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Let me to begin by saying I did not expect to be writing about a finale without one Gregory “Greg” Gourdet in the kitchen. His elimination last week was deserved, but it was nevertheless a shock; this guy’s proven time and again that he’s got impeccable technique, a level head, and a focused vision that he’s cultivated across decades. I declared it was his season to lose in our pre-season predictions, giving him better odds than two-time finalist Bryan Voltaggio.
And if it weren’t for the untimely resurgence of a longstanding health issue, he very well might’ve taken the crown. He described in detail a few weeks back the back spasms that plagued him in Italy, and said he was laid up for days following his elimination, unable to fly home. Like the food poisoning that befell Angelo in the D.C. finale, his journey was shaped by circumstances beyond his control, leaving us to ponder what could’ve been. It’s heartbreaking, sure, but it also spun the final episodes of the season in a new and surprising direction.
One of my favorite things when I get invested in a competition is being wrong. I don’t like being right, and I rarely am. I gave Mustache Joe a 12-1 chance, for Christ’s sake. I gave Melissa a 20-1 chance. I did give Stephanie better odds than, based on her comments over the past few episodes, she’d have given herself, so, hey, I wasn’t entirely off-base. But it’s the surprises, the underdogs who rose up and the favorites who fizzled out, that have made this All-Stars such a wild ride. This was not the final three I would ever have imagined, and I love that.
But while the journey to the finale has been surprising, the finale itself was anything but. And that’s a good thing, too. There were no twists; Tom didn’t roll a whale shark in and demand a “fifth course of whale shark.” There was no drama; Malarkey didn’t overcook Stephanie’s veal while tap-dancing on the line (he, in fact, forecast that her veal needed more fat). And there were no colossal failures. Halfway through the meal, Padma declared the trio’s dishes “universally wonderful.” And isn’t that when Top Chef is at its best? Not when the barbs are flying or the fish is smoking or Tom is disappointed (though that is some high drama), but when everybody is operating on the level that got them on the show in the first place, succeeding in their ambition and cheering each other on and making it incredibly difficult for the judges to make a decision. I truly believe in my heart of hearts that reality TV thrives on failure, be it emotional or physical, and that the reason Top Chef is rarely classified as reality TV is because it’s never reveled in or made a spectacle of failure. (One exception: That weird dude on Texas who Tom sent home on the first episode for not knowing how to butcher a pig, though he shouldn’t have been cast in the first place and Tom immediately recognized that. I digress.)
Me remembering that Texas guy:
The challenge? Cook a four-course progressive meal, “the best meal of your life.” They shop at Florence’s Mercato Centrale with a €1,000 budget, get five hours to prep, and three hours to prepare the day of the meal. They also get sous chefs. Stephanie chooses Malarkey, saying she “fell in love” with him during Restaurant Wars (which means there is a lot of Restaurant Wars footage that we did not get to see). Bryan reunites with Kevin—Team Vegas!—and Melissa works with Lee Anne. The winner, as you are probably aware, gets a $250,000 cash prize. The judges they’ll be feeding? Mauro Colagreco, Clare Smyth, Marcus Samuelsson, Janice Wong, Tony Mantuano, Dario Cecchini and Food & Wine’s Hunter Lewis. Wow! All we’re missing is a Wylie Dufresne.
The stakes felt highest for Bryan, and not only because this was his third round on the franchise. Last week, we watched his heart turn to white ash and seep through his unblinking eyes after he was told by an Italian master that his food lacked any soul whatsoever.
Determined to transcend his modernist reputation, Bryan swung for the fences by tackling that most suburban of Italian dishes: lasagna. In doing so, though, he was demonstrating his ability to reimagine and elevate a tired staple while also honoring his mother, who, with no father figure in sight, always made sure to ensure he and his siblings got home-cooked meals. The dish was a success, and Tom made sure that Bryan knew he was absolved. Yes, sir, you do have a soul.
Did Tom still make this face when discussing his dishes with Bryan?
Yes, that is the face Tom makes to ensure you never become too comfortable. And while you should fear this face, you should also not trust it. Tom knows what he is doing to you.
Here’s his full meal:
And it was, by and large, a success. One judge described his beets with tonnato as “beguiling,” while his malted chocolate mousse with “cardamom soil” was praised for its sophistication. Nilou Motamed lauded his meal for bookending itself with themes of “earth.” Did he intend for that? Probably not, but he’ll take it. And so will we. (She also called his squid ink focaccia “dramatic,” and when am I ever going to hear a loaf of bread get called “dramatic” again?)
It was his monkfish with cacciucco broth that fell only the slightest bit short; in trying to make something all-encompassing, the aforementioned squid ink focaccia (black bread looks weird!) just didn’t quite come together. It didn’t help either that Tom makes cacciucco every Christmas Eve. At least it wasn’t like when Stephanie made “Indian nachos” for Padma?
Speaking of Stephanie, nobody will calling her an underdog anymore after how she presented herself in Italy. Honestly, her performance this season was redolent of Melissa’s on Boston, having coasted until breaking out all the stops in the final stretch. Her journey has honestly been one of the best parts of this season, if only because we got to see layers of her personality we never got to see in New Orleans. Stephanie is hilarious, pointed, and, as we saw in her speech before the judges at the end, struggling with a lot of big emotions related to both the family she’s lost and the alienating qualities of her own grief (something I can relate to real hard).
Her food also looked incredible, and the personal resonances she wove into it landed harder emotionally than perhaps any of the other chefs. Her kataifi-wrapped shrimp was an ode to her late brother, for whom she used to cook coconut shrimp, while her sticky toffee pudding served to celebrate one of her latest endeavors, a wildly successful donut pop-up. “These are the dishes that made me a chef,” she told Malarkey, that motherfucker.
Alas, in a meal that was mostly flawless, her imbalanced third course—overcooked veal and underdone gnocchi—were enough to crush her chances. But this meal was a big win for her, regardless. I doubt she’s going to stay a private chef for long after this; too many people are going to be knocking on her door. (Just don’t make them Indian nachos.)
As for Melissa, well, we all knew she had it in the bag when she made proud Italian Dario Cecchini cry because of how well she’d “respected the traditions of Italy” with her dessert. I literally can’t remember a single challenge on Top Chef where a dish was so good it made someone cry. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.)
Melissa, perhaps, had the clearest vision of any of the chefs going into the finale. Despite concepts of “fusion” not being in vogue, she stuck to her blend of Chinese and Italian flavors and achieved something as complex as it was enriching. As she put it, her menu encompassed everything from her stints in Michelin-starred French kitchens to her experiences butchering and making pasta to her own heritage. As she summed it up: “The soul of me.”
Aside from some “sticky” octopus, Melissa’s meal was, per the judges, pretty perfect. She made Gail a “squab convert.” Tom got all worked up at the “foie gras reference” of her porcini (seriously, I’ve rarely seen Tom that excited). And Samuelsson praised her “originality,” calling her the squab course “brilliant.”
And then Dario cried. And that sealed it.
- “I’m aiming for fan favorite,” Stephanie cracked. She’s got a shot, but I imagine it’ll be neck and neck between her and Gregory.
- Cameos from both Seattle winner Kristen Kish and Vegas winner Michael Voltaggio!
- Or, per his look this episode, should I call him “Machine Gun” Voltaggio? When is his Post Malone collaboration dropping?
- I also reviewed Padma’s new Hulu show, Taste The Nation. It’s good! It won’t fill the Top Chef-sized hole in your heart, but it will make you think a lot about what we mean when we talk about “American food.”
- Can we please not have to wait literal years until a new season? My life is incomplete without Top Chef.