This is the best episode of reality television that I have ever seen, so I’m not going to waste time easing you in. Food happens here now.
MICHAEL CHIARELLO. RICK BAYLESS. HUBERT KELLER. These are the names of the final three left in the CHAMPIONS ROUND. When we meet up with them again, there is intrigue afoot as they are bundled in a van
down by the riverspeeding down the California coast, without any idea where they’re going. They’re not blindfolded though, so they will be able to find a way back through the woods in case things turn ugly.
Where do they pull up? The pimp looking Getty Villa, which was closed during the only chance in my life I ever had to see it, so I am envious of our Masters right now for more than their usual awesomeness. They meet a smiling Kelly Choi who breaks down the *brilliant* final challenge for them: each chef must create a kind of edible autobiography of 4 dishes – one to represent their earliest food memories, one to represent their decisions to become chefs, one to represent the openings of first restaurants, and one to represent where they’re headed in the future.
“Game on,” Chiarello says, because he’s really keyed in to each of those emotions and says he visits them everyday. Rick and Hubert are more subdued, but they’re each also sporting gigantic smiles. Kelly then informs them that in addition to the critics, they’ll also be serving all the previous winners of TC Original Recipe, plus Tom, Padma, and Gail. Sweet. And sour. Complicated flavor profile.
So then the chefs get treated to a gorgeous spread of breads anf fruit and cheese and wine and deliciousness, and they chat about their memories and how they’re thinking of approaching the challenge. I just want to hang out with them all day at the Getty Villa, okay? That seems like an awesome day.
Hubert details his first food memory: the baeckeoffe stew he would get as a young boy in Alsace; his father the baker would prepare it on laundry for all the ladies who got those whites their whitest. These memories are offset by adorable pictures of baby Hubert in his pram.
Rick recalls growing up in his parents’ barbecue joint and always smelling of hickory smoke, and having to keep a separate closet for his fancy clothes so they didn’t spoil date nights. We see pics of him as a strapping young lad, but I’m more impressed with the signs on the restaurant walls that say things like “Let us cook your goose.” LOL, Midwestern humor, I love you. Thus Rick’s memory dish will be hickory smoked quail.
Pictures of a chubby cheeked, snaggle-toothed baby Michael accompany his sweet story about learning to roll gnocchi with his mother, standing on a box to reach the counter, with his own little paddle and his mother guiding his hands. Join me, won’t you: Awww. So for his first course he’s paying tribute to that with a dish of traditional gnocchi alongside his contemporary version.
They continue to chat and plan and laugh and toast each other, before heading to the market. They each try to find their secret ingredients; Rick tells Michael that he’ll stay away from truffles if Michael stays away from cactus leaves. Hubert is giddy because this is “the perfect challenge.” I am giddy because I agree.
Back at the kitchens the rest of the menus are beginning to take shape; Rick’s trying to get the hardest things out of the way because it’s “cooking for five hours at breakneck speed,” and he’s smiling so happily as he modestly says he hopes he can make it through. His second course is coming along, ahi tuna with a Oaxacan black mole that blew his mind when he visited Mexico as a teen, because apparently there are something like 27 flavors in it that all come together to make amazing things happen on the palate. Ooh, like Dr. Pepper? Aha, I kid. Dr. Pepper only has 23.
Michael warns Rick that his pots are boiling a bit too hard before explaining his second dish: polenta with roasted rabbit, asparagus, and wild mushrooms. For Michael this encapsulates his commitment to local food, drawing from his experiences mushroom hunting with his family and coming across a rabbit, or field greens, or what have you that could be brought back to share with family or community.
Hubert’s “I want to be a chef” dish is an homage to a salmon mousse he had many years ago in France that he became determined to learn to prepare, and the sense of fulfillment he achieved on the day he mastered the dish.
Meanwhile Chiarello is also pan-searing some short ribs that look scrumptious, but I don’t know what for.
We take a break from the action to watch love messages from each of the guys’ flagship sous chefs – Hubert’s main man promises to DJ for him if he wins – everyone laughs and cheers and feels renewed and whatnot. And then, what do you know, their sous chefs walk in the door prepared to help! Instant party. In his joy, Chiarello quotes Mighty Mouse. And then they all get down to work and explain what’s going on.
