And so ends the decennial installment of Top Chef. This season took us from the molluscous bays of Seattle to the diarrhea-soaked walls of an open-flameless cruise ship, and then all the way from the yeasty, salmon-smelling streets of Juneau to the desperate glare of studio lights in LA's Kitchen Stadium Too. Top Chef: Seattle was different. It was different because we saw the unexpected return of old friends like Stefan and CJ, and because we saw the return of forgotten acquaintances like Josie, who quickly reminded us why we pushed them out of our brains to make room for better, less car horn-esque memories.
It was different because it was the first season to climax with two lady finalists, one of whom stole this writer's heart. Kristen Kish almost didn't make it here. But she fought her way back from an absurdly early exit with a string of victories on Last Chance Kitchen. The most unfortunate legacy of this year's season is likely to be that Kristen's return gives ammunition to whichever mid-level Bravo programming executive believes that "the web is the future" and that it makes sense to keep expanding "the digital space." We'll be lucky if we even get to see any of next season on television; if that Bravo VP gets his of her way, each week's winner will be revealed in a Bravo.com exclusive webisode after we vote using a special mobile app.
And man was last night different. One legacy of this season unlikely to endure is the new format of the finale. Now, I am always in favor of challenges where the cooks get to cook, and like most finales of this show, there were few obstacles in the finalists' way on the road to serving whatever dish they wanted to serve. CJ sometimes didn't listen, and Stefan tried to flirt with strangers, but mostly the sous chefs did their jobs. And I totally enjoyed seeing the finalists' families there, and it was great to see all previous nine Top Chef winners, even that hambone Hosea. Hosea, that's not the second course, that's a candle. You are eating a candle. It was fun when Padma called Ilan fat and greasy. So, cooking in front of a live audience filled with peers and loved ones is chill. I even liked that for a few courses the two chefs shared ingredients but for a few they didn't. I liked a bunch of it!
But I did not like how the first person to win three courses took the whole season, and I especially did not like how each of the five judges' votes was announced live. Does someone at Top Chef really enjoy the fraction 3 out of 5? Because that fraction is very unfair to 2 out of the 5. When we heard three votes for Kristen's first course, the round was over and we never heard the judges' other two votes. Maybe they were announced live, but judging from Brooke's reaction, they weren't. The fourth round was do or die, with one chef leading 2 to 1, and the winner was given away by the fact that there were only a few minutes left in the episode. What is a Top Chef finale without suspense? Remember when Hung and Casey awkwardly stood around in the live finale waiting for confetti to announce one of them as the winner? That was more thrilling that last night's episode.
For me, a signature element of Top Chef is the judges' table, and the struggle the judges have, on camera and off, to reach a consensus on the night's best meal. They don't give a snap judgment and then tally up the votes. They go back and forth, they discuss details and slip-ups and flavors, they talk about the progression of the dishes, they tolerate Padma's drunken tone poems, and they do it once they've tasted everything. They never even got to the dessert last night. And maybe Kristen won her rounds by a hair and Brooke's winning round was so overwhelmingly dominant that in the scheme of things her meal was a better one. Who knows. As Brooke said, "I did not expect a stadium." From the uncomfortable looks on some of their faces, I'm not sure the judges did either. I know Tom didn't. He hadn't realized he'd signed up for the Voice. Where's Cee-Lo? No, literally, does anyone know where Cee-Lo is? He might have fallen into a hole and needs our help.
If this recap is light on jokes, it's because this episode was light on material. The most honest moments on the show, which tend to be the moments most worth joking about, tend to happen during the downtime between the cooking, the meltdowns during the cooking, and the judges' inquisitions about the cooking. We got none of those three things last night. Each chef quietly cooked their meals, and about the most revealing thing that happened is we learned that Kristen is still very pretty even when she is drenched in sweat and frazzled by nerves. Or maybe that's the love talking, who knows. The judges, robbed of their usual deliberation time, gave commentary along the lines of "This was a good dish," "It was velvety," and, "The flavors were very balanced." Gail loves saying that things are velvety. I'm surprised Hugh did not say anything "sang." The only back and forth happened when Tom asked Kristen why she didn't roast the mushrooms. She told him, and he said, "Okay." Fiery stuff.
