From 17 down to three. From Vegas to Napa. From a big diverse group to, um, three white dudes. And now it’s down to this: Two brothers and Gimli from Lord of the Rings, err, Kevin. The final morning starts and the chefs are doing exciting things like brushing their teeth and drinking coffee. Kevin knows “the brothers are going to bring it.” I want Kevin to bring it and clean the floor with the Voltaggios — with that toothbrush, if necessary.
Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio are waiting for the Bryan, Mike and Kevin in a vineyard. They remind them what’s at stake: $125,000 and the chance to appear in every single Top Chef reunion show from now until the end of time. They are given their final task: cook a three-course meal where the first is comprised of ingredients out of a mystery box, the second is whatever he wants and the third is a dessert. Tom helpfully reminds them that “this meal can make your career.”
Then out walks everyone who didn’t have a chance to make the meal that could make their career. The 14 previously PKYAGed cheftestants emerge from the grape vines. Many of them have shiny new, unrecognizable haircuts, like Jess and her white-blonde do. At first thought she was a kindly old grandmother who had accidentally wandered on set.
Next out comes the knife block from hell. The finalists will draw knives to find out which of their eliminated colleagues will be their sous chefs. They will get two each, one for each day of prep and cooking.
Now, I’d like to take a moment and discuss the inherent unfairness of this process. In past seasons, they’ve brought out the last eliminated contestants or successful chefs from past seasons as sous chefs. This guarantees that the finalists will be with someone who has a certain level of skill. But by making it a crap shoot where you could get one of the strongest or one of the weakest competitors, it can give unfair advantages or disadvantages on what should be a level playing field. In short, boo.
Which leads me back to our drawing. The finalists look nervous and Mike says that if he pulls certain knife names he’ll “probably slit my throat with it.” Kevin pulls Preeti and Ash, Bryan pulls Jennifer and Ashley and Mike pulls Jess and Eli. Team Rainbow is back!
Kevin admits to being “a little jealous of my competitors.” His mouth says jealous, his face says pissed.
The chefs arrive at the kitchen and open their mystery boxes. Inside they find Pacific rockfish, Dungeness crab, kabocha squash, Meyer lemon, matsutake mushrooms, anise hyssop and the trimmings from Padma’s bangs haircut. OK, fine, not the last thing. I think. But it’s a pretty crazy looking bunch of stuff.
As they get started, Kevin uncharacteristically complains about a fellow competitor, but rightfully so. Preeti has been tasked with cutting up vegetables and even that seems like it might be too much. He frets that he is having her do only two of the 20 tasks he needs to accomplish that day. Meanwhile the other sous chefs are knocking it out of the park like the pros they are. Ashley is kicking ass for Bryan and Jess is hard at work for Mike.
The producers take another opportunity to show us how different the Voltaggio brothers are by having them talk about their cooking styles. Mike calls Bryan “conservative.” Bryan says he is “playing it smart.” Hello, viewers, this is your season storyline. Would you like us to hit you over the head with it a couple more times?
The next morning, the chefs get ready for three hours of cooking. Kevin is still pissed he lost so much prep time because of Preeti. But before he can stress more, there’s a knock at the door. Who could it be? Padma? Tom? Santa? It’s Santa, I know it’s Santa.
Wrong, wrong and — depending on who put the gifts under the Christmas tree each year — almost right. It’s the finalists’ mothers. For a second this seems nice, but then I realize it’s yet another way to show us that, hey, THE VOLTAGGIOS ARE BROTHERS, THEY SHARE A MOM, HAVE YOU NOTICED?
After a lot of hugging and a little tearing up (I saw that, Kevin), the chefs head to Cyrus Restaurant in nearby Healdsburg for their final cook-off. Tom greets them at the door. Have you noticed how it’s never a good thing for the chefs when Tom appears unexpectedly at the door?
He tells them in honor of their moms being in town, he is adding a course to the meal. It should pay homage to their mothers and their childhood. Gosh, wouldn’t their moms prefer a nice bouquet of flowers and maybe a day at the spa?
So, the courses break down as such:
The new sous chefs arrive: Jen for Bryan, Ash for Kevin and Eli for Mike. Perfect, the sycophant is serving the egoist. It’s like those sucker fish who cling to larger fish and travel with them all over the ocean.
The chefs all take different tacks approaches to their childhoods. Bryan goes for a tuna casserole, but changes it up with sardines. Kevin is making fried chicken and the fixings, but just with the crispy skin. And Mike is making broccoli puree with prawns, because he always hated broccoli. I guess they didn’t say they had to be fond childhood memories.
For the third course the chefs are going with their strengths. Mike is making squab with real and fake mushrooms. Trickery, always delicious. Kevin is making slow-roasted pork belly. I would expect no less from Mr. Pork. And Bryan is cooking venison. Also he apparently hunts. Good to know.
