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Top Chef Season Finale Review: Part 1

We’re almost to the finish in what is proving to be one of my favorite seasons of Top Chef yet.

After a beautiful and inspiring trip to Alaska, we’re down to the final 2 chef’testants: Brooke and Sheldon. These super chefs will be joined by the surprise winner of the Last Chance Kitchen, Lizzie or Kristen.

Brooke and Sheldon take a moment to enjoy their last bit of time in Alaska before heading home to their families for six entire months in preparation for the finale. I don’t remember a season when there was this much down time between the regular season and the finale. I just hope the chefs can keep their heads in the game.

Top Chef Scene

This episode really begins to peel back the layers of these final two chefs as we see them in their home towns, surrounded by their family and friends.

First up is Sheldon. We’re in for more gorgeous scenery as the camera crew meets up with Sheldon in his home town of Maui. Seriously, these guys have one of the best jobs ever; getting to travel and (presumably) eat their way around the country.

Here in Maui, we see Sheldon working at his restaurant, Star Noodle, and it sounds like he has been quite busy honing his skills for the finale. Sheldon has always seemed like a good and decent guy and it’s really enjoyable to see him in his own element, cooking with his wife and daughters on a picturesque beach in Maui. Oh, and his ukulele is never far from his hands.

After leaving Sheldon, we’re headed to Los Angeles to meet up with Brooke. We get to see her spending time with her son and husband, teeth brushing and all. So cute. Then we get a glimpse of her life running two separate restaurants. She even whips up a pig ear salad. Yeah, I’m not sure how I feel about that either, but I guess if anyone could make that taste good it would be her. She has a way with pairings that always surprise me.

The thing that strikes a chord with me about these visits to Sheldon’s and Brooke’s homes is that they both seem like fundamentally the same people that were portrayed on the show. And yes, I know that it’s supposed to be ‘real’ but so often chefs will look back on their time during the regular season and regret their actions or attitudes. Especially actions and attitudes that portray them in a negative light. I guess it is safe to assume that these chefs avoided such regret by acting normally to begin with. That’s rare these days.

Now we are a week before the finale and we find Sheldon and Brooke both in LA sharing some friendly competitive banter in the car. They meet up with Padma, Emeril and Hugh to find out the winner of Last Chance Kitchen and therefore who will be joining them in the finale. After a brief recap of the entire Last Chance Kitchen season, the winner is revealed: Kristen!

No big shock there, although I was a bit disappointed that Lizzie got edged out twice in a row for dishes that Tom seemed to gobbling up like he couldn’t get enough. Ultimately though, I feel Kristen has a quality about her that makes you stand up and take notice. This girl is the real deal and her presence in this finale is bound to make it unforgettable. Just don’t micromanage this time, Kristen!

Things are about to get hot, and with this being the first part of the finale we’re not even messing around with a Quick Fire. It’s straight to the Elimination Challenge, baby!

Elimination Challenge
The contestants are building up to the big finish in the same place that it all began: Tom Colicchio’s, Craft.

Each chef must prepare a three course meal (appetizer, entree and dessert) for a dinner service at Craft. The pressure is on and they are sure to be babysat a bit during meal prep by Tom, as well as pep-talked by Hugh and Emeril. We’ll see how much of that watching and ‘advice’ helps. That is, if it doesn’t cripple them completely.

The chefs waste no time and head back to the kitchen to check it’s offerings. After a small meeting of the minds, the three chefs throw some preliminary plans together for their respective meals and set to work. Sheldon throws the Brooke off a bit by announcing he is going to roast quail, which is something that we don’t see a whole lot from Sheldon. We’ll see if his risk will be rewarded or send him packing his knives.

During dinner prep, Brooke is looking shaky, Kristen is looking scattered and Sheldon is looking quite nervous about his dessert. Eek! Don’t go home because of dessert, Sheldon. That is so cliched.

Appetizer Course
Sheldon creates a Sashimi Spot Prawn, Court Bouillon, Radishes and Asian Herbs. This is beautifully served with a tableside pouring of the bouillon from the most adorable copper pots.

