In the world, there are competitions that are meaningless, like high school prom queen. There are competitions that are total landslides, like an election in Utah or any time another team plays the Knicks. There are competitions that make you question the very future of humanity and its ultimate fiery crash and burn, like every season of The Bachelor.
The Top Chef Boston finale was none of those things. This was a fierce, exciting, and in the end, hopefully life-changing competition for the two winningest contestants of the entire season.
After fourteen grueling challenges and what seemed like five "last chance to make it to the finale" episodes, Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet are the last chefs standing. They boldly cooked their way through Boston and all of its seafood-heavy, historically significant glory (side note: if you watched the whole season I think you earned three credits of American History from most accredited universities). And they both found great inspiration and success in the challenges throughout their time in Mexico. Now there's nothing left to do but leave it all out on the table, so to speak.
Mei and Gregory pile into a van so early in the morning that it's still dark out in Mexico. This is either the beginning of a very involved final challenge or Bravo has shifted gears from reality tv to a terrifying hostage drama (I guess they do have that show about divorced ladies now).
Instead of some weird remote kitchen or strange farm where they just grow mold and aloe, the van brings the two finalists to take a hot air balloon ride over San Miguel de Allende. After a white-knuckled (on my end because I'm afraid of heights) journey, they land in a vineyard to meet Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio. It feels like a car might have been a cheaper option for travel, but I don't know Mexico's economy or vehicular laws.
The challenge, as Padma and Tom explain, is so simple it's near-impossible. The chefs must each prepare the four course meal of their lives. They will each be equipped with two sous chefs, a high-class restaurant kitchen, and $2,000 to show over the course of a meal who they are as chefs and what they are capable of. It's a tall order, really. There are probably hundreds of incredibly accomplished chefs across the country who struggle to put that into entire restaurants they have created, yet these two have just four plates.
Gregory chooses sous chefs first and picks Doug Adams and George Pagonis. These two have been on screen so often in the last few episodes without being competitors that I'm starting to wonder if they have producers credits or something.
I'm happy that Gregory didn't play this game defensively, and he let Mei pick her partner-in-culinary-crime Melissa King. In addition to Melissa, Mei selects Rebecca LaMalfa as her other sous chef, in part because Rebecca has a lot of pastry experience and Mei has been planning on doing a dessert. Not only has she been planning it, but she's been practicing it during the six weeks between Boston and Mexico. It's a smart move to have a back pocket dessert for this, but also a bold one. Four courses is not that many. As a mostly savory chef, that leaves her only three courses to showcase the style that got her on the show to begin with. That being said, a fully realized four course meal rather than four disparate plates of food seems to be a much better path to follow.
In addition to Tom and Padma, the chefs will be serving the other Top Chef judges Gail Simmons, Hugh Acheson, and Richard Blais, as well as a room full of other high profile chefs and culinary powerhouses. It is nice to know that whatever the outcome of the competition, some real high-profile people will be tasting this "meal of a lifetime" that Mei and Gregory are making. It would be a shame to put so much thought and effort and emotion into a meal that only five people taste and harshly judge.
The chefs and their teams head to the store to buy ingredients. Watching this I got instantly jealous of their ability to just easily buy ripe avocados and not spend $73 a piece or whatever the going rate is in New York in February. They are more expensive and hard to come by than a sparkly tiara that belongs to actual royalty and not a girl throwing up on the back-end of a twenty-first birthday bar crawl.
Gregory decided to really let Mexico inspire him, and rather than lean heavily on the Asian dishes that he's known for, he wants to let the ingredients of this country dictate his dishes a bit more. Mei wants to stick more with what she knows, like congee, but take the dishes to a new level through flavor and technique.
Back at the apartment for their last night that I assume Bravo will pay for, Mei and Gregory chat about their meals and realize that they are both serving octopus as a first course. I guess this is the Top Chef equivalent of showing up at a party wearing the same dress as the only other single girl.
Mei serves her meal to the judges first. She and Gregory have gone head to head several times before in this competition, and this will be the last one, the one that determines who is Top Chef and who gets to meet the head of Healthy Choice to collect their $125,000 (before taxes) check. I think that's how this works.
Mei's first dish is braised and fried octopus with fish sauce vinaigrette, avocado coconut puree, and herbs. The presentation is more visually stunning than 95% of what passes for art in the world. It's elegant, sophisticated, and incredibly flavorful, according to the judges. The only issue with the dish is that the octopus is a little overdone and chewy, but overall a great start to her meal.
For her second course, Mei went back to the first dish she served that won her a challenge: congee. This time she wanted to go more interesting and local, so she prepared congee with carnitas, scallion puree, hot sauce, Japanese peanuts with lime spice, and egg yolk. The result is a warm bowl of flavorful comfort food. It appears that most diners enjoyed it so much that there was nothing left in the bowl. It's hard to improve on something that's already a success, yet she nailed it.
