Top Chef Finale: Showdown in the Crescent City
Welcome to the final recap of Top Chef 5! It has been a rather decent season, in my opinion—no head shaving, at least—and most of the contestants were worthy competitors. Sure, I missed seeing Bourdain and Ted Allen, but we did get the lovely Eric Ripert and Jacques Pepin. So, without further ado, let’s get this recap started.
In New Orleans, down by the river where it’s warm and green…
Well, actually they are on the river on a lovely old steamboat called the Creole Queen. That’s where we rejoin our final three chefs: Carla, Hosea, and Stefan. Carla thinks she has a good chance of winning, Hosea says it will suck to go home without the title, and Stefan is pissed Fabio is gone since Team Euro is much better than Hosea.
After disembarking the Creole Queen, the chefs head to the New Orleans Historic Collection, a museum in the Quarter. There they learn of the final challenge: cook the best three course meal they can, and desserts are optional. There is no limit on proteins, ingredients, or style. They’ll prepare at the Audubon Tea Room (adjacent to the Audubon Zoo) and serve at Commander’s Palace and they get to have some help. Out comes Richard, Casey and Marcel—who all did well, but not well enough to be Top Chef. The finalists draw knives for choosing order. Hosea draws the first selection and picks Richard, as would any sensible person. Stefan has the second pick and takes Marcel, since they are both similarly asshat-y. Carla gets stuck with Casey but says she would have picked her anyway because Casey is so meticulous.
Wherein Hosea and Stefan have a “whose is bigger” contest.
The group of three chefs and three sous chefs head to the Audubon Tea Room to prepare their meals. It is a giant grab fest for the proteins, and Hosea takes all of the foie gras. Uh-oh! Stefan wanted some of that, Hosea! Stefan calls Hosea out on bogarting all the foie gras, but in the end lets him take it all. Hosea also wants to do a raw fish dish and a venison dish; Richard is really feeling the pressure, because he wants Hosea to win.
Carla takes the approach of making comfort foods with big flavors and French influence. She plans on doing a beef dish with a bouillabaisse; Casey suggests she sous vide the beef because it is so easy. Carla’s never made beef by sous vide, but she goes along with Casey’s suggestion. Why, Carla, why? Meanwhile, Stefan just plans on making good, yummy food because, after all, basic dishes are much sexier than a bunch of other crap. Marcel just runs around like usual, and thankfully we are spared any of his rapping skills. The two hours goes by quickly and the day is done. Richard advises Hosea to get some sleep and not get trashed.
The next day, the chefs arrive at Commander’s Palace and have three hours to prepare their dishes. Tom comes into the kitchen and announces that there is yet another layer to the challenge: they will each have to prepare a passed appetizer in addition to the three dishes they’ve already prepped. Carla’s butterflies have become bats and everyone anxiously looks at the three proteins they will have to chose from: redfish, crab, and a whole alligator. In true Mardi Gras spirit, Tom also brings out a king cake cut into three pieces. Whomever gets the baby gets to assign the proteins.
In any event, Hosea gets the baby, takes the redfish for himself, gives Carla the crab, and sticks Stefan with the alligator. Ya know, that may not be such a “stick it to him” thing. The guy can handle still-moving eel. The sous chefs return and it is a mad dash to come up with the appetizers. Hosea is going to make a griddle corn cake with remoulade sauce and the redfish. Stefan has no idea what to make of the alligator tail meat so he just decides to go with a soup, probably as an homage to his unrequited love, Jamie. Carla, after dislodging a pesky crab claw from her hand, decides to make an Asian flavor crab dish. And with that, it is time for insanely fast food preparation.
The menus for the finale are:
Hosea: a trio of sashimi, scallops and foie gras with pain perdu, and venison loin with wild mushrooms.
Stefan: halibut and salmon carpaccio, squab with braised red cabbage and schupfenudeln, and ice cream and chocolate mousse with vanilla syrup and lollipops. Marcel thinks Stefan is nuts for freezing the fish for the first course…it will ruin it, he says.
Carla: seared snapper with saffron aioli and crouton, sous vide New York strip steak, potato rodwith merlot sauce, and cheese tart with apple coins and marmalade. Casey then talks Carla into making a cheese soufflé instead of a tart.
Serving the meal of their lives.
Service begins and it is a cast of famous culinary faces at the table. There’s Tom, Gail, Padma, Toby, and Fabio; there’s also Ti Martin (Commander’s owner), Susan Spicer, John Besh, Hubert Keller, Rocco DiSpirito and a half-dozen more hungry and critical folks. The passed appetizers come out first (obviously). Hosea serves blackened read fish on corn cake with Creole remoulade and micro cilantro. Stefan’s alligator soup with celeriac, parsley leaves and puff pastry is loved by the crowd. Finally Carla’s shiso soup with blue crab and chayote Thai salsa is solid and the crab taste really came through.
