Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets. Far and away the most exciting finale in Top Chef history, it was truly anyone’s game. I haven’t seen the episode yet, so I am writing from memory, the Wong point of view. The producers, Tom, and I set the rules for the final challenge. Because of time constraints, Bravo had only wanted the chefs to do a three-course meal, with one of the courses being a set mystery box and one of the other courses HAD to be dessert. We managed to convince them to make it four courses by adding the childhood memory twist, hence the Moms. Which by the way, reality TV gold; one mom, two brothers, one prize ... and the love between Yukon and his mom was enough to make me cry.
After Brix, the next morning Team Culinary and I headed to Long Meadow Ranch at 5 a.m. to pick up all of the food leftover from the previous challenge with our cube truck, the Culinary Van (which we appropriately named "Vanischewitz") and a refrigerated truck. Not fun. What WAS amusing to me was the fact that we would be filming the final challenge up in Healdsburg at Cyrus Restaurant. Chef Douglas Keane had been part of the Napa round table that sent me home. When I had scouted Cyrus back in September, it took us both a few minutes to realize this, but gave me a good excuse to give him a little light-hearted ribbing (Cindy Pawlcyn got her fair share during Masters). We caravanned it an hour up to Healdsburg, and began the painstaking process of building out another kitchen and pantry for the chefs. Chef Doug and his crew had cleared their kitchen of pretty much everything and we loaded in all of our equipment, all of the food from Long Meadow, rental plates, and just about everything else they could possibly need for the final cook-off. All of the produce was in cardboard boxes that were falling apart, so we had to style all of the food out in appropriate sized Cambros and lexans. It really did take us almost nine hours to build out the kitchen. I had worked with their sous-chef, Amos Watts, to order a wide variety of proteins and some extra ingredients, which were not on hand. But everything else I had sourced at Whole Foods or from Long Meadow.
There was a bit of debate over the mystery box and whether or not the chefs would be required to use all or just some of the ingredients in the box. We agreed that if we put challenging but sensible ingredients in the box they would have to all utilize all of it, but they would have access to everything else in the pantry. Amos had let me know that matsutake mushroom season was in full swing, and me, just having been in Japan at the end of the summer when the matsutake season was just starting there (I ate many, many mushrooms), jumped at the chance to feature these in the mystery box. I consulted with Tom on my ideas for the box. He suggested we put two seafood proteins in the box that the contestants would be required to use. Dungeness Crab season was in full swing in Washington and Oregon, so by the time this aired I knew it would be Dungeness season in Northern Cali. We tried to get sand dabs but they were not available so we settled on local rockfish. I added Meyer lemons, kabocha squash, and a fragrant and slightly sweet herb, anise hyssop to the mix, with Tom’s approval that the chefs could make some very interesting dishes out of those six ingredients. Anyone who thinks that those ingredients don’t go well together should try watching Chopped and just be happy I didn’t put string cheese into the box.
To add to the chaos, this time we brought back ALL of the contestants, as we filmed the reunion the day after the finale. Everyone was staying at the Meritage, which is kinda in the middle of nowhere, so I get back from set one night and all of the ex-contestants are sitting in the lobby bar getting fairly shitfaced and being less than inconspicuous. We don’t actually tell them what’s going on either, and every season we change up the twist. They kept asking me what was going to happen ("We all had to bring our knives...") as I chugged my Maker’s on the rocks, and I told them it was so they could stab each during the reunion show. Over the years, I have enjoyed getting to know the contestants, though I am not allowed to be friendly with them during the show. Richard Blais had been under the misconception that I "hated" him, which is hilarious because it is so far from the truth; I was just not allowed to answer the billion questions Richard would always throw at me during rules (I don’t hate you Blais; I hated the fact that you always tried to trick me into revealing details about the challenge). I thought it was great the way we handled the sous-chef situation this time around. The producers had asked me, "Is it fair if Chef No.1 pulls knives with two contestants who had been eliminated early in the game vs. Chef No. 2 who may pull Jen and Eli as sous chefs?" First, I am sad I never got to torch the knife block in the parking lot. Secondly, (here it is again) this is Top Chef. I explained that part of being a Top Chef is managing your staff and training your cooks. In real life, not all of the cooks on your staff are all-stars so you have to work with you got. Misogynist Mike was REALLY pissed at this year’s twist, as I think he automatically assumed that he would be assisting someone, since he was one of the longer-lasting contestants. The challenge for Kevin, Michael, and Bryan would be figuring out who to utilize for Day One and who to use on Day Two.