Congratulations to Stephanie for an impressive and well-played 16 week run and an amazing performance (other than the cake) last night. As happy as I was for Stephanie though, I truly felt Richard's pain, what a heartbreaker for him.
As for Lisa, I think you all know by now that I didn't think she deserved to be there and the fact that at one point I thought the judges might give her the title made me want to cringe. I was quite happy when they awarded the title to Stephanie.
One of my problems with the judging of last night's and every season's finale is that the judges' decision is based solely on the last meal prepared. In my mind, it should encompass not only the courses prepared for that meal of a lifetime challenge, but also the competitor's overall performance, both in terms of style of leadership and culinary skill over the entire season. In my mind at least, being a Top Chef has just as much to do with leadership and management ability as it does with culinary vision and talent, and Lisa fell short in that leadership category by a long shot, often being combative and overly aggressive.
The final Elimination Challenge last night was not a new one. The finale often finds our final three competing knife to knife to cook the best meals of their lives, and hopefully the judges' too, but I always love to see the talent they find for the sous-chefs and last night's was exceptional. To have Eric Ripert, April Bloomfield (one of my favorite chefs and if you haven't had her burger and her gnudi you need to visit The Spotted Pig now), and Dan Barber as your number two is pretty incredible. I got a real kick out of Stephanie looking over Chef Ripert's shoulder as he filleted her fish, though I am not sure that Chef Ripert did. But he was a good sport.
I must also confess that I become a 12-year old girl with a crush whenever I am around Chef Ripert. Not only is he a culinary god as Richard mentioned last night but he is the George Clooney of the restaurant world -- handsome to an uncomfortable degree with loads of charisma and genuine charm.
I also thought he had one of the most important observations in his on-camera interview, with respect to Richard's liquid nitrogen cooking technique. He made a point about a chef always needing to open his or her mind to learn: "The day you don't learn anything you've become such an egomaniac that you're blind." That is perhaps the quote of the season.
My schoolgirl crush on Chef Ripert aside, I really enjoyed seeing him, along with Chefs Barber and Bloomfield step into the role of helper. It's always hilarious and fun to watch that sort of dynamic, and honestly I wish we could have seen more of the footage of the time they spent cooking and prepping together.
One of these days I'd love to see the Top Chef winners from the past four seasons compete against the top chefs of our nation, including Eric Ripert, Dan Barber, and even our head judge, Tom Colicchio. I think that would make quite a Top Chef special. Producers, give me a call, I'm available to judge.
In the end, I agreed with the judges that the menu that Stephanie created was the winning meal because she presented elegant thoughtful progression of dishes, and a lamb course that surprised all of the judges with something new -- braised pistachios -- that they all loved. I was skeptical of that dish as well. Who braises pistachios? Indeed if I had been presented with that dish on a menu at a restaurant I was reviewing, I'd probably have ordered it just to check it out, and if it had worked, I'd also have been impressed.
I eat out an average of five nights a week and sometimes food can blend together and a sense of sameness can overwhelm me. Not that the dishes aren't good, they may be delicious, but it's refreshing to find a chef like Stephanie who surprises us, and makes his or her mark with something as unexpected and thrilling as braised pistachios and a bold combination with olives and blackberries.
Not to sound too sappy, but even though Richard technically lost, he's is a winner in my book in many ways. He impressed me all season long with his avant-garde technique, whimsical style, creativity, and grace under pressure. I enjoyed watching him cook and found him to be an inspiring and excellent competitor, and I am sure we'll be hearing great success stories from him as his career evolves.
It's been a great season on Top Chef and I'm already looking forward to Season Five. I'd like to use this space to make an argument for New Orleans as the next Top Chef city. I travel down to the Big Easy about twice a year now, as my fiance's family lives there, and there's no place like NOLA. There's some wild culinary talent down there (read more here), like Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski at Cochon, Scott Boswell at Stella, Bob Iacovone at Cuvee, Jon Besh at August, Susan Spicer at Bayona, and on and on. There's also a huge need for an influx of positive energy, tourism, and dollars into this still-healing city. There could be a Jazz Fest challenge, where chefs cooked up traditional NOLA dishes and go head to head with local restaurants at the Jazz Fest food booths. They could have Po Boy and Muffaletta Quickfire Challenges, an Elimination Challenge using local seafood and sausages with maybe surprise ingredients like alligator. They could cook for a Saints game, or whip up an al fresco lunch for Habitat for Humanity volunteers working to rebuild. It's a city that would be prime real estate for Top Chef. So if anyone out there's listening, how bout it? Top Chef New Orleans for Season Five? I hope so.
While this season of Top Chef is over, I'll still be here every week, writing about food form here in New York, so I hope you'll keep checking in and that you'll also make some time to visit my regular blog, thestrongbuzz.com.