Everybody’s in third course “my first restaurant” mode: Chiarello’s preparing a ginger fried rouget dish to represent the New American place he cheffed at right out of college in Miami. OMG he looked so little in his chef’s hat, but this is when he started hitting the big time and getting recognized by Food & Wine and The Beard Foundation and the like.
Rick’s waxing reminiscent about opening Frontera, and a suckling pig dish that first got people buzzing. I don’t think I saw suckling pig in that grocery store, but whatever. He’s pressing it into a kind of pig cake in order to make everything denser, and sweeter, and more tender. Pig cake doesn’t sound appetizing at all, but I don’t think he’s calling it that for real.
Hubert’s first restaurant opening was 23 years ago, so it takes him a minute to recall his first big hit dish, but in going through memories he comes up with a roast lamb chop wrapped in vegetable mousseline, served with vanilla merlot sauce. Lamb and vanilla sounds so very SNL parody of Fancy French Chef, but I trust Hubert so I hope it’s good.
Final course prep: I find out that those delicious looking short ribs of Michael’s found a delicious looking brine and are now looking quite delicious. They, along with 5 onion sautéed greens and some scented and smoking cabernet vine cuttings are repping where Michael is headed as a chef: taking the whole experience of Napa Valley, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, into kitchens and dining rooms across the world. Rick is prepping arroz a la tumbada. I don’t know what it is, but it just sounds delicious. Seriously, say it out loud. Arroz a la tumbada. Do you not now want some? Rick later describes it as a kind of more liquidy paella, so now I know for sure you want some.
Hubert’s final course is shaping up as pan-seared sweetbreads and braised beef cheek. His vision is in honor of our vastly screwed up economies and constricted budgets and “new” recessionista lifestyles – getting back to offal cuts and overlooked but affordable meats that when cooked properly can be just as delicious as more deluxe cuts and varieties of protein. As someone who’s been living like a recessionista for the last four years or so, I’ll let him handle the sweetbreads, but I’m with him on the beef cheeks.
Soon enough, the waiters come in to haul the first courses away. They’re all still toiling on the dishes to come, but Rick reiterates that no one is sure of victory; each guy left is capable of pulling out the win. Even Chiarello.
Out at the dining table, Kelly Choi drops the backstory behind the challenge. Everyone is impressed by what an awesome challenge this is, especially Stephanie (Season 4 winner, stand up!). The waiters serve up the first courses, and the chefs come out to talk their talks. Rick shares his BBQ backflashes and presents his hickory quail with the Bayless Family sauce, along with sour slaw and watermelon salad. Hubert brought out a dutch oven full of his baeckeoffe just to up the authenticity, and Michael explains the foundations of his potato and ricotta gnocchi duet. Everyone seems delighted with the gnocchi, but Hung, the third season champ, finds the sauce underseasoned. Tom admits that he prefers his own mother’s marinara to anything, but loves the dish for the variety of flavors it presents. Hubert’s lamb stew deliciousness is universally approved, as is Rick’s quali, and Stephanie comments that she can see Rick eating this in his backyard as a child. Lot of quail happened in the Bayless backyard I guess.
Meanwhile the chefs are plating their second courses. Michael has a trick up his sleeve for James Oseland, who Michael thinks is always a bit stingy with his scores: he’s cut out and burned rounds of pages from Saveur to serve his polenta on. I don’t know; I find that hilarious because I also find Oseland a bit of a pill. They present their second courses; Rick describes his Oaxaca epiphany, Michael goes on about mushroom gathering, and Hubert tries to impart some of the euphoria he felt upon tasting the salmon mousse. Also, completely unprovoked I’m sure, Oseland asks about the “decoupage” on Chiarello’s plates, and everyone has a good laugh at Michael’s prank. They also have a good laugh at how wonderful his polenta is – Gail declares she could bathe in it, which garners her a raised eyebrow from Jay Rayner. Hubert’s mousse earns its share of raves as well; his skill in preparing the vegetable mousseline in particular has Harold wanting to learn more about French cuisine. OMG, it’s the Ciiiiiiiiircle of Liiiiiiiiiiiiife! And we were all here to see it. The skill inherent is Rick’s mole also gets some props, Oseland loves the layered flavors, and Tom Colicchio pronounces it brilliant.
Third courses: Rick describes his crispy pig cake, which he wisely refers to as cochinita pibil with sunchoke puree. Hubert tries to get them on board with his spinach-wrapped vanilla lamb, and then Michael goes on about his fried ginger-stuffed rouget with mango salad. I don’t know. You just have no idea how much I would give to be at that table right now. Even with vanilla lamb on it.
