.

M: He definitely should have.  In the end, both Mike and Richard put out outstanding meals, with the judges gushing over how good the food was.  Mike definitely proved that he belonged in the finale, Richard overcame his nerves and past finale failures and did not choke.  As Gail said, it came down to nit picking, which is exactly how I wanted it to be.

E: Me too.  That’s what you want of any competition, be it athletics or cooking; a classic confrontation is where both competitors do their utmost.

M: Both chefs did their best, and as I hoped, Richard’s best was (ever so slightly) better than Mike’s.  Yay Richard!!  He has been my favorite contestant in the entire eight seasons of the show, and while he did get whiny at times this season, I still find him captivating, funny, entertaining, and supremely talented, so I was really excited for him.

E: Me too.  Plus, he generally seems like a good person.  If caring too much is his biggest flaw, well, I can deal with that.

M: As for being a good person, I don’t know if you’ve read season six’s Eli Kirschtein’s blog about the finale, but there’s more food for the fire there.  As there were in a few moments that I found really touching.  The first was when Richard and Mike were sitting in the stew room breaking down how it would go if either of them won, and Richard offered that if he won he’d give Mike a bunch of the prize money to start his own restaurant.

E: That was awesome.  They talked about that on the after show, and revealed that because of recent exposure his great, late run has brought, Mike had actually gotten his financing completely secured before Richard could spend any of his winnings.  Mike was really gracious in saying that with Richard’s generosity and constant help – for all of his competitors – he raised the playing field, and helped Mike himself make it to the finals.

M: Things like that, and like him saying he’s taking Fabio on the vacation that he won when Fabio was his sous chef, get me every time.  The next was when Richard was announced as the winner, and Antonia, who had just been eliminated THE DAY BEFORE, then spent the day helping Richard cook, screamed and jumped up and down for joy.  Talk about professionalism and caring!  The last was Richard breaking down and crying about it, but on the spot and when calling to tell his uber-pregnant wife.

E: Awesome, right?  The moment when Richard says “I willed this to happen,” all low and throaty with tears on his face… Just awesome.   And calling his wife, who’s so shocked – yeah.  I loved it.

M: Speaking of wives…  Mike’s married?  WTF!

E: I know, right?  Now, my first thought was “who on earth would marry Mike?” but he was adorable with his wife, talking about how he was doing it all for her.  How many episodes, and this is the first we’re hearing about her?  I suspect unkind editing.  Maybe they didn’t want to humanize him too quickly.

M: I think that it had to have happened between the filming of the bulk of the season in New York, and when they went to the Bahamas for the finale.  He mentioned that he missed his honeymoon for this, and you have to imagine if he was a newlywed that his wife, not his mom, would have been there on Ellis Island in the last episode before the Bahamas.

E: Speaking of humanizing, however, can we all get a resounding Hootie-Hoo for fan favorite Carla Hall?

M: Who called that?  That would be me.  Thank you, thank you very much.  Seriously though, I was so excited for her.  I’m also excited that they’re starting right back up next week with another round of Top Chef Masters!  To quote Bud Light’s new slogan….  here we go!

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