It's been several hard months getting to this point, but we finally made it. We reached the finale of this road trip we've been on called Top Chef. And I learned a lot about California along the way — though mostly that the state mascot is not an avocado with too much botox.
So from Los Angeles to San Diego to Oakland and now to Las Vegas, the chefs have battled it out until there were only two remaining: Jeremy Ford and Amar Santana. They're going head to head to compete for the prize, which is a splashy feature in Food and Wine magazine as well as $125,000 from this season's new sponsor, San Pellegrino. I think that prize money will buy you about 12 bottles of the sparkling water, so that's pretty exciting stuff. I'm just kidding, SP — can I call you guys that? — I love your water and if you are looking for something to sponsor besides a reality cooking competition, there is a stand-up comedian living in Harlem who loves all things fizzy. Call me.
Amar and Jeremy are having a casual game of pool in their hotel suite when Tom Colicchio comes to the door for "room service." Normally, room service is a lukewarm burger and fries that costs $25 and you mostly get for the tiny, cute condiments and because you're too hungover to take an elevator. Here, it's a private four course lunch prepared by one of the most talented chefs working today.
Tom shows the guys a few tricks of his before sending them to just sit and relax. He prepares four dishes all focusing on ingredients that he really loves and that get him excited to cook. He makes them crab with sea urchin and finger limes, squab with honey-glazed onions, potato agnolotti with leeks and caviar, and wagyu beef with shishito peppers and chanterelle mushrooms. They are all perfectly done, completely "Tom" dishes that really highlight those ingredients like onion and potato that he loves so much.
Tom tells Amar and Jeremy to approach their challenge tomorrow with this in mind. That they should cook dishes around ingredients and flavors that excite and inspire them. They arrive in the kitchen the next day and learn from Padma Lakshmi that this is exactly their task. For the final challenge they must each prepare a four course meal where each course focuses on a different ingredient.
Since a four course menu for a restaurant full of diners is a tall order, they have help in the form of two sous chefs each that they can choose from the eliminated contestants. Amar picks Kwame Onwuachi, both because he's a talented chef and sous, but also because he's trying to mess with Jeremy a bit as they have been a team many times over. He also chooses Marjorie Meek-Bradley because duh, of course, she's terrific. Amar finally had a group challenge that didn't involve working with Phillip Frankland Lee. Jeremy picked Carl Dooley for his finesse and Angelina Bastidas for her speed as a sous. Both are strong teams, but my heart is totally with Amar, Kwame, and Marjorie — who were all favorites of mine all season.
Before they start cooking, Padma lets them in on one more surprise. They will actually each have one more set of hands to help prep, in the form of their mentors. Jean George Vongerichten for Jeremy and Charlie Palmer for Amar. It's an emotional situation, particularly for Amar who was nearly family with Charlie but then had a falling out when he left to go open his own restaurant. For the first time in their careers, Jeremy and Amar will be telling their mentors what to do in the kitchen.
Amar's four ingredients are tuna, sea urchin, lamb, and coconut. They are so him and his style of cooking. Similarly, Jeremy went with his gut and chose foie gras, duck, branzini, and cheese as his four featured items. These are two very different chefs. Amar is all about bold flavors, rustic cooking, and intensity. Jeremy leans heavily on technique, precision, and refinement. They are both good at what they do, but it almost makes this challenge about which is a better style.
Jean Georges isn't sure that Jeremy should try and do two preparations of the foie gras for his first course, but Jeremy goes ahead with his plan despite his mentor's doubts. Otherwise, they seem to have a nice kitchen relationship, calling each other "bro" and "dude." This is also Jean Georges's first time as a sous since 1979, which I can actually say in all seriousness is before I was born. I've never felt younger!
Amar and Charlie have a more tense existence on the line. Whatever Amar said or did years ago when he left Palmer's restaurant put a several year wedge into their friendship. Charlie points out, "There's a big difference between being confident and being an asshole." Yes. Absolutely. Can you please remind 80 percent of the people I interact with of that? Fax it if you have to, I don't care.
