Well, here we are. After sixteen long weeks we have finally reached the Top Chef finale. It feels like only yesterday we were all watching the first episode and thinking to ourselves, "I wonder who will be the villain this season," and "Why aren't there many New York chefs as contestants," and "Did I put on deodorant today?" Oh, what a long way we've come.
We open on Judges' Table, but not of the previous episode, but of the final judging. Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse, and Hugh Acheson are in a heated discussion of who will take home the title of Top Chef. Clearly, after the challenge the judges are locked in indecision. And then, before we see the next scene, we are whisked back to 48 hours prior as if this is Memento.
Now we're back at the end of the previous episode, with Tom and Padma greeting Nick Elmi and Nina Compton as they move into the finale. For their ultimate challenge, each chef will take over a restaurant for the night and serve a four-course menu that proves they deserve to be Top Chef. It's a straightforward challenge that doesn't even seem to be sponsored. I'm confused. If a chef wins a challenge that doesn't involve Philadelphia Cream Cheese or Dunkin' Donuts coffee, does it even count?
Before I even have time to ponder what life is like in a non-sponsored-challenge world, we cut to Padma emerging from the ocean like a Baywatch montage meets The Birth of Venus. For all of my knocks on Padma — most of which are actually directed at her wardrobe stylist — girlfriend looks great. Then I remembered that not only does she look like that, but she HAS A KID. Then I paused my TV and laid face-down on the floor for a while.
When I was done with that, Padma greeted Nick and Nina in their apartment with a group of previously-eliminated chefs behind her. She tells Nick that the advantage he won after winning the last challenge was he gets to choose his three sous chefs first. His first pick is his Philly buddy Jason Cichonski, who thankfully got the week off from Abercrombie. For his other two sous chefs he chooses Louis Maldonado and Bryan Huskey. Together, they form the world's worst fraternity.
Nina chooses Shirley Chung, Stephanie Cmar, and Travis Masar. Both teams are strong and relatively unsurprising. Then the chefs not chosen, Janine Booth, Sara Johannes, and Carlos Gaytan, head to the beach with Padma for the rest of the day, which frankly sounds way better than helping someone else win the prize you wanted for yourself.
Nick and his team begin planning the restaurant menu, and thankfully Jason is wearing his most professional tank top. He is contributing a dish he is known for in Philly, scallop noodles. Nick then plans to put finishing touches on it to make it his own, so probably under seasoning them and overcomplicating the dish if history is any indication.
Nina is dedicating her meal to her dad and wants to use both her Caribbean and Italian cooking influences to show her journey as a chef. In addition to the required four courses, she decides to add two other surprise courses. It sounds a little aggressive.
The rules do not force either chef to make a dessert within those four courses. Nina knows they aren't her strong suit, but decides to do one since she has an ice cream recipe in her back pocket that would be the perfect end to the meal. Nick decides to revisit his failed panna cotta from the Spanish-French challenge, even though the judges all thought it was one of the worst things he cooked. It doesn't feel like the right move to me. It's like going back to that relationship that ended so badly and being like, "Oh I think I know how to make this work this time!" and then nine times out of ten you'll still find him having sex with a cocktail waitress at your office holiday party. What I'm saying is, it's a bold move.
Nina and Shirley are on their way back from Whole Foods when Travis calls to tell her there is no ice cream maker at the restaurant, so she can't do her dessert as planned. This is shocking and upsetting news, but not as shocking as the fact that on both ends it took place over flip phones. Bravo, flip phones? Did someone need to get in touch with Stringer and Avon later? Shifting gears, Nina decides instead of the ice cream to do zeppoles, or Italian doughnuts.
Back the frat house, I mean Nick's kitchen, Jason is preparing his scallop noodles by standing on a pan of scallops to press them. He says, "200 pounds of straight pressure on that bitch!" which is actually a french culinary term meaning "to flatten." They only teach it in the finest institutions.
After the first day Nick and Nina meet Tom and Emeril for one last dinner together. They are ready for a nice time and then are surprised by their families: each of their spouses, Nick's mom, and Nina's brother. It was a touching moment that made me consider who would come support me if I were on the eve of possibly being named Top Chef. Probably my mom, my dad, and I guess the guy who owns the 24 hour liquor store in my neighborhood. Oh, and probably a representative from where I went to graduate school, but not because they are invested in my success, but because I still owe them a pretty substantial amount of money.
The day of service has come and both kitchens prep for a stressful few hours. Nick is at his restaurant, Kris (named after his wife Kristen), and tells his waitstaff that, "Service is going to be relatively intense." Knowing Nick and his temper in the kitchen, that's quite an understatement. Kind of like me saying, "At your wedding I'm going to be relatively drunk." While he's meeting with the servers he notices some of them from the previous day are missing, so he rashly reassigns who the lead servers are and then storms off, which only means we'll see some kind of disaster later.
