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After thirteen weeks of challenges, the final three chefs are ready and waiting for action, as am I. I can’t wait to see who takes the title. I like Richard but I really want Stephanie to win. Lisa is clearly the underdog, but she’s brought that on her self more often than not. Although, I said it before, a girl who loves “Top Secret” so much to design a menu around it can’t be all bad.

On the morning of the first day of the last challenge, our final three breakfast at the hotel as they wait to learn of their final task. Stephanie really wants to be the first female winner; Richard wants to win for his wife, his baby on the way, and for the house note; and Lisa doesn’t care that she barely scraped by to get in the finale because she’s in it to win it. Richard, capturing the sentiments of most viewers, wonders how the hell Lisa is still there.

Meal of a Lifetime (but, thankfully, not on Lifetime).

Lisa, Richard, and Stephanie meet up with Tom and Padma after breakfast; there they find three famous chefs standing in behind three small tables laden with a plethora of different proteins. The three chefs are fan-favorite Eric Ripert, April Bloomfield, and Dan Barber. The chef with the most elimination wins was going to get to pick first, but since Stephanie and Richard tied with five wins each, they will have to draw knives for the first choice. Richard “let” Stephanie go first and she drew “1”; she picked Eric. Richard then picked Dan, and April got paired up with Lisa. Let’s hope April is an even-keeled person. The celeb chefs will be the contestants’ sous chefs for the challenge…or will they? Mwahahahaha, darkly cackle the foreshadowing gremlins.

The final challenge is this: each chef will prepare a four course tasting meal that goes in the usual progression: fish, poultry, red meat, dessert. Yes, people, they have to make a dessert. Rut-row, Scooby, these chefs look a wee bit nervous. They’ll have three hours to prepare this first day and then four more hours before service the next day, where the dishes will be served in a head-to-head-to-head challenge style.

In the kitchen, Richard’s head is buzzing with the gnats of creativity. That is, there’s so much going on in his brain, he’s not sure what he’s really going to end up serving. He talks about oysters and molecular gastronomy and, at one point, uses liquid nitrogen to freeze tobasco sauce into little drops. The guest sous chefs, especially Eric, are taken by this weird technique. I was only wondering how he got a giant jug of liquid nitrogen on a plane from Atlanta to San Juan when the average joe can’t even get a bottle of shampoo on board.

Lisa, no surprise here, is going with her Asian flavors with a focus on Thai and Vietnamese flavors. April is not really an Asian-style chef so she takes direction and gets along well with Lisa (which could be a sign of the apocalypse). Stephanie directs her menu to show off her style and present a balance of flavors. She tends to micromanage Eric’s cutting of fish a bit, but she rightfully asserts that it’s her dish and she’s the one on the line. The first three hours go by without any major blow up or catastrophe, and it’s time to call it a day.

The next morning, the chefs arrive back at the kitchen and expect to see their famous sous chefs. Instead, they just see Tom, who tells them that they are on their own for the rest of the challenge. Lisa gets to working on her bold flavor menu of prawns, a soup, a beef dish, and a Thai rice pudding for dessert. Richard works up some scallops, guinea hen, pork bellies, and those darn banana scallops again. Taking a page from Marcel, he also is busting out a bacon ice cream made with more of the liquid nitrogen. How awesome would have it been if he used the liquid nitrogen to freeze the floor and skate around like Val Kilmer in “Real Genius”? I’m amazed Lisa didn’t mention it. Stephanie is just heads-down, super-focused on getting her dishes done. With no one to help her, she has to be serious about getting preparation prioritized and getting her dishes of snapper, quail, lamb and ricotta pound cake done.

Tom comes in for a look-see; Richard kind of blows him off because he’s so damn busy trying to figure out what he’s doing. Lisa is surprisingly calm and up-beat. Stephanie is worried about her pound cake; she’s only tried making it once before. As Tom leaves, he privately comments that Richard has so many ideas he’s confusing himself; this could come out great for Richard if he pulls himself together. Lisa, Tom notes, is very calm; she’s previously expressed a defensive swagger, but that’s what chefs are supposed to have. Tom also picks up on Stephanie’s nervousness about her dessert; he thinks that she could be in trouble because she didn’t practice desserts more on the break.