The third course is a huge risk because she uses the very tricky corn mold from one of the previous Mexico challenges. Mei serves duck with braised lettuce, kimchi butter, jicama, and huitlacoche. It's a plate full of strong flavors that will either sing together or fight each other. Judges have mixed opinions of which one is happening here. There are issues with texture and others with the fat rendering. It's still a beautiful plate of food consistent with Mei's style through this meal and the whole season.
Her final dish is by far the most nerve-wracking. While she struggles to get the sweet and tart balance of her dessert right, Tom is telling his table that if he were in this competition as a savory chef, he wouldn't do a dessert. It's not a bad observation, as so many chefs have been sent home or lost challenges thanks to weak desserts over the years.
Mei's dessert comes out smoking. Literally. Icy smoke pours out of the bowl, which contains strawberry lime curd with toasted yogurt, milk crumble, and yogurt lime ice. It's beautiful, it's complex, it's spectacularly flavorful. It's the ideal note to end a meal and a season on. After tasting (ahem, finishing) the dish, Tom has two important points. His first is that it's the best dessert that he's ever had on Top Chef, and his second, is that Mei made the right choice in serving a dessert.
The judges head to Gregory's restaurant to see what he prepared to represent himself as a competitor and as a chef. Everyone agrees that his menu certainly looks tasty, and it's very obviously influenced by the flavors and styles of Mexico.
First up is Gregory's grilled octopus with prickly pear, xoconostle, passion fruit, and cashew milk. The judges love it, especially Padma. The table agrees that putting this head-to-head with Mei's dish is pretty difficult, though it might be the tastier of the two.
For his second course, Gregory serves shrimp broth with green chorizo, pickled nopales, and crispy shrimp heads. He found such success with the green chorizo in his carrot and chocolate dish in the last challenge that he went back to use it again. The chorizo was a smart move because the flavors more or less work, but the dish isn't the mature, refined bowl that the judges were hoping for. His decision to include the shrimp heads in the broth was actually a mistake, as Gail and Padma both make sour faces about how they can feel the pieces in their throats. Just imagining eating pieces of shrimp shell takes me back to bad cocktail parties where the shrimp cocktail hasn't been properly shelled and you choke on a sharp sliver while trying to explain to your friend's new boyfriend that liking a politician's page on Facebook is not the same thing as voting.
Gregory is preparing his third course when he realizes that he didn't properly assemble his carrot sauce. He forgot sugar and vinegar when making it and now it was all wrong. In a pinch he adds more sugar, but then realizes it's too sweet and adds more salt on top of that. He's obviously shaken by the mistake and when presenting the dish to the dining room seems a little defeated and definitely nervous. His striped bass with roasted carrots, radish, pineapple, tomatillo, and carrot sauce did not go over well with the judges. It was, according to Tom, sweeter than Mei's dessert, which is not a good thing. Among the criticisms, the loudest and most important one was that the dish just didn't work.
For his final course, Gregory served a red mole with short ribs and agave sweet potato. While his mole is traditional, the use of short ribs is not, and it's a gamble that pays off tenfold. Everyone loves the dish and heralds it as a brilliant success.
Padma goes into the kitchen to find Mei and Gregory. She asks them to come with her because "we'd like to ask you a few questions." Is this Judges' Table or a murder investigation on Law & Order?
Overall, both chefs put out excellent meals. Their octopus dishes were fairly close with perhaps a slight advantage to Gregory. For the second course Mei crushed it and Gregory's dish was a bit scattered. Both chefs struggled on the third course and both had outstanding finishes. In his critique, Tom tells Mei of her dessert that not only is it the best dessert he's ever had on Top Chef, it's one of the best desserts he's ever had in his entire life. Honestly, she should win for that alone.
And after a shockingly short period of dramatic music for tension, Padma announces that Mei did in fact win, for that dessert and for everything else. Her meal overall was stronger and more refined than Gregory's. Mei is Top Chef!
This is exactly the outcome I've been hoping for all season. From day one Mei was a tough, fierce competitor that left a lot of really talented chefs in her wake. She fought hard all the way through and thoroughly deserves this title. And I have to say this and I know that mansplainers and meninists and Mennonites—wait that's a different thing—everywhere will roll their eyes, but I am beyond thrilled that a woman won this year. Only two women have won the title in the previous 11 seasons, so it's about time.
Also, if anyone at Bravo is listening, I would very much enjoy a show about Mei and Melissa running a restaurant together I don't know I'm just spitballing here but can we at least all take a meeting or something to get the ball rolling? Great.