Quick spoilers for last night’s Top Chef All-Stars coming up:
In last night’s finale, Richard Blais and Mike Isabella flung foie gras ice cream against pepperoni sauce in the Top Chef All-Stars final round. Two four-course meals later, the Toppest Chef of all time is…
Richard! Which means we were spared the sight of a final, horrible nervous breakdown of self-loathing, as the perpetually stressed-out molecular gastronome finally got to relax.
As with any Top Chef finale in which one contestant does not obviously implode, it was hard for me to judge whether the right man won, based on the meals alone, simply because it’s hard to separate the actual menus and execution from the inevitable editing and misdirection for suspense.
On the basis of the entire season, though, I’m happy with the call. I haven’t been a huge Isabella fan: the chicken-oyster controversy aside, his cooking has just seemed good but not especially imaginative. He impressed me, though, by finding another gear this season and competing strongly within his strengths. Still, episode by episode, it’s seemed plain that Richard was competing on Top Chef and Mike was competing on Top Cook.
The most telling example for me was the meat course, in which both men produced a lacquered, braised piece of red meat—short ribs for Richard and pork shoulder for Mike. Yet the dish was considered a triumph for Mike while just a well-executed shoulder-shrug for Richard. Now it may well have been that Mike’s pork was delicious and the better of the two dishes. But the takeaway was that a great piece of comfort food was the pinnacle of what Mike could be expected to achieve, while it was a relative letdown by Richard’s standards. Which seems about right; whoever won that round, the course also showed that Richard could reasonably compete on Mike’s turf, while you could never imagine Mike doing the reverse.
But even if that’s true—even if you accept that Richard would beat Mike on both their best days—it didn’t seem like the final meal was Richard’s best day. It would have been more satisfying to see him absolutely crush it, but again, I can’t say whether it was a really close call—if it could have gone either way and the judges swung the vote to Richard because he was supposed to win—or if it was just editing.
As it was, the most interesting dish Richard presented was his (seemingly) least successful. Foie gras ice cream is like Top Chef matter vs. antimatter: foie gras (next to bacon) is one of those ingredients that usually guarantees praise, while desserts regularly trip up the best of chefs. Honestly, I’d have love to have tried the ice cream: if pork lard can make a rich pie crust, unctuous foie gras should make a sleek, custardy ice cream. But not in the dish’s first iteration, which looked like cat food—at some point after the cat had eaten it.
But no need to cry over a dropped scoop of ice cream. Congratulations, Blais. Now, exhale.