The first course brings Carla’s seared red snapper over saffron aioli, braised fennel and grilled clam, Hosea’s tuna, hamachi, and black bass sashimi with fennel oil, citrus, and fried tempura bits and Stefan’s smoked salmon and halibut carpaccio with micro greens, citrus vinaigrette and caviar. Hosea’s dish is said to lack seasoning, Stefan’s is watery and the halibut all but gone from the flavor profile, and Carla’s is perfect. She seems to have won this round.
The second course presents Carla’s sous vide New York strip steak with seared potato rod and merlot sauce, Stefan’s pan seared squab, braised cabbage, schupfnudeln, foie gras and grape jus and Hosea’s seared scallop with foie gras on pain perdu, apple preserves and foie gras foam. Stefan’s squab is cooked beautifully and really showcases who is as a chef. Carla made a great sauce but the meat was tough and the judges universally agree that sous vide was not the way to go. Everyone, aside from Rocco, loved Hosea’s dish. I’m left wondering where Stefan got the foie gras.
For the final course, drama ensues. Hosea is suspicious of Stefan for making a dessert; he thinks Stefan is using the dessert as his ace in the hole. Meanwhile, Carla’s soufflé—the one she made instead of the tart, at Casey’s suggestion—bubbles and curdles. She forgot to turn down the oven and now it is un-servable. Carla is very disappointed in sending out her half-completed cheese course.
The final course ends up being Carla’s apple tart coin with blue cheese and walnut crumble (and sadly no soufflé), Stefan’s stracciatella ice cream, chocolate mousse, vanilla syrup and banana lollipop and Hosea’s pan roasted venison, chestnut and celery root puree with wild mushrooms. The judges are aware of the soufflé disaster and see that it would have tied the dish together. Most of the folks at the table think Stefan’s dessert plate is dated and not the best thing in the world to serve at the end of the “greatest meal of your life”. Hosea’s dish is the best received, even gaining praise from Fabio. Hubert Keller, however, says that any chef worth his or her merit, could put out at least one decent desert and the venison is a cop-out. I tend to agree with Hubert; it’s not like they couldn’t have practiced a few desserts before coming on the show.
Back in the kitchen, the six sous and contestant chefs eat the leftovers, drink some wine, and generally get a bit blubbery. It is, in fact, the last meal they will have before they know their fates.
The final Judges’ Table
After Carla, Hosea, and Stefan are congratulated for making it to the finale and for providing a great meal, they are raked over the proverbial coals by the judges.
As for Carla, Gail loved her appetizer and first course, but the beef in the second course was too tough. Toby expected bigger, bolder flavors for the beef course and thought it really wasn’t done in her style. Picking up on that theme, Tom asks Carla how much she was influenced by her sous chef to sous vide. Carla cops to taking Casey’s suggestion on that and then reveals it was also Casey’s suggestion to do the un-servable soufflé. Tom concludes that Carla let Casey talk her out of preparing the food that got her to the finale.
Hosea faces the firing squad next. They liked his appetizer with the strong flavors and thought the first course was okay but didn’t have enough citrus. The second course dish, with the apple compote, was the best dish he made all night. They liked his final course, though Gail notes that the blueberry flavor was completely lost so Richard’s frozen blueberry garnish was a throw-away. He defends Toby’s criticism of not having made a dessert by saying he’d rather showcase his style through savory dishes.
Finally, Stefan faces the music. They loved his alligator soup appetizer; it was well-executed, even though he never cooked alligator before. His first course was watered down and bland, but the second course of squab was the best dish the panel had all night. Tom wonders why Stefan did dessert—especially that dessert. Stefan opines that a proper menu should have a dessert and he is fine with that being the last thing he wanted them to taste for the night.
Next comes the always popular, “Why should you be Top Chef?” question. Stefan says he deserves to win because he consistently serves good food. Hosea says he should win because he made the best dishes of his life for them. Carla says she should win because she cooks well, with a lot of heart and love, and produces great food…when she makes it. At that point, Carla starts to lose it and begins crying. Stefan jumps out of line and goes to comfort her. They’re dismissed for deliberation, and back in the hotel room, Stefan continues to comfort Carla. Suddenly I like Stefan a bit.
Back at the Judges’ Table, it is apparent Carla is out of the running, and they know she knows it. Padma thinks Stefan is very skilled but Hosea displays thoughtfulness. Tom and Toby get into a squabble about Stefan’s dessert: Toby thinks it is necessary but Tom doesn’t and likes Hosea’s menu transition better. Toby disagrees, noting that venison is no way to end a meal. Gail prefers Hosea’s menu overall. Tom, still squabbling with Toby, says Stefan’s work has no soul; Toby counters that, if you want to give the title to the most soulful, then pick Carla. It must be the apocalypse—I agree with Toby!
With the decision made, the final three are called back before the judges. Carla was strong all the way and when she makes her food, she does an excellent job. Hosea has been steady throughout the competition, while Stefan experienced some highs and lows. They based their decision on how the meal tasted from start to finish. Padma then announces that Hosea is Top Chef.
The party then ensues and everyone involved in the past two challenges—prior contestants and the three brought back last week—come out for the celebration. Most everyone looks like they’re having a fairly enjoyable time, except Jeff. He stares daggers at no one in particular. The reunion show next week should be interesting!