Saturday, February 28, 2009

"From Broadway to Bourbon Street" or "It's a big deal, because there's alligator on the table."

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Whew. I’m reeling from the many articles, interviews, blog posts and approximately 1,000,000 comments from the food- and entertainment-loving fans of Top Chef. Not on MY blog of course-my grand total of comments is a big ol’ 4! It’s a lot to take in! I need some time to collect my thoughts before composing my last recap. (Technically, it’s not my last, because I’ll post a few juicy tidbits, if there are any, from the reunion show, and I definitely plan to recap next season.)

I’ll admit to a bit of sadness as Padma runs through the list of prizes the crowned winner of Top Chef will receive (no trip to Europe sponsored by Evian this time!). Unlike other reality shows, like Survivor and The Amazing Race, Top Chef has almost a full year between seasons. We probably won’t be tuning in to Season 6 until around November, if we’re lucky! Thankfully, I’ve read quite a bit about casting calls lately, so at least I know the producers are staying on top of things! I wonder which city will be next….I’m thinking possible contenders might be Washington D.C., Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix, or perhaps San Diego? Las Vegas? I hope they don’t repeat locations, but if they do, I’d put money on LA or San Francisco again. A real down-south location would be great-seeing the finale in New Orleans has been wonderful.

Back to the topic at hand! The grand finale of Top Chef: New York! Before our three remaining chefs head to breakfast on the Creole Queen, a lovely ocean liner (No, it wasn’t an ocean liner, rather a small Southern steamboat. I just FELT like saying ocean liner!) we get a peek at Carla’s morning routine (yoga), Stefan brushing his teeth, and Hosea, remarkably, simply dwelling on how great it is to be in the finale, NOT devising a surefire strategy to beat Stefan.

They board the ship for breakfast and enjoy a nice camaraderie over beignets and coffee. Stefan sheds a tiny tear over the demise of Team Europe and once again professes that he is insanely more talented than Hosea, and that he is Top Chef. There IS another chef in this competition guys! And her name is wonderful, fabulous, kind, generous, sure-to-be fan favorite Carla.

After breakfast, the chefs meet Tom and Padma at the New Orleans Collection Museum. How are these meeting spots decided, I wonder? Does the finale host city pipe up and request certain spots? Are they chosen for certain characteristics that lend themselves to dramatic entrances by former contestants?

As anyone who has watched Top Chef is well aware, the final challenge is always something alone the lines of “cooking the best meal of your life.” I, for one, appreciate the consistency and inherent justice in such a challenge. It’s perfect, really, because it gives the chefs absolute freedom-they can choose to be adventurous and daring, or they can stick to what they know is best. Hmmm. Which path do YOU think is best? Some of the details of the final meal do change a bit-in this instance, the chefs are to make a three course tasting menu, to be served at New Orleans establishment Commander’s Palace. Dessert is not required.

What would a Top Chef finale be, however, without sous chefs? And famous ones, at that! Tom calls out for the “help” and previous second place finishers Richard Blais, Casey Thompson, and Marcel Vigneron appear. I like this twist! Granted, there have been previous seasons when the sous-chefs have been of true culinary celebrity status, like my beloved Eric Ripert or April Bloomfield (of NYC gastropub The Spotted Pig). I think there might be a bit less pressure, however, when working with individuals who have been through the same reality show wringer before.

The chefs draw knives to determine in what order they’ll select their sous-chefs. Hosea is able to select first, and he wisely selects Richard. Richard is a very solid technical chef, and also extremely creative. He stood out in his season the way that Stefan has in Season 5. Not surprisingly, Stefan chooses his long-lost blood brother and co-villian, Marcel, who looks a complete idiot in his awkwardly large sunglasses. This leaves Carla with Casey, who is probably exactly the pick she would have made had she been able to choose first.

The chefs are prepping in the Audubon Tea Room-again, I’m confused. Why there? A tea room? It does look to be stocked very well, as Hosea and Stefan almost instantly get into a scuffle over the fois gras. By the way, can you think of another reality show where the question “Where are the proteins?” would be repeated frantically? Hosea calmly agreed to split the fois after Stefan threw a complete fit. There was a small, similar debacle over the caviar a few minutes later.

