As another day dawns in San Juan, Puerto Rico, we see the three finalists, Stephanie, Richard and Lisa, nervously breakfasting together. This is it; finally, the big day has arrived. Stephanie proclaims, “There’s never been a female Top Chef winner. Hopefully I will be the first one.” This appears to be a prophetic statement, but whether of calamity or joy, we can’t tell. Meanwhile, Lisa acknowledges, “I managed to get through by the skin of my teeth.” You betcha, sistah.
The three contestants find Padma and Tom, who present the challenge: Cook the most important meal of your life. Standing with them are three honest-to-goodness top chefs, all from New York: April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig, Dan Barber of Blue Hill, and Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin (and DC’s WestEnd Bistro). These world-class chefs will serve as the contestants’ sous chefs.
Richard and Stephanie have each won four Elimination Challenges, so they draw knives to see who will get to choose their sous chef first. Stephanie wins and she picks Ripert (good choice, Steph), who presents her with an array of proteins in an accent so thick we can’t understand a single word. Richard chooses Barber, along with an assortment of scallops, foie gras, guinea hen and a bunch of other stuff. By default, Lisa gets Bloomfield and a selection of chicken, jumbo shrimp, crab, and Wagyu steak. The chefs will have two days to present a four-course meal in the traditional progression: fish, poultry, red meat, dessert. They must prepare a dessert, Tom stresses, and a look of fear crosses the chef-contestants’ faces.
The contestants begin to plan their meals, giving instructions to their sous chefs. April and Lisa are soon BFFs, which is a surprise for everyone. (Stephanie: “It’s weird that April and Lisa are chatting. Because Lisa, you know, doesn’t get along with everybody.” Hello, understatement of the year!) Richard works well with Dan, but seems frazzled. And Stephanie keeps examining Eric Ripert’s red snapper filets. “Are you sure you know how to filet fish? Just kidding,” she says, joking-but-not–really.
The next day dawns and the chefs return to the kitchen expecting to find their sous chefs. Alas, as Tom soon informs them, their helpers have pulled a sickie. “From this point, you are completely on you own,” he intones gravely. Stephanie nods while a look of sheer terror immobilizes her features. As it turns out, she has reason to be fearful: she’s only made her dessert, a ricotta pound cake, once before. Tom looks severely disapproving at this news. Richard, on the other hand, is making that blasted “banana scallop” again. What is this, the eighth time this “witty” dessert has appeared this season?
The black tie dinner begins and judges Gail, Tom and Padma are joined by a table of guest judges: There’s Ted Allen, Tim Zagat of the eponymous restaurant survey, Puerto Rican chef and restaurateur Alfredo Ayala, and the three sous chefs, Eric Ripert, April Bloomfield and Dan Barber, who are miraculously recovered.
The first course appears and the judges appear equally divided between Stephanie, with her sautéed red snapper with white-truffle broth (Ted proclaims it “very elegant”) and Lisa’s prawn with chili-basil sauce (Tom: “It was very assertive, very hot.”) Richard’s grilled scallop with pineapple-vinegar and mango does not draw raves.
Second course goes to Lisa, with her well-balanced, absolutely delicious tom ka soup and dumplings. “I’d be happy to have seconds,” declares Zagat, but then again, he seems to say that about a lot of dishes. Unfortunately, Stephanie’s quail breast with lobster ravioli is marred by leeks that are both undercooked and unnecessary. Richard’s dish of guinea hen, duck, foie gras, and egg wins points for its complexity, but ultimately the judges agree the flavors are too muddied.
Third course: Stephanie wins hands down with her lamb with blackberries, braised pistachios and green olives, a dish the judges hate to love. (Gail: “I thought she was going to crash and burn with the olives. But the second I put it in my mouth, I loved it.”) Alas, Lisa’s beef is tough and the sauce is too sweet; also, as Ripert points out in his delightfully incomprehensible way, “It’s a repeat of sauce from the shrimps.” Richard’s pork belly is deemed underseasoned, which we know is the kiss of death on this show.
Fourth course: dessert. We have Richard’s “witty” banana scallops served with bacon ice cream, a dish that does not win favor. (“It shows his playfulness,” Barber argues. Ripert responds—scathingly, we might add—“It’s very important to focus on the flavors and then you can be playful.” Then there is Stephanie’s ill-fated ricotta pound cake, which looks heavy even to us. The course finishes off with Lisa’s Thai black-rice pudding with crispy taro chips, which the judges enjoy, albeit grudgingly. As Padma says, “I’m glad she made that dessert because it was the best thing she made all night.”
And so, on to judges’ table. Who will win Top Chef? Ah, the judges have many hours of deliberation—and we have what seems like hours of commercials—before a decision is made. They give the contestants one last chance to make a case for themselves. Stephanie admits to second-guessing herself on the dessert, but says “I think I just am what a Top Chef should be.” Lisa, of course, goes in with her fists flailing, declaring, “I’m very confident.” She urges the judges to think: “She deserves this win. She’s got the qualities.” And Richard? In a moment that was billed as “shocking” —talk about over-dramatics, Bravo —he admits, “I choked a little bit. I over-thought things too much.” Alas, we know he’s right.
We confess, our heart starts pounding just a bit as Padma declares: “One of you is about to win $100,000 furnished by…” Whoops, we didn’t catch the sponsor. “And the title Top Chef!” Tom praises the chefs individually, calling Richard’s food “whimsical, playful and sometimes just plain outrageous.” Lisa is: “Big, bold, all about you.” As for Stephanie: “Just when we think we have you all figured out, you surprise us.”
In the end, Tom says, the judges based the win on “Which meal we would go back and like to have again.” And so, the winner is… Stephanie! Hallelujah! Birds burst forth into song, modesty and hard work triumph over aggression and mediocrity, the Democrats just might have a shot at the White House this year. Stephanie dances a little jig, Champagne flows, and another season of Top Chef draws to a close.
We couldn’t have hoped for a sweeter ending.
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