“Top Chef” mini-cap: The last chef standing


And then there were three. From 17 chefs at the start of the season, we are down to just Carla, Hosea and Stefan. One of them will be crowned Top Chef. Objectivity not being part of my purview in this recap, I’d like to take this opportunity to let out my loudest, heartiest, Braveheartiest “Go, Hootie Hoo!”

The trio heads to the Creole Queen riverboat for breakfast. Each assesses his/her chances at taking home the title. Carla thinks she has a good chance if she continues to “deliver the food that got me here, if I do that food.” Hosea feels he has the most to prove because he doesn’t own his own business. And Stefan thinks, “It’s over, it’s done.”

The chefs leave to meet Padma and head judge Tom Colicchio. Tom lays out the final challenge: Cook the best three-course meal of your life. Simple enough, right? Ha, then you’ve clearly never watched this show. Tom tells them they can use whatever proteins and other ingredients they want, and they do not have to make a dessert.

The final service will be for 12 at the famed Commander’s Palace Restaurant. They have two hours of prep that night and then three hours to cook the next day. And, oh yeah, they’re going to have a little help. Through the outdoor corridor walk finalists from seasons past Richard (Season 4), Casey (Season 3) and Marcel (Season 2).

Marcel is still sporting the Wolverine hair, but now he has added the full facial scruff as well. Oh, and sunglasses to complete the Asshat 101 look. Oh, Marcel, thanks for reminding us what a real Top Chef villain looks like — none of this baldy nonsense.

The chefs are directed one last time to the familiar knife-stand butcher block where they must draw blades to see who picks first. Carla won the last challenge and gets to pick first, but sadly gets No. 3. Her face is the physical representation of the deflated “wah-wah-wah” sound of disappointment.

Hosea draws No. 1 and Stefan No. 2. Hosea picks Richard, Mr. Molecular Gastronomy himself. Stefan picks Marcel despite the fact that “he is a bit of a twat, but who’s not?” That leaves Carla with Casey, whom she cheerily tells, “I wanted you, Casey!”

And then it’s off to the kitchen with the lot of them. The chefs raid the pantry for proteins and other ingredients. Hosea grabs up most of the foie gras, much to Stefan’s chagrin. And then he also takes all of the caviar, to even more of Stefan’s chagrin. Hmm, playing a little game of keep-away before dinner I see. When will this bald-on-bald crime stop?

Carla says her strategy will be big, bold flavors. She wants one of her dishes to be the comfort food of meat and potatoes. Casey thinks they need to do something to set the simple dish apart and suggests sous vide sirloin. Carla has never sous vide before, but nevertheless agrees to go with Casey’s idea. Hey, what happened to your plan to “deliver the food that got me here”? Because I’m pretty sure cooking beef in a bag is not the food that got you here.

The next day, the chefs return to the kitchen only to find Tom waiting for them in front of a cart of odd offerings. In other words, here comes the twist. He tells the chefs that even though yesterday they were told they only had to make their best three-course meal ever, now he is adding a course. Each must create an appetizer out of one of the traditional New Orleans ingredients: crab, alligator and red fish.

Instead of going back to the butcher block, the chefs will use another Big Easy favorite to determine who gets what: a king cake. They all take a slice and the chef who gets the piece with the baked-in toy baby, or king, gets to pick his/her ingredient and everyone else’s as well. And who finds the baby? Hosea, which only seems appropriate since he has spent the whole season whining like a baby about Stefan.

He takes the red fish, Carla gets the crab and Stefan gets the alligator. Stefan also gets the bird. Classy, Hosea, classy.

With the new wrench thrown into the works, Carla says the butterflies in her stomach have turned into bats. She also has a crab on her finger as one of the claws has her in a vice. Stefan comes to her rescue. I know, first the oysters, now the crab? Stop tarnishing your not-so-nice-guy image, Stefan.

For his appetizer, Stefan — who has never worked with alligator before — promptly lops off its tail and decides to make soup. The rest of the chefs also have their menus set.

Hosea: appetizer — blackened red fish; first — sashimi trio; second — seared scallop with foie gras on pain perou; third — roasted venison

Stefan: appetizer — alligator soup; first — smoked salmon and halibut carpaccio; second — squab and cabbage; third — stracciatella ice cream, chocolate mousse and banana lollipop

Carla: appetizer — shiso soup with blue crab; first — seared red snapper; second — sous vide NY strip with seared potato rod and merlot sauce; third — cheese course

Carla wants to do a cheese tart for her third course, but in chimes Casey again. She suggests a cheese soufflé instead. Carla, think: Did any soufflés get you here? Not that I can remember. But more than a few of your delicious pastry crusts did. So for heaven’s sake, stop taking direction from your sous chef. Have confidence, you are the top chef here. And Casey, girl, you had your chance to win. This is Carla’s time.

In another corner, a surprisingly less mouthy sous chef is Marcel. While he has his doubts about Stefan’s frozen carpaccio, he keeps them to himself and — of course — the cameras afterward. In the final push, as Carla calls it, the chefs give themselves pep talks. Carla says, “Girl, you can do it!” (go, tortoise, go!) and Stefan is already convinced it’s “my $100,000, dude.”

Meanwhile, at the Commander’s Palace the guests start to arrive. The dozen judges are a mix of show regulars, past guest judges and a who’s who of New Orleans cuisine and arts. Joining Tom, Padma, Gail and (unfortunately) Toby are: ex-finalist Fabio, celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito, Commander’s Palace proprietor Ti Martin, Commander’s Palace executive chef Tory McPhail, French chef Hubert Keller, New Orleans chefs Susan Spicer and John Besh, and jazz musician Branford Marsalis.