Let the record show that Hosea’s cool, calm demeanor was admirable from the start here. He chose an excellent sous-chef, was assertive about selecting his ingredients, and didn’t panic when he didn’t have every single detail worked out during the prep time. Just a little sidenote.

Carla seems fairly confident. She’s wants to make French comfort food, simple, elegant, and tasty. Her plan is something along the lines of upscale meat and potatoes, accompanied with a bouillabaisse-style dish. Casey suggests that they sous-vide the beef, a technique that Carla has never done. And Carla doesn’t shoot this hare-brained idea down right away. BIG red flags here. HUGE.

We were treated to a small snippet of the final three meeting with a voodoo priestess-Stefan’s only concern is that his future love life includes Jamie. Not happening, Stefan. Not happening.

The day of the challenge, Hosea, Stefan, and Carla anxiously march into the Commander’s Palace, only to be greeted by a smirking Tom, standing in front of a tray that contains, among other things, ALLIGATOR. He informs the chefs that they will have an additional course, adding an appetizer to their menu. Their ingredients? Alligator, redfish, and crab. How will their protein be selected? Being that it’s Fat Tuesday and all, the chefs will have to dive into a king’s cake, each hoping to find the baby in their piece. Whoever finds the baby gets to assign the proteins. Now, for my two cents, I’m going to say that I found this twist irritating, because it eliminated the “fair” aspect of the final challenge. Redfish is unusual enough, but alligator? It’s an extremely rarely-used ingredient, and the powers that be most certainly knew that it was highly likely none of the chefs had worked with it before. They could easily have required that the chefs share the same protein for the appetizer, and sentenced all of them to death by alligator. If it’s about honoring the local ingredients, the appetizer could have been made in the Creole style. Even better, the chefs create their own appetizer! This was just ridiculous. In the end, it actually didn’t matter at all, but I am still not a fan of that kind of manipulation.

Hosea found the baby, and to no one’s surprise, took the redfish for himself, gave Carla the crab, and promptly assigned Stefan to alligator duty. Of course, Stefan would have done the same thing. No need to get irritated. Hosea decides to make a griddled corn cake with creole remoulade and grilled redfish, because he is proud to be in New Orleans. Stefan makes alligator soup-really, what else can one do with alligator? After being rescued from her especially aggressive crabs by Stefan, Carla decides to make a shiso soup with crab, served in Chinese soup spoons. They’re all looking good.

Since I included the menus for the first part of the finale, I thought I should probably include them again:


Trio of Sashimi
Scallops and Fois Gras with Pain Perdu
Venison Loin with Wild Mushrooms

My thoughts: Hosea went about his menu in a very determined and sure fashion. He focused on flavor and presentation, and he opted for his favorite meat for a final dish. He doesn’t opt for a dessert, because it’s not “his strong point”, and it’s not the last representation of Hosea that he wants the judges to have. He’s definitely playing it safe.


Halibut and Salmon Carpaccio
Squab with Braised Red Cabbage and Schupfnudeln
Ice Cream and Chocolate Mousse with Vanilla Syrup and Lollipops

My thoughts: Stefan feels strongly about a complete meal including desserts, and he has shown himself more than capable of making a good one. His squab with red cabbage is going to be great, without a doubt. He’s shown remarkable ability to successfully pull off European comfort food in the past. The carpaccio is the only question-is it ever a good idea to freeze fresh fish?


Seared Snapper with Saffron Aioli and Crouton
Sous-Vide New York Strip Steak, Potato Rod and Merlot Sauce
Cheese Tart with Apple Coins and Marmalade

My thoughts: I think it’s great that she’s focusing on the sauces. The problem is that Carla is following Casey’s lead, not the other way around. Casey suggests a blue cheese soufflé, rather than the tart, which we all know Carla should reject, because she’s a great pastry chef in her own right. This could be a big problem.