All the critics seem to be enjoying their time at the table as much as is warranted; they love the crunch of Michael’s fish, although Ilan of Season 2 dubs it one-note. Hubert’s lamb gets its share of criticism as well – Padma finds it difficult to swallow vanilla as part of a savory dish, and Tom finds the clove of garlic stuffed in the lamb a bit raw and thus off putting. Rick’s pig is the clear winner of this round, as absolutely everyone loves it. Gael says the sunchoke puree is way more sophisticated than she expected from Rick. How very dare you, ma’am? Padma replies that people often overlook the sophistication involved in Mexican cuisine; luckily Rick is here to save us all from our ignorance.
Which brings us to the final course. Rick’s arroz a la tumbada comes to table with a chorizo foam(!); no one seems to like it much. Jay Rayner says it’s like seeing grandma in spandex hot pants dancing the disco at a wedding. Ha ha, that’s both funny and mean. Mostly funny. Padma seriously hearts Michael for his short ribs, and First Ever Top Chef winner Harold loves the basil salad that accompanied it. Hubert’s generous truffle topping kind of invalidates the recessionista-ness of his braised beef cheeks and sweetbreads, but everyone really seems to love it. Except Ilan, but who even cares.
One Chef to Rule Them All
Well, and now here we are at the final Critics Table. We begin with Michael. The judges love all on him for the wonderful short rib but then bring up the shortcomings of the rouget and mango salad. Hubert’s stew gets all kinds of props, but then when he starts talking about the lamb and his ingenious design of sticking a blanched and softened garlic clove in each piece, Jay Rayner gives the most hilarious “Eh…not so much” face. Kelly wants to know what was up with the vanilla; Hubert stands behind that flavor combo but concedes that it might not work for everyone. James says the challenge to his palate was “ultimately pleasurable” though, so that’s something.
When we get to Rick, Gael immediately jumps on that “air”/”foam” fad and gets all her vitriol out about how dumb it is. I’m with her. Sorry Rick I still love you most. They then all pile on to say his mole was friggin excellent, and Rick gets the biggest five-year-old-getting-a-pony-ride smile on his face at that news. It’s so impressive to see just how much these chefs care about food, about making it taste fantastic, and about enriching our lives with it. I love them all. I love everyone who did this show. Even Ludo. Especially Ludo, for losing to Rick.
The judges deliberate for a while over what ruled and what didn’t, but honestly they don’t have much new to say. Mostly they just marvel some more over the complexity and variety of what they’ve been presented. And at one point – discussing Rick’s mole again – Jay even says they should cut the talking and just “make guttural noises.” Oh, how I wish he would be a part of everything Top Chef.
But sadly, his reign of clever and this show are both coming to an end. After toasting each other one last time, the chefs tromp back in to hear their final scores.
We’re working without a Quickfire round, so these will be out of 20 stars:
Michael earned a spiffy 4.5 from the assorted diners. Not too shabby. He also earns 4.5 from Gael and Jay, but only 3.5 from James. I guess those Saveur pages didn’t do the trick. His final total is 17. He graciously thanks the critics.
Hubert received 4 stars from the diners, but James offers him 4.5 even though he had more to say about the misguided lamb than any of Chiarello’s dishes. But I’m just a recapper, what do I know. Hubert earns 4 stars from both Jay and Gael for a final total of 16.5, putting him just below Chiarello and knocking him out of the game. Aw.
So it’s down to Michael and Rick: The diners also scored him at 4.5 stars, and he receives straight 4.5s from all the critics as well for a total of 18 out of 20 stars, easily handing him the win and the title of TOP CHEF MASTER. Yay! And another yay for Mexico, and another for the Midwest. Who says only coastal people can cook?
Congratulations, Rick! He gives a short post script about his hopes and dreams and the joy he takes in having whipped all these chefs with all this fancy culinary training, and is in general adorable while everyone cheers for him and high fives him for being so awesome. He toasts the Frontera Foundation, Hubert is happy about the twenty grand plus publicity donation he won for Make-A-Wish, and Chiarello gets to celebrate winning $10,000 plus for Clinic Olè. I celebrate this entire series, and hope there will be more to come. Thanks for reading everybody! Now go eat something delicious.