The first time I saw Top Chef was at 4am when I was on my Nordic Track and there was absolutely nothing else on TV to watch. It seemed like it was a Project Runway knockoff that was trying to capture the excitement that the original Japanese version of Iron Chef had brought to food on TV. Despite the fact that Katie Lee Joel was the hostess, I was hooked. The idea of being challenged to cook a dish in a limited amount of time with specific ingredients or restrictions and without any recipes really caught my attention. It wasn’t hard to see the show either because at that time Bravo was basically a TIVO that replayed every episode of every one of their shows just about every day (Thanks Corey) in a desperate bid to fill up their seriously lacking programming schedule. Harold beat Tiffani in the finale and a television legend was born.
This year, after seven seasons of compelling competition, Bravo decided to bring back eighteen of the past season’s cheftestants for Top Chef All Stars or as I nicknamed at the time, The Richard Blais Redemption Tour. Richard was known as the best chef to never win after he choked in the Season 4 Finale in Puerto Rico. Bravo assembled quite a few former finalists, quite a few fan favorites and a couple more former cheftestants who seemed like filler to round out the cast. Unlike other seasons, we already knew these chefs. We had been emotionally invested in some of them and we knew what to expect. Or so we thought we did.
Early favorites faltered and were incredulous as they were told to “Pack their knives and go”. Some chefs cooked safe and played for the middle ground and others just plain hid. (Yes, we are looking at you Jamie) In fact by the halfway point in the competition, five former finalists had already been eliminated. What had started out as a playful competition had started to turn into the food fight that you saw on the early season commercials. More knives were packed and sent home with their owners and some solid favorites began to emerge. Richard was constantly in the top group but looked frustrated that we wasn’t winning more often. Mike was a dark horse why is he there candidate at the start but really seemed to be a more complete chef than he had been in Las Vegas. Antonia continued good very good but not flashy food and Carla (Melman from Madagascar) was hottie-hooing her southern charm into every dish. It was off to the Bahamas for these four as we continued to wittle away to the final two.
Now I have to admit that I had a little bit of a problem with the choice of the Bahamas as a finale destination because the cuisine in that part of the world seems to lean toward conch & hot (not always in that order) and not much else. It did however give the show access to the Atlantis Resort and it’s endless number of restaurants. It also gave the chefs a little better access to quality product. Carla said goodbye first and then Antonia lost to Mike in a sudden death one bite showdown that had Wolfgang Puck breaking the tie in the first elimination that did not feature the Judge’s Table and the really cool elimination music. That meant we were given a finale of Richard Blais vs. Mike Isabella. Two different personalities, two different styles and two different flavor profiles. (For those of you playing Buzzword Bingo, that should just about complete your card)
For the final challenge, Richard & Mike were instructed to create a Four (4) Course Tasting menu for the restaurant of their dreams and dessert had to be included. This is the kind of challenge that you should expect from the finale because it really gives the cheftestants a chance to cook in their comfort zone. Cooking for the judges and 70 diners is not a task that can be handled alone so we knew that there would be sous chefs involved and so did Richard & Mike. Now we have seen a variety of sous chefs in the finale over the seven previous seasons from name chefs that also were judges to past winners to bitter cheftestants that felt they were unjustly told to pack their knives. We have seen sous chefs help win a finale and we have seen, most famously with Carla & Casey, a sous chef lose a finale too. So let’s who the sous chefs were and whether they had an effect on the outcome.
As a kind of a quickfire, we had 15 of this season’s chefs there (who was missing ?) to cook one appetizer. No restrictions. The dishes were then anonymously lined up for Richard & Mike to taste. They then were supposed to select the 3 dishes they liked best and those would be the chefs working for them. I could tell immediately that neither of our two finalists was wild about this arrangement since they both wanted to pick Jen “Beast in the Kitchen” Carroll and you could see that she wanted to be in that kitchen too proving that she was meant to be cooking on the final day. As fate would have it, Jen’s dish did not get selected but Richard did wind selecting Spike, Angelo & Antonia as his helpers and Mile got Tiffani, Jamie (OH NO !!!) & Carla as his “angels”. The menus were discussed and the teams got ready to get to cooking. Luckily the sous chefs turned out to be non-factors in the final outcome and the finale really did come down to Richard vs. Mike. Would Richard get his redemption ? Would he be able to get past his CHOKE in Season Four ? Would he lay the smackdown on Mike in retaliation for Mike “borrowing” one of his quickfire ideas and then beating Richard with it ? Would Mike be able to take the three months of training that he went into before the finale to the next level. Was missing his honeymoon worth it ? Could a darkhorse why him candidate best remembered for his mouth instead of his cooking claim the title of Top Chef ? Let’s take a look at what they made.