The finale dinner begins with the entrance of many important guests: Ti Martin, proprietor of Commander’s Palace, Hubert Keller, head chef of Fleur de Lys, Rocco di Spirito (wait, he’s not important!), and Branford Marsalis, jazz composer, and yes, brother of Wynton Marsalis. Gail and Toby Young will be judging, along with Padma and Tom. It’s sure to be an interesting evening.

Hosea’s appetizer comes out first, to resounding success. Everyone seems to love it. Stefan’s alligator soup is next. Delicately topped with a bit of puff pastry, it’s actually delicious. Fabio has joined the judges, and they all enjoy every drop. Carla’s crab and shiso soup with crab and chayote salsa is another hit. So far, no clear front runner.

The judges take their seats, and the parade of lovely white square plates begins. Carla’s dish is “something special”, and reminded Ti Martin of her first visit to France. Score! Hosea’s sashimi looked beautiful, but lacked seasoning. Stefan’s technique of freezing the fish so that he could create the perfect, delicately thin slices for carpaccio caused a problem for him, despite getting praised by Hubert Keller. Carla is looking good!

Second course is a different story. Stefan’s squab was beautifully cooked, and Gail cannot stop eating Hosea’s scallop and fois gras. Carla’s sirloin, however, was tough-a negative result of the sous-vide process. Tom immediately notes that this is not what they’ve come to expect from Carla. Way to pass on your inside information, Tom.

For third course, Hosea confidently sent out his venison, Stefan paraded a “dated” version of dessert, and Carla was unable to include the Casey-inspired blue cheese soufflés, because they curdled during cooking. For the most part, the opinion seemed to shift towards Hosea and Stefan. Carla is out of the running.

There were some rousing debates at judges’ table between the final four judges, Toby, Gail, Tom, and Padma. It seemed clear the Carla had no chance to win, and her own acknowledgement of where she’d gone wrong was heartbreaking to witness. Despite feeling sorry for her, I was dismayed to see the poll for “Who Should Win Top Chef?” pop up on the screen with an overwhelming majority for Carla. Even before the challenge, I would never have picked her as a winner! It’s not a popularity contest, people! Carla’s fate was sealed when she wasn’t able to make her own decisions for the dinner, a mistake that neither Hosea or Stefan made. She was sweet, and kind, and made an impressive run to the finale, but Hosea and Stefan would have had to suffer some serious disasters in the kitchen in order for her to be a proper competitor.

Once the judges determined that Carla was out, the decision came down to Team Europe or Team Leah-gate. Toby was firmly on Stefan’s side, in spite of the uninspired dessert and watery carpaccio. Tom, Padma, and Gail appreciated Hosea’s proper progression more, and were disappointed with Stefan’s lack of soul and decision to make a “pedestrian” dessert. This problem with Stefan was his Achilles heel throughout the season, but let me say, with absolute confidence, right now: if Stefan had truly made the best third course, he would have won. Tom, Padma, and Co. have always been consistent with their decisions in the finale, though I’ve been disappointed in one or two individual episodes. Personality comes second to good food. If the show was designed around past performance, Stefan would have been the clear winner. The fact is, it’s judged on a challenge-by-challenge basis, and for the finale, Stefan simply didn’t deliver his best. Hosea deserved the win.

This has been one of the most controversial finales in Top Chef history, right up there with Ilan/Marcel/Sam in Season 2. Frankly, I’m surprised, because any true fan of the show would have expected, and certainly understood, the final decision. I’m not going to say I was back on the Team Hosea train, because he has irked and annoyed me ever since the Leah fiasco, but I can certainly admit that he made the best last meal. He’s Top Chef, whether we like it or not!

I’m going to include a few links here, articles that I enjoyed and feel cleared up a bit of confusion.

Interview with Hosea, TV Guide

Tom Colicchio, People

Gail's Thoughts

I’m looking forward to the drama-filled reunion show next week! And next season, you can’t come soon enough! I’m already missing my beloved Tom!

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