Kristen makes a Chestnut Veloute, Duck Rillette and Brussels Sprouts. While the customers seemed impressed, the judges make several comments saying that it’s missing a bit of acid. We’ll see how it stacks up against the rest of the meal.

Brooke makes a Crispy Sweetbread Salad (inspired by the pig’s ear perhaps?) with Kumquats, Beets and Salads. There seems to be trouble with her beets and her prep of the sweetbreads. Yikes, Brooke! Don’t choke now…

Kristen serves up a Seared Ahi Tuna with Veal Mustard Jus and Meyer Lemon Puree. She had me at Meyer lemon, but it seems like Padma isn’t impressed.

Brooke offers up Braised Short Ribs, Parmesan Sauce, Nettle PurÈe and Squash Dumplings that make the judges very happy. Very happy, indeed.

Sheldon seems to swing and miss with his Roasted Quail, Pine Nut Puree with Garam Masala and Tangerine. I’m nervous for you, Sheldon…

Brooke wows the judges with her Brown Butter Cake, Whipped Goat Cheese (swoon) and Blackberry sauce. I’ll take seconds of that, please!

Kristen gets mixed reviews for her ‘basic’ dessert of Curry Chocolate with Cashews.

Sheldon also receives conflicted comments about his White Chocolate Mousse with Apple and Fennel. Nice sweetness, but the judges seemed to be ‘distracted’ by the raw fennel.

Judges Table
Brooke hears mixed reviews about her appetizer because Hugh feels her sweetbreads needed more cleaning and Tom points out her struggles in the kitchen. This surprises me that she struggled with prep this way due to her running multiple restaurants in LA. Everyone has their off days but it’s unfortunate to have it today. She redeems herself by making Short Ribs that knock the judges’ socks off and Padma gets down right poetic about Brooke’s sauce.

Something odd happens in the discussion of her dessert, though. Every single judge can’t speak highly enough about her brown butter cake and then all of a sudden, Tom pipes up and says he didn’t really care for it. He says it seems incomplete and it isn’t a restaurant dessert. Harsh and somewhat out of left field. It makes me question if this is a valid statement or if it’s the producers’ way of adding drama. I guess we’ll find out.

The judges love Sheldon’s prawn appetizer, and really have nothing negative to say about it. His prawn is cooked perfectly and is served with beautiful accompaniments.  If only that could be said about his entree. They lost ‘Sheldon’ in his quail entree. The quail was handled decently, but the pine nut puree is chalky and frankly, the whole dish lacks the traditional Sheldon kick of flavor.

As far as his dessert goes, they like the dish’s concept on paper but as we all know, we don’t eat paper, we eat food. In addition to that, the fennel proves to be crazy overpowering and in Tom’s words, ‘it was an incomplete dish’. He is really getting a lot of mileage with his ‘incomplete’ dish idea tonight.

Kristen gets decent reviews for her soup, being told it was solid but a bit safe. The judges love her Tuna, but question her combination of the lemon and celery. I also question it, even though the Meyer lemon puree sounds incredible. The judges show no mercy about her curry chocolate dessert, except for the small moment of generosity that Emeril gives her by saying he likes the favors, just not the execution.

The Results
The judges deliberate for a bit and this is the point in the competition where the judges struggle with the whole idea of judging the chefs on tonight’s performance alone vs. taking into consideration their performances up until this point.

Brooke is commended for her complex, yet approachable food but gets a bit of a wrist slap for her disorganization in the kitchen.

Sheldon gets scolded for losing himself and not cooking the food that got him to this point in the competition.

Kristen is congratulated for making her way back through Last Chance Kitchen but is told that she played it too safe during this meal.

In the end, Sheldon is told to pack his knives and go. Losing yourself and not cooking the food that got you to the finale tends to be a common mistake with chefs in this competition. It’s the struggle between pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone and staying true to who you are as a chef.

Unfortunately, Sheldon lost his way and fell just short of the final Elimination Challenge. While I like Sheldon very much and find his cuisine extremely unique, the judges made the right call. Brooke and Kristen are both dynamic chefs who have cooked up some killer dishes and next week’s finale is bound to be one exciting ride.

What did you think about last night’s episode and who do you want to win the coveted title of Top Chef?

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