Final Food.

The judges—Tom, Padma, Ted, and Gail—join the three famous chefs from earlier as well as a fine dining Puerto Rican chef and a Zagat guy. When asked how the three famous “sous” chefs liked their experience in the kitchen, Eric found it relaxing to just take direction, Dan thought it was frustrating, and April found it humbling. Richard, Lisa, and Stephanie arrive to introduce their concepts for the night. Richard says that his dishes are reflective of his personal journey as a chef and his menu uses local ingredients; Lisa’s menu is a progression of dishes using Thai flavors and is true to her own style; and Stephanie says she employs simple clean flavors and uses lots of fruits, a couple of proteins per dish and is designed to hit all of the flavor points in the diners’ mouths.

The first course is served: Richard serves scallops with mango and pineapple vinegar; Lisa serves grilled prawns with chili basil sauce and crab and homemade potato chips; and Stephanie serves seared red snapper, truffled clam and asparagus broth topped with asparagus salad. The judges thought Richard’s dish was overly complicated, Lisa’s too spicy, and Stephanie’s the best of the bunch. Advantage to Stephanie for the first course.

For the second course, Richard delivers guinea hen, chicken egg, foie gras and spring vegetables entitled “Which came first?” Lisa plates up tom kha gai soup with dumpling. Stephanie presents seared quail breast over lobster ravioli with mango-lobster sauce and quail egg. The judges liked Richard’s complexity in this dish, but Lisa’s soup wins the hearts and stomachs of the judges. Stephanie’s quail was liked but Tom and Gail had issues with the undercooked leeks. Lisa clearly takes the lead for this course.

The third course of red meat brings: Richard’s pickled rasdishes, mirin broth and pork belly; Lisa’s wagyu beef with chayote and cucumber salad, hot sauce and garlic chips; and Stephanie’s lamb with maitake mushrooms, braised pistachios, blackberry and olive tapenade. The judges find Richard’s dish surprisingly under-seasoned, though Eric liked the pickled radishes. Lisa’s beef was tender but the sauce was too sweet, lacked garlic, and was too much like the first dish but sweeter. The judges loved Stephanie’s dish; the flavor combinations scared them at first but they were won over. Ted is amazed at the braised pistachios and Padma and Gail were pleasantly surprised with the olives working in the dish. Clearly the course goes to Stephanie.

The final dessert course comes out; Richard again serves a banana “scallop” with bacon ice cream; Lisa presents black Thai rice pudding with lime and mango cream, taro, and coconut; and Stephanie plates ricotta pound cake with tropical fruit and banana creme. The judges enjoyed Lisa’s rice pudding, commenting that it was interesting (but in a good way—not in that dismissive, Southern usage of the term “interesting”). They liked Richard’s dessert as well; he finally used his whimsical techniques to his advantage. Stephanie’s dessert was nice, but nothing to write home about. Advantage to Lisa and Richard.

After the service is complete, Gail sums up by saying that they all have done so well and come so far and are all winners. Tom puts a finer polish on it by saying that Richard showed his intellectual approach to food, Lisa stayed true to herself and her Asian experience, and Stephanie excelled at her more home-style approach to cooking.

Thank god they didn’t show this part in real time, or this recap would be even longer than usual.

The start of what turned out to be quite a long Judges’ Table (the sun was coming up by the time this whole thing wrapped up) began by Richard talking about his first course. He says that his scallops were supposed to be a “flavor explosion” to start off the tasting menu. Padma and Tom are surprised at this description because they thought the scallops were under-seasoned. Lisa similarly says that she wanted a bold flavor with her prawns. Tom asks if she meant the sauce to be so spicy or if it accidentally came out that way. She says it was intentional, because she likes spicy foods. She should have added that Tom needs to grow a pair when it comes to spicy food because he’s always whining about heat in a dish. Tom should come ‘round here for a dish or two of mine and it’ll put hair back on his head. Padma likes the heat (she always does, and that’s one of her redeeming qualities) and Ted likes the square potato chips. Stephanie explains her first course was designed to showcase the spring vegetables. Gail loves it, Ted thinks the crust on the fish was awesome, and Padma likes the creaminess without heaviness.

