SPOILER ALERT: Click on the jump and you’ll get spoilers about the Top Chef finale faster than you can make bacon ice cream.
Most weeks, Mrs. Tuned In and I have a ritual of watching Top Chef (Tivo-delayed, on Thursday) over takeout Mexican. But last night before the finale, we went out for our anniversary dinner at Eleven Madison Park, where one of the courses involved a kind of sphere of gelatinized beet puree on a spoon. When you popped it in your mouth, beet juice exploded out of it like the liquid center of a Freshen-Up gum. It was the weirdest but not the best dish of the meal, which was the perfect appetizer for Top Chef’s showdown of Richard’s experimentation vs. Stephanie’s consistency vs. Lisa’s… well, being-there-ness.
I had picked Richard as the winner early on in the season, and even as last night’s episode started, I thought the talk about there never having been a woman Top Chef might just have been editing misdirection. (Albeit misdirection likely to piss off Bravo’s female audience.) But Stephanie deserved the win, both on the basis of the finale meal and her performance over the season. Richard still seems formidable, and might have been able to win on a better night, but over time his molecular gastronomy started to seem like shtick, especially when his finished dishes weren’t able to deliver the same wow as his preparation technique. The dish that sealed it for me last night was his banana “scallop,” even though the judges praised it. (1) he had made it before in the competition and (2) you’re just torching a damn banana slice, no matter how much liquid nitrogen you use to flash-freeze your bacon ice cream. (The ice cream, however, I would totally eat–there’s a reason they put lard in pie crusts.)
As for Lisa, I have to hand it to her: she had a good night. Although I think Antonia deserved to make the final over her, I never felt the sense of outrage some fans apparently did that the sullen chef made it this far. (For my money, Spike and Andrew were way more obnoxious, and Dale, though talented, was no prize either.) However, she had a good night by executing upscale versions of dishes you’d find on your nearest Thai restaurant menu, particularly her soup and sticky rice. (The soup dumpling was a nice touch, though.) However well-executed, it wasn’t a winning menu. I would have been interested to see how she and Richard would have placed if the runners-up were ranked, though. She had a long streak of finishing second-last week after week, and she may have continued it last night. (By which logic, it it had been a two-person finale, she would have been guaranteed to win!)
Stephanie, on the other hand, won the way she excelled all season: she saved the drama for the plate. Her braised lamb and pistachios seemed to be the dish that cinched it for her, but more than that, she did a remarkable job all season of staying calm in the kitchen, even when you could tell she was clenching a compacted diamond of stress somewhere inside her. In a finale with one chef known for his kitchen pyrotechnics, and another competitor distinguished by her emotional ones, Stephanie took the kitchen by showing she could take the heat.