Well everyone, we did it. We watched another season of Top Chef. We’ve endured the confusing Quickfires, the brutal eliminations, and all of Padma’s many denim ensembles. And somehow, we’ve come out the other side with two of the best competitors in the last few years of the show ready to put it all on the table — both literally and figuratively — in this finale.
Shirley Chung and Brooke Williamson are still in Mexico and recovering from what was probably one of the hardest elimination challenges in the show’s history. They are still at Secrets, which again, is not Sandals. Sandals is the one where I’m pretty sure the concierge is a cracked iPhone 4. Secrets is the one with the commercial implying that the only thing you do there is go swimming in evening gowns and bone a lot.
Shirley and Brooke arrive ready for battle. Padma Lakshmi is looking very south of the border in her white off the shoulder number, and Tom Colicchio went for a casual hat look. Tom is the kind of man who can really pull off a shaved head, so I don’t understand the choice to cover it up. Maybe it’s a sun protection thing? I wouldn’t know, my hair looks like a dead squirrel fell out of a tree and landed on a cat that happened to be on my head, so my scalp has never seen the sun.
The challenge ahead is simple: cook a four-course progressive meal and serve it to a full restaurant dining room. Shirley draws the knife for first pick of sous chefs, and she smartly goes with Casey Thompson. Casey is not only a great chef, but also a close friend of Brooke’s, so perhaps this is a somewhat strategic move. Brooke picks Sheldon Simeon first, which is another logical choice.
Next Shirley goes rogue and calls over Katsuji Tanabe. His temper may be hotter than a habanero (Look at me! I learned about peppers this season!), but she points out that he’s a fast-as-hell cook and helpfully speaks Spanish. Brooke’s second pick is Sam Talbot. If you think we haven’t seen much of Sam since his brutal early elimination then you haven’t been looking at my Google image search history.
Tom notes that the two might have trouble choosing their third sous chefs as the chefs de cuisine of both Brooke and Shirley’s restaurants walk down the stairs to greet them. It must be so comforting to have the person who is normally by your side for this kind of thing to actually be by your side for this kind of thing.
The chefs begin menu planning, figuring out which ingredients the hotel restaurant will order and which ones to buy at the market with the 10,000 peso budget. I don’t know how that equates to dollars at Whole Foods, but everyone walked out with more than a kombucha and a bag of almonds, so I’m guessing it’s a lot of money.
Brooke realizes she didn’t place an order with the hotel for pork belly, a protein she needs for her third course. Shirley did order pork belly as a backup in case the whole piglets she got aren’t high enough quality. Brooke asks if she can have the pork belly but it’s a firm maybe until Shirley checks out the pigs. There’s definite tension, but it’s kind of on Brooke. She has a safety protein as well in the form of short ribs, so she’s not going to be sending a plate of garnishes out there if Shirley needs the pork belly.
They get a bit of a breather the night before the big day and go to Dreams resort in Tulum for a fancy dinner out. I wouldn’t want to hang out with my competitor the night before the biggest cooking event of my life. The women on The Bachelor don’t have a spa day before one of them gets engaged (briefly) and the other cries in a limo. Hell no. But Top Chef is a civilized reality program, and the competitors behave as such.
It’s game time, so Brooke, Shirley, and their parade of sous chefs pour into the kitchen ready to cook one last meal. Katsuji the kosher chef is breaking down the pig, which isn’t a great choice but works out because Shirley is very happy with the quality of the meat. This is even better for Brooke because it means she can use the pork belly Shirley no longer needs.
Though the pig is perfect, other things aren’t exactly peachy keen for Shirley. (Also, peachy keen feels like a phrase she would use a lot.) While making the noodles for her ramen, the pasta machine keeps breaking free from the table and won’t stabilize. She improvises a vice via Katsuji’s hands and finishes the rest of the noodles with him holding the machine firmly on the countertop.
It’s not all wine and roses over in Brooke’s neck of the woods, either. Wait, is wine and roses a phrase? I remember it was a bar on the Upper West Side that I went to once where I overheard a man say, “Goodbye, I’m going home to have a nightmare,” but now I’m not so sure it’s an idiom or anything. Anyway, things aren’t great for Brooke is what I’m trying to say. Her dessert is a flan inspired by her mother for which she wants the perfect light texture. Unfortunately, the flan is taking a very long time to cook, and is getting denser the longer it stays in the oven.