Regarding the second course, Richard thinks that maybe he would have slacked off the foie gras, because that came out a little self-indulgent. Gail says the problem with the dish was that there was so much going on, the different flavors and textures became a bit muddled. Lisa admits to making the soup a lot but she added the dumplings for extra flair. Ted says the dish blew everyone away. As for Stephanie, Tom says the quail and pasta were great, but the leeks were under-cooked. Stephanie looks shocked about the leeks.

Moving on to the third course, Richard says he decided to take things down a notch and keep the dish simple. He explains that he didn’t crisp up the pork belly too much because, were he to do so, it would have lost the integrity of the meat. Lisa says she just seared the beef; Tom says that it needed more than that because the fat didn’t melt and help season the meat, as is typical with Kobe-style beef. Gail once again gripes about things being too sweet; this time, instead of a sweet potato puree, she’s on about Lisa’s sauce. Everyone expresses love again for Stephanie’s lamb. Ted comments again about the braised pistachios—he loves pistachios and has never heard of anyone braising them. Tom says that what’s great about Stephanie is that she’s always surprising them.

Finally, the judges review the dessert course. Richard says the banana scallops were a different take on what he’s made in the past—not a direct replica. I wish they would have pressed him on what material differences exist among this iteration and the other two times he’s made the banana scallops. Padma and Tom praise Lisa’s black rice pudding. Stephanie admits to making up the banana cream on her pound cake on the fly. Tom says he liked the cake fine but the banana cream was merely blah and the dish was an overall miss.

Before they leave, the final three chefs say a last few words. Stephanie says that Dale advised her not to second-guess herself and that’s what she did on the dessert. Lisa tries to sell herself as having the qualities to be Top Chef. Then, in a kind of shocking move, Richard admits he choked on his dishes and it wasn’t his best performance on the show.

And the winner is….

Stephanie, Richard, and Lisa go back to the waiting area to stew and await their fates. Back at the Judges’ Table, Gail is shocked at Richard’s statement, but Tom agrees with it in a sense. Tom explains that Richard knows he screwed up the pork belly dish and wants to convey to the judges that he knows he screwed up.

They then try to take a straw poll on the winner. For the first course, Ted likes Lisa’s dish while Tom and Gail favor Stephanie’s, which Ted likes as well. Tom and Gail pick Lisa as the winner on the second course, though Richard scored points with Tom. The three judges unanimously like Stephanie’s dish the best in the third course; they think Richard’s idea was original but he didn’t make it work (to borrow a phrase). Finally, Tom likes Richard’s dessert while Gail and Padma like Lisa’s the best.

They try to figure out who wins based on what meal they would like to eat again. Gail gets quite emotional and shrill exclaiming her love for Stephanie’s lamb. But, after a long, long night, they reach a consensus and bring the three back in to announce the winner.

Tom says they were all amazing (Bachelor/ette fans, drink!). He compliments them by saying Richard always brings a great joy, whimsy, and playful nature to his outrageous cooking. Lisa excels at big, bold Asian flavors that continue to show off her signature style. Stephanie is always surprising them and brining new flavors together in different ways. In the end it was a tough decision…and Padma announces Stephanie is the winner!!!!

Yay! I really wanted her to win, but didn’t want to jinx her too much. In their final interview segments, Lisa says she’s disappointed and thought she had a chance, but she’ll keep on cooking. Richard is teary-eyed, probably because he’s most disappointed in his choking. He says that, if nothing else, the loss will help him refocus and he’ll have a bright future. Hey, don’t forget about the new car. Cars can be good—plus a Toyota should get good gas mileage. Stephanie is also a bit teary at winning; she takes the win as a reaffirmation that cooking is what she’s supposed to do.

Well, folks, that’s it for Top Chef 4. While I’m glad a woman finally won, I’m even more pleased that the person who won was not a someone who (1) constantly looks in need of a bath; (2) has goofy hair and seriously bad rap skillz; or (3) is entirely too arrogant. Now, if someone would pass me a bowl of Lisa’s soup, a plate of Stephanie’s lamb, and a dish of that bacon ice cream (I’m really curious!), I’ll be set for the night.