Wednesday night’s Top Chef All-Stars finale was billed as a battle between crippling neuroses and delusional bravado — but in the end, it came down to raw hamachi with fried veal sweetbreads, garlic mayo, and pickled celery against a braised pork shoulder with pepperoni sauce, roasted cabbage, and turnips. And honestly, that’s exactly the way it should’ve played out. Because at the end of the day, when we go out to eat at a restaurant, we generally don’t care about the personality of the person who’s dreaming up and executing our dishes, we care about the food on our plates.
That said, I was all kinds of thrilled to see nervous nelly Richard Blais emerge as the ultimate winner over chock full o’ ego Mike Isabella. It’s not a big surprise, really. Despite Richard’s aggravating insistence that he was the underdog, he held an 8-4 edge over Mike in challenge wins, and what’s more, the Top Chef editing team seemed to be working overtime to set up his giant-headed foe for a fall. “I’m a better cook than he is. Period,” Mike boasted at the start of the episode. Then, later, he dropped that irritating cliché “second place is the first loser.” Really, Isabella?
But I digress: The two finalists were tasked with creating four-course tasting menus at their “dream restaurants,” along with help from three previously booted cheftestants. I I loved the sadistic way the producers forced Richard and Mike to choose their sous chefs based on a blind taste test of amuse-bouches, rather than on their knowledge of the chefs’ résumés or personalities. Both guys wanted Jennifer — can I admit I still haven’t recovered from her early ouster? — but Mike wound up with Tiffani, Jamie, and Carla, while Richard snagged Angelo, Antonia, and Spike. Nobody drew the Marcel card, so everybody was happy.
After an hour of menu-planning and five hours of cooking, here’s how the tasting courses shook out.
Tongue & Cheek (Richard)
* Raw oyster with creme fraiche pearls and salsa verde (bonus amuse-bouche course)
* Raw hamachi with fried veal sweetbreads, garlic mayo, pickled celery
* Pork belly, black cod cutlet, bone marrow, beets, brussles prouts, and kumquat
* Beef short rib with mushrooms, red cabbage marmalade, and celerey-root horseradish puree
* Corn bread with foie gras ice cream and whipped mango
* Spiced beets with mozzarella, truffle, and chocolate vinagigrette
* Halibut with kumquat marmalade, cauliflower puree, pancetta crumbs
* Braised pork shoulder with pepperoni sauce, roasted cabbage, and turnips
* Rosemary caramel custard and pine nuts with citrus, celery, and apple
The judges seemed to say both Mike and Richard threw down worthy tasting menus, but it was pretty clear things were headed Richard’s way — even though the arrival of his uncle was a lot less dramatic than having Mike’s mom and new wife on the scene. To my eyes, Richard’s raw hamachi and pork belly dishes looked incredible, though his foie gras ice cream resembled cat food. At Iz, the pepperoni sauce on the pork shoulder sounded delish, while the poached halibut looked so succulent I believed Tom’s remark that it was the best-cooked fish he’d had in Top Chef history. That caramel custard, on the other hand, looked like something I could get from the display case of my local Hot ‘N Crusty.
When Padma cooly uttered the verdict, thought, it was Richard taking home the $200,000 prize, and his tears of sweet relief convinced me his “I think I’m gonna choke” insecurity was the real thing, not just a put-on for the cameras or to psych out the competition. And then there was Mike, somehow managing to declare himself the winner, too. “I feel like I beat him,” Mike said of Richard’s glorious victory, “I just didn’t get the prize.” Whatever gets you through the night, dude.
What did you think of the Top Chef finale? Were you happy with the results? Did you get choked up at the end? And which restaurant would you rather eat at: Iz or Tongue & Cheek? Sound off in the comments, and for all my reality recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV.