I truly don't mean to diminish Stephanie's triumph, here, by mostly writing about somebody else. I love her to death. I adore her food, she earned this win, and she utterly deserves the title. She IS, as Ms. Lakshmi just informed you in that joyful moment, Top Chef. I'm absolutely thrilled. And there it was again -- that million-dollar smile!
But Richard's loss is the big story tonight.
When the nine of us sat down to dinner at La Fortaleza, his menu dominated the conversation for at least the first 20 minutes of conversation. It was vintage, verbaceous Richard; bold, cheeky, and promising. It was all about a chef with a fascinating, mysterious story to tell. It was also a little controversial; the list of four courses contained absolutely no information about the food. They were:
You Are Here.
Which Came First?
Be the Bacon.
and You Are Still Here.
Tim Zagat complained about the enigmatic descriptions, and I understand his point -- it's kind of nice to know something about what's coming. But I thought it was original, personal, and cool. I'm more than willing to put my trust in Richard and let him take me on whatever culinary journey he likes. I wish more of you could have tasted his work this year.
But somehow, that loose, improvisational, "listen-to-the-Force, Luke" spirit unraveled for him in the kitchen. You could see the writing on the wall when Tom visited during prep, and Richard seemed shockingly unsure of where his story was going -- at the worst possible time in the contest. That was the beginning of the endgame in this, the final battle that everybody thought was Richard's to lose.
The day after the finale shoot, waiting with Barry for our flight, I saw Richard wandering alone through the airport in Puerto Rico. He looked dazed. And I felt so sorry for him. He was, of course, ever gracious to everyone after the battle, putting on a brave face with cast and judges alike for post-show drinks in Old San Juan (at 6 a.m., no less), congratulating Stephanie with complete sincerity, thanking the producers. But at the airport, in the clear light of day, it was obvious that the finality was hitting him. Nobody fights that hard for second place.
But here's a reality-show check. At the beginning of the finale, Padma told the chefs they were about to cook "the most important meal of your life." Well, yeah, Top Chef producers would naturally take that position, at least publicly. And at the time, I'm sure it seemed that important to the chefs, too. But of course, it wasn't then, and it isn't now. There will be many, many more-important meals in Stephanie Izard's life, and in Richard Blais's, too. Take, for example, the first one he serves his new daughter, Riley Maddox Blais, born two weeks ago in Atlanta. Seven pounds, nine ounces.
He'll probably do sous-vide pureed peas, and apple-juice "caviar."
A final coda on The Blais, and that extraordinary moment at Judges' Table when he offered that that he had "choked." There, when the chefs are given their last chance to (usually) puff out their chests and fight for their lives, or to "throw somebody over the bus," as Joey Pickles once famously put it, Richard instead felt that he needed to use it to be honest about his performance. Because that is the kind of integrity he lives. You want to talk about stepping up? Leadership? Taking responsibility, wherever the chips might fall? For my money, this was the most emotional moment in the history of this show. And one of the most impressive of them all.
Now, at last, we have the first female winner of Top Chef! My heartfelt thanks to Stephanie for a season of inspired cooking and classy behavior, and my best wishes for a fulfilling and exciting new chapter in her culinary life. I can't wait to taste her work on HER terms. I'm sure it will be even more revelatory. XO.
On another note: Congrats to the Magical Elves, Shauna Minoprio, and Jane Lipsitz, for taking last Sunday a James Beard Award -- the Oscar of the food industry -- for Best Holiday Special!
Also, fond end-of-season thanks to you, our ever-contentious and lovable viewers, particularly the ones who contributed to the blogs this go-round.
And, finally, some news: I'm in production on a show of my own! Check it out at www.tedallen.net Eat well, be well, be swell.