Service starts and the judges begin arriving. And guess who else is there? The moms. Seriously, a nice mani-pedi and a mimosa would have been less stressful. Padma asks them to “forgive all of us in advance if we say some critical things about the food in advance.” The rest of the judging panel is Tom, Gail Simmons, Toby Young, Cyrus chef Douglas Keane, Terlato Wines CEO Bill Terlato and restaurateurs Donatella Arpaia, Stephen Starr, Drew Nieporent and Sam Nazarian.
The first courses come out. The judges seem to love Kevin’s, particularly the squash casserole under the crispy skin. Bryan’s sardine needs acid. Mike’s prawns are undercooked. Padma then asks Mama Voltaggio which of her son’s dishes she liked better. Dude, not cool. She wisely declines to answer. Round: Kevin.
The moms leave after the first course, making a pit stop in the kitchen for more hugs and encouragement. Kevin’s mom later says she wants her son to show the world that southern boy can “take simple food and turn it into something fabulous” complete with finger snap. Have I mentioned I love her?
The second course comes out and we get to see what the boys can do with their mystery ingredients. Kevin struggled with the mushroom, but Tom calls it a “good dish.” Bryan needed more seasoning and Gail calls it “the safest.” And Mike’s dish is called “amazing” by Tom. Round: Mike.
The free-for-all course comes out next. Kevin’s pork belly is called “undercooked.” Bryan’s venison is called “delicious.” Mike’s fake mushroom is called a “gimmick.” Round: Bryan.
The fourth and final course comes out. Someone complains about not wanting pork with Kevin’s dessert. Dude, bacon makes everything better. Bryan’s cheesecake is called beautiful and the fig sorbet “heavenly.” But Mike’s cake is dry. In the kitchen he admits to overfilling and overcooking the cake. Round: Bryan.
So the meal is over there is clapping all around. Kevin feels like her executed his dishes “seamlessly.” Bryan feels “extremely confidant” and Mike knows his cake was “extremely dry.”
The fellas line up to face their final gauntlet. At the Judges’ Table are Toby, Padma, Tom and Gail. Tom has apparently matched his tie to Gail’s dress. Oooh, Padma is gonna be jealous.
They address each chef’s entire meal and cooking style. Toby tells Bryan that “the hallmark of many of your dishes is a kind of restraint,” but then says that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Kevin’s disappointing pork is particularly disappointing because as Tom says he is the “self-professed pork lover.” Mike’s dry cake is called “almost a great dessert” by Gail.
Mike also admits to the judges to not setting his timer for the cake. Hey, isn’t a mistake like not setting your timer a sign of being “a little scattered” in the kitchen? Isn’t that what you dinged Jen so mercilessly for last week, Tom? Guess it’s different when it’s the teacher’s pet.
They then all get asked why they deserve to be Top Chef. Bryan says he feels he “expressed my cuisine.” Mike says “I just don’t want Bryan to be Top Chef.” He also says stuff about food being how he expresses himself, but mostly he doesn’t want his big brother to win. Kevin says he loves food and its “ability to comfort people and bring people together.”
The threesome is sent out one last time and the judges discuss some more. They agree Kevin won the first course. In the mystery box they agree Mike was the best. On the third course they seem torn between Mike and Bryan. And then on the dessert Toby calls Mike’s disappointing. Or at least I think that’s what he means by cupping his hands so close, yet so far from Padma. Or perhaps it means something else.
The chefs are brought back in and it’s time to crown the Top Chef. Tom offers some bland platitudes and then Padma brings the drama: “Kevin, [long pause] you are not Top Chef.”
What? That was mean! And it’s also not how they’ve announced the winners in the past. Thorough and decisive research from our friends at The Karmic Kitchen shows that every other season they’ve just announced the Top Chef winner without faking out the third place finisher.
Gee, why did they change their M.O. this season? Hmm, let me think. Gosh, could it be because they’ve been building all season long to the brother against brother showdown nobody cares about? Who cares if you’re needlessly cruel as long as we’re following our pre-scripted narrative.
So it all comes down to the douchey brother or the not douche brother. The slouchy brother or the not slouchy one. Mike or Bryan. Tom says it has been a pleasure to watch them both. Bryan says he can’t think of a prouder moment. Mike just wants to beat his big brother.
Then Padma finally gets to it. “Michael, [loooooong pause] you are Top Chef.”
Well, there you have it. Once again the universe reminds us that nice guys finish last. Tom is so happy his favorite won he is glowing. Mama Voltaggio comes out and congratulates one son while comforting the other. Mike actually cries. I change the channel and hope they find some more really cute chefbians for next season.
Speaking of cute chefbians, did you see Ashley in the Watch What Happened Reunion special preview for next week? That pocket square is the only reason I might tune in.
So, what did you think of this season? Did you agree with the judges? And, come on, that pocket square!