Final Episode: Top Chef All-Stars

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t watched the last night’s show you better go elsewhere. This report by Loren Means.

And the winner is…. Richard Blais! Phew. Now I don’t have to go into a tail spin about why I don’t think Mike Isabella should have won. I spent the entire, not-so-exciting episode, stressing about who would take the title.  I didn’t realize until the very end that my entire body had been tense for about an hour.  I’m not sure how I got so personally involved.  I’m not up for $200,000, a spread in Food & Wine Magazine, and a showcase at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic.  I am not an All-Star Cheftestant that has strenuously competed for several weeks in a brutal competition.  In fact, I am not a Chef at all. Although, I do make a mean baked ziti.  But I did care. A lot.  Especially after Richard’s heartbreaking explanation on why he deserved the title. Someone give that guy a hug already! Mike’s explanation of how he quit his job and missed his honeymoon did nothing to move or inspire me. How does one “miss” a honeymoon exactly?  Isn’t it just postponed? I highly doubt his wife took off to Tahiti alone with a note to Mike -“sorry you missed it.” Maybe I’m just being mean now.

For the final challenge Richard and Mike were told to create the restaurant of their dreams and a four-course tasting menu. This idea gave Richard goose bumps. He later revealed that as a Chef, sometimes you make decisions based on necessity and funding and a dream restaurant can be out of reach. Mike was just stoked to get into the kitchen and show of his feathers. He was smiling like a kid in a candy shop though which made him likeable for a minute. Both chefs were genuinely excited for this challenge and were ready to get started.

First step was to select their sous chefs which brought back the entire gang of All-Stars. It was fun to see all those familiar faces. Especially Fabio’s smiling face. I want a pocket Fabio that I can pull out whenever I’m having a rough day or just feel like having fun. Richard and Mike spent some time discussing who they were hoping to have and who they wanted to avoid but when selection time came, they realized they wouldn’t have as much control as they had thought. All of the previously eliminated chefs had to prepare an amuse bouche for Richard and Mike to blindly taste. Based on the bites, the top two would select their three sous chefs. Mike actually made me laugh when he said he was trying to figure out which one was Marcel’s so that he could dodge that bullet. Mike also said he did not want Jamie – I’m with you on this one too Mike. But, unfortunately, he selected her dish and she was on his team along with Tiffani and Carla. Richard selected what I considered to be the dream team (so did guest Judge, Art Smith) with Spike, Angelo and the lovely, Antonia.

The chefs and their sous chefs had 5 hours to prepare four courses for 70 guests. Both groups worked really well together and I must say, although it pains me, both chefs had stellar menus. I was a bit confused when Richard was coming up with his dessert though. First idea -Captain Crunch ice cream.  I cannot even imagine what that would be like but it did remind me that it has been about a decade since I had a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal. And that, my friends, is entirely too long.  It’s now on my grocery list. Idea number two and what he went with – foie gras ice cream. Say what? My brain cannot understand this concept.

Service began at Richard’s restaurant, Tongue & Cheek, with guest Judges, Lidia Bastianich, Hubert Keller, Alfred Portale, Bill Terlato and Padma.  Richard started his guests off with an amuse bouche of raw oyster with crème fraiche pearls. As the judges oohed and aahed over their first taste of Richard’s genius, crafty Spike was busy eavesdropping so he could report back to the kitchen. I loved it! He did this through the whole service. The first course out was a raw Hamachi with veal sweetbreads which also wowed the judges. The third course out was a black cod with pork belly and bone marrow followed by a beef short rib with red cabbage marmalade and celery root horseradish. The judges were thoroughly enjoying everything until the dessert of cornbread with whipped mango and foie gras ice cream was sitting in front of them. While they complimented the cornbread they were not as thrilled with the texture of the ice cream and I think their brains didn’t get it either. Secret Agent Spike reported this snafu back to the kitchen so Richard could improve upon it for the second service.

Meanwhile, over at Mike’s Restaurant, IZ, service is in full swing for guest judges, Art Smith, Curtis Stone, future host of Top Chef Masters, Tom and Gail. I’d like to take a second to say I wish that Anthony Bourdain had been a guest judge for the finale. I think he earned it over the season. That and he’s hilarious. Maybe they wanted to pull the funny on this episode to create a heavier tone. Who knows. Moving on… the first course at IZ, an American restaurant with Italian influence, was a spiced beet salad with mozzarella and a chocolate vinaigrette. Everyone was pleased.  For the second course, a halibut with kumkwat marmalade, cauliflower bean puree and pancetta crumbs arrived at the table. This dish was a hit! Tom said that he had never had a piece of fish cooked this nicely on the show. The third course, presented the guests with a braised pork shoulder with a peperoni sauce which the crowd went wild for.  I don’t like to support Mike, but I would be glad to dip a finger in his peperoni sauce. When he wasn’t looking – so he wouldn’t know I cared. Mike’s final dish of the evening was a rosemary caramel custard that went off like most desserts on this show –okay.

After the first service, the judges swapped restaurants and had almost equal experiences with a couple exceptions. Once Tom tasted Richard’s fish, he retracted his previous statement about Mike’s fish being the most perfectly cooked fish on Top Chef. Also, Tom’s group wasn’t as put off by the foie gras ice cream at Tongue & Cheek because the insider tip gave Richard a chance to correct the texture. But mostly, no new news came from the swap.

After service both Richard and Mike were beat and poring over their menus, the service, how they measured up, etc. Richard, being the gent that he is, told Mike that if he won he would give Mike some of the money to put towards his dreams. Which Mike promptly said he would accept. Then Mike, once again wowing us with his giant heart, said if I lose to you I will feel like shit. It really is amazing that Mike wasn’t up for fan favorite.

Just before Judges table both Richard and Mike were surprised by loved ones. Mike’s wife, sister, and mom arrived to be with him and Richard’s uncle came to support him since his very pregnant wife was unable to make the trip. The judges had a very tough time making the decision as both chefs really did an amazing job. They really did. Mike’s food was fantastic and Richard’s was spectacular. I think I may have just flipped a coin if I were a judge. A coin with two heads and Richard is heads. Alas, the judges made their decision and Richard Blais was announced as Top Chef. That gave me goose bumps. Where there’s a will there’s a way, right Richard?  He “willed this.”

This really was a great season to watch with so many talented chefs and excited challenges. There were so many strong personalities. Some we loved and some we loved to hate. I won’t name names because that would just be tacky. Actually, it would just be redundant. Richard had some really tough competition throughout the entire season and definitely earned this title. A big applause to all of the chefs who competed in the Top Chef All- Star competition and congratulations to Mr. Blais, you are the best of the best!

Final Food for Thought: Carla for fan favorite. Really?! I love her to pieces but over Fabio?!  Are there people who want pocket Carlas?!  Exactly.