The appetizers come out as the guests mingle. All three offerings are deemed tasty. Then it’s time for the real chowing down to begin as service starts.

The first courses come out, and Carla’s red fish is universally enjoyed. Chef Besh calls it “something special.” Hosea’s sashimi is called good, but missing seasoning. Tom calls Stefan’s frozen carpaccio “watery.” Toby then sums it all up by saying Stefan and Hosea’s dishes were both perfectly executed and a little bland. So that’s a win for Carla. What? I am totally keeping score.

The second course comes out, and right away the cat is out of the bag with Carla’s sous vide sirloin. The meat is tough, while the sauce is praised. But the biggest problem is that Tom says the dish “doesn’t remind me of her.” The perplexed look on his face says it all.

Stefan’s squab is then deemed decidedly not for the birds. Chef Besh says very few American chefs can cook game bird this well. Good thing Stefan is a Finn, then. Gail says she can’t stop eating Hosea’s scallop with foie gras, but Rocco says he is “sick of foie gras.” Are you sure you’re not just sick of yourself there, Rocco?

In the kitchen, the chefs prepare the third and final course. Stefan talks about how much he loves making desserts and scoffs at Hosea for taking the easy way out by making a savory dish. For Carla, however, nothing is easy. As she watches her soufflés in the oven, they start to boil and then curdle. She forgot to turn down the heat and now the centerpiece of her course is ruined. They say you should never cry over spilled milk, but they never said you couldn’t bawl over burnt soufflé. Oh, Carla, sob!

The final course goes out and Carla admits to the judges that her blue cheese soufflé never made it to the plate. Gail says she is “incredibly disappointed that whatever happened in the kitchen didn’t make it onto the plate.” You and me both, sister. (P.S. God bless you for wearing this dress. Seriously, it’s the only thing pulling me through right now.)

The other two plates, however, get the judges’ full attention. Stefan’s ice cream, mousse and banana pop trio gets calls dated in presentation. As Gail says, “To me this sings 1982.” See, Toby, that’s how you make a properly snarky criticism. Hosea’s venison is strong, though Chef Keller wonders if it was the safe way out to avoid making a dessert.

With service over, the chefs bid farewell to their sous chefs. Carla gives Casey a big hug and says, “I’m sorry I didn’t get to show you off.” Oh, Carla, she should apologize for trying to show you up. Carla admits it wasn’t the meal of her life, but she knows that “parts of my heart and soul” were in the food.

Hosea declares himself pretty happy with his dishes. Stefan, on the other hand, says he doesn’t know who is going to win. At Judges’ Table, Toby, Padma, Tom and Gail await the cheftestants.

Carla is up first. They praise her appetizers and the flavor of her merlot sauce. But the meat, as expected, was the problem. Toby calls it too refined and “rather polite and fussy.” They also question her about the missing soufflé, which she also confesses was Casey’s idea.

Tom: “Seems that you let your sous chef talk you out of cooking the food that got you to the finale.”

Carla knows it, the judges know it. Oh, Hootie. You’ll never know how hard I was rooting for you.

Hosea is next and tells the judges his goal was to cook big flavors. The sashimi was fresh and light, but could have used more citrus. The pain perou was nice, the venison was nicely cooked. Toby, however, criticizes him for having a beginning and two middles. Wait, do I actually agree with Toby?

Stefan’s dishes are last. Tom says he doesn’t get why he would take a nice piece of fish and freeze it. Stefan also gets asked if the dessert was really the last flavor he wanted to leave the judges with. The chefs are then all asked why they deserve to be Top Chef.

Stefan says he thinks he deserves it because he has been the most consistent. Hosea says he put a piece of himself out there. And Carla says that she proved when she cooks her own food, it’s really delicious with a lot of heart. She starts to cry as she says, “Do I think my food is good when I make it? Yes.” Stefan comes over to console her.

OK, I can’t believe it but because there is no hope for Carla, I officially want Stefan to win instead. I agreed with Toby. I am rooting for Stefan. Up is down. Black is white. What has happened in this topsy-turvy season?

The judges then deliberate over the winner. Padma says there was thoughtfulness to Hosea’s food, while Stefan’s dessert was “pedestrian at best.” Toby thought Stefan’s food was structurally better. Tom agrees his squab was the day’s best dish, but can’t get past the dessert.

Back in the stew room, Hosea tells Carla, “As much as I got help from Richard, I did my food tonight.” Geez, you don’t have to rub it in, man. Carla knows it wasn’t her night and that wasn’t her food.

The chefs come back in and Tom gives them his last thoughts. He says Carla’s food, when it comes from her, shows soul and heart. Hosea has been steady across the board. And Stefan had great highs and a few lows. So, now it’s Padma’s turn. And who takes it? Who is Top Chef? Long dramatic pause. Congratulations, Hosea, you are Top Chef.

That sound you heard? That was me screaming at my TV.

Hosea: “Who just won Top Chef? Hosea just won Top Chef. I am kind of in shock right now.”

You and me both, dude.

Afterward, Stefan tells the cameras if he had made a different dessert he would have won. Carla then confesses what we all know: “I should have done my food, and I will not make that mistake again. When I came here I wanted to show people a different way of competing. To compete with love, so I did one of the things I wanted to do here.” Oh Carla, I just want to give you a big hug.

Hosea makes his win even less laudable by saying that it is even sweeter because it came down to him beating Stefan. Thank you, Hosea, for officially breaking Top Chef.

Also, don’t think I didn’t catch that kiss and hug with Leah.

Guess this ensures that the boring cheaters will be the main topic of discussion at the reunion show. Blerg. So, this guy is your Top Chef, folks. What do you think? Let it all boil over in the comments section.

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