(Before I go any further, cooking shows are a tease. We can only see the food. You can’t smell it. You can’t touch it. You can’t taste it. Trying to pass judgment from our side of the television screen is ridiculous. So let’s do just that, shall we ?)
The guest judges for this round were Lidia Bastianich, Hubert Keller, Alfred Portale and Curtis Stone (only because he is replacing Kelly Choi in 2 weeks as the host of Top Chef Masters)
Richard Blais – Tongue in Cheek
- An “amuse bouche” of Raw Oyster with lemon horseradish ice cream & salsa verde – while this was visually pleasing and apparently tasty, it did not count toward the judging though it did help set the mood for Richard’s later offerings.
- Raw Hamachi with fried veal sweetbreads, asian pear, pickled radish & Garlic Mayo. This was a dish that made the judges go wild. I am not a big fan of raw fish. I think God invented fire so we could COOK the fish but it seemed to work. Visually is was colorful and looked great.
- Pork Belly with Black Cod Cutlet and bone marrow, beets, brussel sprouts and kumquat – another dish that the judges loved. The combination somewhat surprised me as it seemed to be a “tongue in cheek” surf & turf combo.
- Beef Short Rib with mushrooms, red cabbage marmalade and celery root horseradish puree – the judges felt that Richard had played it safe with this dish. They wanted something more from him. This is where I throw a penalty flag and call “FOUL”. The challenge was to create a tasting menu for the restaurant of YOUR dreams – not the judge’s dreams – they were supposed to cook what they wanted, not what the judges wanted. If I saw this dish on a menu, I would very happily order it.
- and finally dessert – Cornbread with Foie Gras Ice Cream and whipped mango. Yep, you read that right – Foie Gras Ice Cream. Nasty. Now here is where I throw the flag on Richard and say “FOUL” ! He switched from his planned Cap’n Crunch Ice Cream (that screams RICHARD BLAIS) to an ice cream that they wouldn’t make on either Iron Chef or Chopped just to try and impress the judges. He better hope that this ice cream is not his Waterloo.
And now onto Mike Isabella and the menu for Restaurant Iz
- Spiced Beets with Mozzarella and chocolate & truffle vinaigrette – bold move with the chocolate vinaigrette but not a complete surprise considering he had done black olive caramel in the overtime round last week. Colorful but not a strong opener.
- Halibut with kumquat marmalade, cauliflower puree and pancetta crumbs – this dish was little monochromatic for me and the portion looked like it could have been a little bigger but when he ate it, Tom Colicchio said it was the best fish dish he had ever had on the show.
- Braised Pork Shoulder with pepperoni sauce, roasted cabbage & turnips – first let me mimic Gail Simmons “PEPPERONI SAUCE !” – now say it at least three times and each time say it like you have never said it before. Let me also point out that we have yet to get through a finale without a braised pork something – not that I mind. The judges loved this dish and I am sure that I would have too even though I never get pepperoni on my pizza (I’m a ham & pineapple guy but fruit in your food is another blog for another time and we are not here to discuss that now)
- and for dessert – Rosemary Caramel Custard with pine nuts, citrus, cherry & apple – another dessert I would never order as is and would only eat if served. Not a big hit with the judges so we can toss the dessert round into the circular file and focus solely on the three main dishes.
Based on what I could see and interpret from the editing & comments it looked to me like this was going to be a very close race and they would have a difficult decision to make. We know from previous seasons that the final judges table can go on for hours as the judges dissect every nuance of each course. I think it was safe to say that Richard won the first course, Mike won the third course and the desserts were a push. That left the second course as our deciding factor. As I mentioned earlier, Tom Colicchio said that Mike’s fish dish was the best he had ever had on the show but then during judge’s table he qualified that remark by saying that he hadn’t had Richard’s fish dish yet. I think that may have been the deciding factor because when they called the two finalists out for the final decision, Padma looked to her right just like she did in the commercials and told Richard that he was indeed TOP CHEF.
There was a stunned moment for Richard and a look of severe pain for Mike, who had been rocking like a 5 year needing to go potty while waiting in line to see Santa. The Richard Blais Redemption Tour was finally complete and the stain on his record from 4 seasons ago had been removed. As good a chef as Richard is, I think it was his “Stanley Cup Playoff Beard” that was the final factor.
And in possibly the best moment of the season, we got to see & hear Richard call his VERY PREGNANT wife back home in Atlanta and tell her “I’m Top Chef”. With that it got dusty in our bedroom and I fired the maid.
Thanks for checking in and come back next time, when we finally discuss some food that I actually cooked instead of food that was served to me or food that was seen on TV.