The diners start pouring into Craftsteak, the Vegas outpost of Tom's restaurant. It's the eliminated contestants, the finalists' mentors, and the usual suspects like Tom, Padma, Gail Simmons, Richard Blais, Dominique Crenn, Hubert Keller, and everyone's favorite, Emeril Lagasse. There are two other special tables for Jeremy and Amar's families, which is yet another finale surprise.
For the first course, Jeremy serves foie gras two ways, pepper crusted and melted, with chili, passion fruit, and marshmallows. His risky move of doing two preparations paid off as both are delicious and perfectly executed. Everyone loves the flavors and he has finally proven that you can make a torchon in only two days (though, sorry Carl, not three hours).
Amar prepared seared tuna tataki with habanero coconut dressing, compressed pineapple, and toasted peanuts. It's spicy and bright and absolutely him.
Next, Jeremy serves slow cooked Branzini with herbal lime vinaigrette, squash, and tomatoes. It's all well balanced, though Tom notes the sauce was a bit overwhelming and some of the great elements of the dish were slightly overshadowed by it. But everyone loves the sweetness of the tomatoes as a contrast to the very green flavor of the dressing.
Amar took a risk in this course and made sea urchin risotto with butter poached lobster, finger limes, jicama, and shellfish froth. In the past, many a Top Chef contestant has been sent home for a sub-par risotto. Jeremy was almost one of them, actually. And Tom is extremely critical of these dishes. Amar's, however, packs a flavorful punch that all of the judges and diners love. It's creamy and tasty and perfectly cooked.
The third course is where both chefs went with heavier proteins. Jeremy got caught up trying to get his fish dish assembled and now is stressed by getting his duck cooking later than he anticipated. He slices it and it's raw in the middle, so he and his team are frantically re-cooking the pieces. He does manage to get them all ready to serve for his duck with roasted maitake mushrooms, smoked chili, buttermilk, and lemon. The dish really highlights the duck and the rest are more just flavors that compliment it on the dish. Unfortunately, the duck is inconsistent across plates. Some pieces are cooked beautifully, others are a bit undercooked.
Marjorie asked Amar if the rack of lamb should go a little longer, but he says no and starts plating his harissa rubbed rack of lamb with braised lamb pastilla, date ginger puree, and yogurt harissa emulsion. It's a bold, flavorful dish that the judges — especially Gail — love. Like Jeremy, though, the lamb is undercooked for some diners.
The final course is a make or break typically in Top Chef. Obviously, it's the last thing everyone tastes so it has the strongest memory association. It's also where many contestants slip up because they aren't good at dessert or do something that seems like a throwaway. Jeremy knows he isn't a strong dessert chef, so he opts for a cheese dish. He uses every molecular gastronomy trick up his sleeve on this one with gels and balls. He serves a ricotta and mozzarella cheese cylinder with spiced fig jam, pumpernickel toast, and a honey ball. Everyone enjoys the dish, though Emeril notes it's, "Very intellectual," which can be a compliment or criticism depending on who you're talking to.
Amar met the challenge of making a dessert head on with his coconut financier with mango sorbet, passion fruit curd, tropical fruit salad, and brulee meringue. Again, all flavors associated with his cooking and also where he grew up. It's flavorful and bright and very him, but the cake isn't quite a financier. If he had called it a sticky coconut cake there would be no issue, but it's really too dense to be a good financier.
Judges' Table is at Hakkasan nightclub at the MGM Grand. It makes sense, though. A nightclub is where dreams go to be fulfilled and also to die. It's by far the hardest decision of the entire season, as both chefs prepared excellent meals with minimal mistakes. If I were on the panel, I'd be pushing for Amar to win. He had the menu I personally would rather eat and he did a better job showcasing the ingredient in each course that he chose to highlight.
After a tough deliberation and now with an audience of eliminated contestants and a few family members, it's time for the announcement. Jeremy Ford is Top Chef. Confetti rains down. People cry. Champagne is opened. It's celebratory and exciting and totally cool, brah. Hopefully with that $125,000 Jeremy can get started on that rooftop taco gastropub with super hot waitresses.