In case we forgot to watch all season, the finale did give us a brief roundup of Brooke and Kristen's personalities and resumes. So let's look back and remember. Brooke started young and has been a prodigiously successful chef and businesswoman in LA. She's been consistent all season long, and consistency tends to win challenges, but end relationships. I am still a little confused, but it seems that she came on Top Chef because having a four-year old son never lets her do anything adventurous, so this was an opportunity to leave him at home and do something fun. She also came on because she doesn't want to pass on her phobias of heights, boats, and helicopters to her son. I'm not sure how that will work. When he is older, will she show him a tape of this season to prove that he shouldn't be afraid of boats? Because then Hudson will also see that you came on the show to have some fun without him, and he might develop a fear of abandonment. He's at the taping of the finale, sound asleep. He's smart. Brooke, who's known all along Kristen was her strongest competition, wants to win to prove she didn't win all those challenges just because Kristen was gone.
Kristen is only a little younger than Brooke, but since showing up in Boston with just a suitcase full of (presumably beautiful) clothes, she's found herself a dream job running the ten-person tasting table at Stir for chef Barbara Lynch. She has a photographic memory and talent to spare. She can almost be forgiven for living in Boston. (We have yet to have the talk about who's moving where, but come on, I live in Brooklyn. It's not a tough call.) Since taking the bullet for Josie's saucing mistake, Kristen's confidence has only grown. She knows she was eliminated too early, and she knows she can win. Her vision for her food is "simple and clean, really pretty, and nicely executed." It's just like her! Except for the last part. Though she's got the unending, heartbreakingly sweet support of her loving adoptive family, a win on Top Chef means a trip to Korea to discover her past. Her weakness is that for the last two years she's only been cooking for ten people. There are 150 people here at the finale. My advice is to do what you always do, but like, 15 times as much. I should be a teacher.
For the first course, Brooke makes the Zagat Instagram-worthy salad we saw her think up in last week's episode; it's a chicory salad with crispy pig ear, a six-minute egg, apricot jam, and candied kumquats. For this play on frisee lardon, Brooke wants her pig ears very crispy, so CJ stands dumbly at the stove while he burns most of them. Tom and Emeril are sort of floored that Brooke isn't doing anything about how burnt they are getting. Luckily, the judges end up with slightly better plates. A few of their plates are overcooked, but mostly the dish has great flavor. Hugh, who is admittedly a giant fan of salad, loves how good she is at salad dressing. She knows balance.
Kristen's dish is a chicken liver mousse with frisee, mustard, prunes, hazelnuts, and pumpernickel. It's not the first time she's made chicken livers this season, but the judges have trouble finding fault with her simple, classic execution. Gail doesn't like that the mousse is under the frisee, and Gail probably wishes it was "velvety." Hugh, Gail, and Emeril all vote for Kristen's dish, and she wins round one. We do not know how Tom and Padma felt.
Brooke is disappointed she didn't get any votes, but maybe Tom and Padma would have voted for her. Maybe that would have helped her confidence. She gets to work on the scallop course. I have never seen scallops this big, and Kuniko is cracking open shells the size of dinner plates. There is a strange, powerpop-like soundtrack playing under this segment. I'm not sure how Brooke and Kristen worked out the sous chefs, but Stefan is on Brooke's team. He calls to Kristen. "I chose light blue." "For what?" "The baby's bedroom!" "Shut up." She seems genuinely uncomfortable with that joke. Maybe you took it too far, Stefan? I know I did. Sometimes, what people hate even more than being objectified is joke-objectified. What if she does want a baby with you, Stefan? Now your joke is mean. But who doesn't want a baby with you.
Brooke's dish is a seared scallop over a salt cod puree with speck, black currant, and a mustard seed vinaigrette. Oh yeah, there is juniper too. She almost forgot. Tom reminds her that there is Romanesco on there as well. Her plates are busy. She went for a hard sear on those scallops, and the judges find it perfectly cooked with, yes, "balanced flavors." Emeril is obsessed with salt cod, so he loves this.