Tables of judges as well as notable chefs fill the dining room, in addition to both Shirley and Brooke’s families who are there to support them and get a really nice free meal (and I assume trip to Mexico). On the menu, Shirley provides an introduction to her courses explaining that they are all inspired by and meant to honor the people she loves in her life. It must be nice to work in a profession where your product could actually honor your loved ones? I’m a comic, I can’t dedicate one of my shows to my loved ones without ruining relationships and arguably a lawsuit or two.
Brooke: Warm oyster with grilled Swiss chard and bacon.
Shirley: “Let me take you to Lijiang” snapper crudo with chile soy vinegar and crispy shallots.
The two go in totally different directions for the first course. Shirley’s very light and simple crudo is an obvious starting point for a progressive meal, allowing for flavors and richness to be developed over the courses. It’s a fresh bite, but Tom and others wish that there had been a piece of chile and mint leaf for each piece of fish on the plate to give more flavor. Brooke, on the other hand, starts with a slap in the face with her oyster. It’s tangy and bold and flavorful. Judges note that the broth has a strong bacon flavor to it but no fat, which sounds like whatever comes out of the drinking fountains in heaven.
Brooke: Charred octopus with orange annatto seafood broth, radish, garlic puree, and garlic chips.
Shirley: “When I was eight” ramen with egg, kimchi, purslane, and rendered pork fat.
When Brooke’s dish arrives on the table, Tom and Padma both consider it “finale food.” It’s refined and beautiful and creative and flavorful and hits all of the notes you want for what is supposed to be the best meal you’ve ever cooked. Shirley’s ramen is not finale food, though. Her broth is flat and not nearly as developed as it should be, though the garnishes and toppings are interesting and well-edited.
Brooke: Braised pork belly and beans with charred onion and purslane.
Shirley: “Dear Baba” braised piglet shank with lentils, wild rice, blanched spinach, and habanero onions.
Well, it’s two pork dishes, so these are perhaps the easiest to compare to each other. Unfortunately, these are both such excellent dishes that it’s a nearly impossible comparison to make. Brooke’s beans are so good that they leave Graham Elliot unsure if it’s a pork dish or actually a bean dish. Overall it’s thoughtful, flavorful, and reminiscent of the real Mexico. Shirley’s bold move of putting a shank on a plate pays off as it’s tender and falling off the bone. More than anything, Tom loves the wild rice. It must be really fucking good rice if it’s the standout on a plate next to part of a pig.
Brooke: Aged rum and chamomile flan with candied cashews.
Shirley: “Mama said, ‘Always finish your rice’” rice pudding with tropical fruit and lemon lime snow.
Ah dessert, the downfall of many a Top Chef contestant. There have been some wildly impressive desserts over the years (Mei Lin’s finale, Marjorie Meek-Bradley’s first challenge), but more often than not, it’s where otherwise excellent chefs crumble. Not because they aren’t skilled enough to make a good dessert, but I feel like more often the pressure is on in a very different way. Brooke’s flan unfortunately just doesn’t work. It’s too dense, and on top of that, the flavors just don’t come through or make much sense together. Shirley’s dessert though, well, I was trying to think of how to type the thing where an Italian chef on a pizza box is kissing his two fingers, so, imagine that right now. The flavors are layered, the textures surprising, and it’s a complete success of a dish, dessert or otherwise.
After service, the chefs spend a moment with their families, overwhelmed by what they just went through. Shirley’s mom doesn’t speak much English, but she tells Shirley that she is beautiful and happy, and she’s proud of her. It’s so cute and so sweet, and knowing that her mom didn’t support her when she first started out as a chef makes it even more emotional and holy crap it is Cry City, USA over here in my house.
At Judges’ Table, Padma is wearing all white like some kind of supermodel angel who has come to make someone’s career dreams come true. Padma, Tom, Graham, and Gail Simmons go through each course with the finalists, pointing out what they liked and what they didn’t. The first half of the meal seemed to belong to Brooke, while the second half was more in the bag for Shirley. It’s a tough decision, which is how it should be. You want the finale to actually be a nail-biter.
We don’t learn much new information at Judges’ Table that we didn’t already hear during the meal. Padma notes that Shirley’s dessert is her favorite dish of the night, which is a bit of a surprise. We also learn that Tom really loves rum. Like, he really loves rum. And this is something the other judges know about him. And now I need a Last Chance Kitchen devoted to just finding out how drunk on rum Tom gets.
After a lot of debating, discussing, and white wine drinking (just Brooke and Shirley, and much deserved), it’s time for us to find out the winner. The standard tense violin music plays before Padma announces that Brooke is Top Chef. It’s a very satisfying win to watch, to see someone get so close and come back and actually win. Maybe this was the storyline we were expecting all along, but there’s a reason for that — it’s actually good.
Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.
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