For service, the judges split up into two groups going to separate restaurants and then switched. Tom and Gail and the guest judges started at Nina's restaurant, Canouan, which is the name of the island where her dad is from. Before getting to her first course, she brings out an amuse bouche of breadfruit with whipped foie gras butter and curry salt that Tom and Gail both love.
For her first course she serves tuna and escolar tartare with tomato water and jalapeno. Judges in both groups agree it has a crispness and brightness to it that make it a successful dish and a good start to the meal.
The first group to judge Nick's meal are Padma, Emeril, Hugh, and their guest judge Masaharu Morimoto. His first dish is also raw fish, which I could tell while he directed the servers and kept screaming, "FISH ON THE LEFT!" which was basically the same tone Will Ferrell used in the SNL sketch "Get Off the Shed!" The first course is hamachi and tuna with green apple, wasabi, celery, and Maui Meyer lemon. It sounds like it would be super flavorful, but all of the judges agree that it's under-seasoned and could have used some salt, though Morimoto compliments the quality of the fish.
For Nick's second course he serves scallop and daikon noodles with sweet shrimp bisque and thai basil. The judges in both groups really enjoy the dish, and Tom says it might be his favorite dish of the whole season. I assume in the back somewhere Jason can feel this praise and flips his hair in a moment of excitement.
Nina's second course is Italian, so obviously everyone loves it. She serves braised goat sugo with orecchiette, cherry tomato confit, and goat cheese. It sounds both delicious and also very Nina. Her third course is swordfish with squash puree, braised kale, and smoked onion jus. Tom complains that the brightness of the swordfish is completely overpowered by the heavy, braised vegetables, and it's a dish that just doesn't work.
Nick's third course, though, impresses everyone except for Emeril. He prepared kombu cured duck breast with kabocha squash, hijiki, and ginger. While the other judges think it's cooked perfectly, Emeril's pieces are tough and undercooked.
Before Nina serves her final course she brings out an intermezzo of compressed dragon fruit and frozen papaya skewers as a palate cleanser. After this season of Top Chef I could really use a palate cleanser myself, amirite? Oh god, I'm sorry guys, I don't know what came over me. Possibly still feeling the effects of my breakfast wine.
For her last course Nina serves chocolate and macadamia nut zeppoles with passion fruit anglaise. The judges all enjoy them, but in a "good not great" way. One of the judges notes that she went out with a whisper rather than with a bang.
Nick approached his dessert with a lot to prove since the judges unanimously hated his panna cotta a few challenges ago and he was determined to get it right this time. Before serving his last course to the first group of judges he asked the waitstaff to bring out spoons to the table. They did not. When Nick brought out his caramelized white chocolate panna cotta with cocoa crumble and tropical fruits he, as expected, lost his shit.
His yelling at this juncture, however, was nothing in comparison to his reaction when Tom, Gail and crew came to his restaurant for service. One of the tables, not even a table of judges, got their second course before their first course during service. Nick then screams, "Goddamnit!" loud enough that not only all of the patrons and the judges hear him yelling and banging around in the kitchen, but I'm pretty sure most of Hawaii heard him, too.
At Judges' Table the judges walk through each of the meals citing the same things they said during the meals. Nick's crudo was under seasoned, some of the duck was tough, the shrimp broth was fantastic and the panna cotta was a tasty improvement over his last go at it. They loved Nina's tartare and thought her goat was her best dish all season, yet they struggled with the swordfish dish and were underwhelmed by her zeppole. Gail notes that if Nina had put the effort from her amuse and intermezzo into her dessert it would have been more successful.
Padma sends Nick and Nina off to sit in a kitchen full of white wine and sharp objects, which seems like a terrible idea considering they are anxiously competing against each other for a career-changing prize. Nick immediately goes into his poor-me-I'm-no-good compliment fishing mode. He's telling Nina that she was perfect and she's going to win and he fucked up. It's the worst.
After several hours of deliberating (and now being back to the scene where the episode began), Padma calls Nick and Nina back in. She explains this was the toughest decision they've ever made. She then says, "Nick" and then what seems like forty minutes of tense instrumental music plays before she says, "You are Top Chef."
So Nick starts to cry, all of the eliminated chefs and Nick's family cheer, Jason bro-hugs him with a few hard slaps on the back, and we see this season draw to a close. We have a new Top Chef who will get $125,000, a trip to Aspen, and what I'm sure are regular, contractually obligated appearances on Watch What Happens Live.