Kristen went raw with her dish; she serves a citrus and lavender cured scallop with bitter orange, Meyer lemon and apple. Tom says, "This is exactly what I expect from you." Even when Tom is complimenting you it feels like there's about to be a "But..." Padma says she did her ingredients proud. "There is nowhere to hide on this dish," much like there is nowhere for Padma's breasts to hide in her intensely red dress.
Gail and Emeril vote Brooke, and Tom and Padma vote Kristen. The tie breaker goes to Hugh. How did they decide this order? Hugh votes Brooke, and each chef has won one round.
In round three, the chefs can cook whatever they want. Kristen goes for big, earthy classical flavors. She's roasting off marrow bones and cooking mushrooms. Brooke decides to do a statement dish. She nearly got thrown off the show for her boneless fried chicken, and she wants to show she can fry chicken on-the-bone right.
It's a nice thought, but it's been about six months since that all happened and maybe no one cares anymore. She serves vadouvan fried chicken wings with a yogurt-tahini sauce, and a pickled kohlrabi fattoush. That is a mouthful, literally and figuratively. All the judges are surprised to be getting chicken wings in the finale. Hugh, who wasn't at the fried chicken meal, doesn't even get the reference. Brooke explains why she wanted to prove herself. Tom says, "I get why you're doing it, although I'm still not sure why your'e doing it." Brooke realizes she's made a possibly fatal mistake.
Kristen's celery root puree with bone marrow, mushrooms, bitter greens, and radishes is a more expected and more satisfying choice. Emeril loved the earthy tones, and Gail says "velvety." Tom says, "At this point in the competition, it's a more interesting dish." Emeril, Tom, and Padma all vote for Kristen, and she's up two rounds to one.
The fourth round ingredient is red snapper, and unless the judges prefer Brooke's snapper over Kristen's, she is going home the loser. Basically, if you don't get how this works, the judges will sample each of the two finalists' snappers, and whomever's snapper they like the most, that's the one that wins. And that is the end of the part of this recap where I make snapper jokes. It's literally one of the grossest slang words on the planet, so let's all be happy that I stuck to two or three tame sentences. As Emeril says, for Brooke, this is a $125,000 dish. Brooke's had success with surf and turf in the past, so she gives the judges a braised pork cheek and red snapper with collard green slaw and a sorrel puree. Hugh thinks the snapper is perfectly cooked. Tom loves how the whole thing is put together, and Emeril really appreciates the sorel in there.
Kristen's snapper has leeks, little gem lettuce, tarragon, uni, and a shellfish nage. Tom goes on and on about how beautifully cooked it is and how great the depth of flavor is. Kristen deserves to be back, but also Tom loves Kristen, and every Last Chance Kitchen decision was all his. Gail found the leek stems difficult to eat. Hugh didn't mind that because he is comfortably using a knife. Once again, we get a randomly ordered vote: Gail votes Kristen, and Emeril votes Kristen. Tom pretends to hem and haw, and then he gives it to Kristen. She's the new Top Chef! Kristen Kish has won Top Chef.
What emotions here. Remember when Kristen was eliminated from this television program? And now she won it. That must be feel great. I mean, it must feel great for her. And for me. But not for Brooke. Brooke is extremely disappointed. She shouldn't have served fried chicken, and she hates that she lost. "It's hard to go through so much and still not get there." Hopefully she is not doomed to pass on her helicopter fear to her child, who is still fast asleep. Brooke will be fine. She's mega-talented and runs multiple restaurants. She's also only 34. She's killing it.
Like all finales, the episode ends with lots of hugging and crying and laughing. Kristen says, "This win means absolutely everything." Her father hugs her and says, "I'm so proud of you. Mom is so proud." I get very teary. I am also proud of you, Kristen. In some ways, mostly untrue ways, I feel like I willed you back on the show through my own sheer focus and desire. But also, it's probably that you are a tremendous cook. You have many fans, and Tom is one of them. They have a very cute and awkward talk at the end, in which it's clear Tom is elated to see Kristen as the second female Top Chef.
And you know who else is happy for Kristen? Josie. They have a very cool and normal high-five to end the season.