Top Chef: Seattle Recap
By David Mumpower
March 6, 2013

Padma does *not* hug the loser.

Previously on Top Chef, the final episode was not in fact the final episode. I have only myself to blame for this. I naively believed that the elimination of Josh directly placed Sheldon, Brooke and the winner of Last Chance Kitchen in the finale. Also, I was swerved by the episode being titled “Finale” on my TiVo. I am a sucker for stuff like that. Instead of Top Chef being the finale, the returning Kristen and Brooke advanced to the last round (I hope) while Sheldon was eliminated from the competition.

I am conflicted over this turn of events. Midway through the season, I had indicated that such a final duo was not only predictable but a best case scenario result for Top Chef. In the interim, a lot has happened involving Kristen. She was mistakenly blamed by the judges for Josie’s failures at Restaurant Wars. Then, she went on an epic winning streak at Last Chance Kitchen. Finally, she has earned her way into the winner’s bracket and now the finale of the show. All of this is great for Kristen.

Sheldon got a raw deal. What is the difference between him and every other player voted out this season? All of them got a second chance. Sheldon did not. Had he cooked in a three player finale and finished in third, I would have no problem with the outcome. Since last week’s challenge was considered a semi-final event, Sheldon becomes the only player removed from the game after a single failure. I should add that there were at least two occasions during the season where his dish was worthy of elimination. Still, I feel like Sheldon was at least somewhat screwed by the decision to slot the winner of Last Chance Kitchen in the semi-final.

At a minimum, Kristen should have been required to do something above and beyond her cohorts in order to advance to the finals. The best two chefs this season will compete for the title of Top Chef. I have no problem with that aspect of the events. My issue is with all of the players up to and including Kristen and Josh participating in a double elimination competition while Brooke and Sheldon are in a single elimination competition. I believe the situation should be handled like the College World Series wherein the winner of the loser’s bracket has to defeat the winner’s bracket champion twice. Alas, I do not get to make these decisions so ignore my venting about an aggravating aspect of an otherwise impeccable season of Top Chef.

A matchup of Kristen vs. Brooke represents one of the three best finales in the history of Top Chef. The others I would place in this conversation are Kevin Gillespie vs. the Voltaggio brothers in season six and Richard Blais vs. Stephanie Izard in season four. Blais vs. Mike Isabella in season eight would be fourth, but as well as Isabella performed in the finale, I do not believe anybody is under the illusion that he is the equal of Izard. The point here is that Kristen vs. Brooke is a titanic matchup. One of the two finest chefs this season will win, which does not happen anywhere near often enough in reality television. This will be the third consecutive season for this feat on Top Chef. Who will join Paul Qui and Richard Blais? I am rooting for Brooke, who has accomplished so much personally and professionally this season. I suspect that Kristen is hungrier and has more to prove, though.

The episode begins and I am immediately confused. We have replaced the Top Chef kitchen with something much more garish and ostentatious. Times Square in New York features less neon than this set. The entire visage requires a moment of visual adjustment. Our favorite reality television challenge has gone Hollywood.

Padma Lakshmi, dazzling in a red cocktail dress, is positively beaming over her surroundings. She cannot hide her smile as she proudly announces the finalists for the season. We cut to the champion of Last Chance Kitchen, Kristen. Shockingly, the Boston resident is already well into her food preparations. Moments later, Brooke Williamson is introduced as the live crowd (?!) loudly applauds both contestants.

I am shell-shocked by the first 30 seconds of the finale. First of all, both women are so busy with their preparations that their announcements aggravate them. Each one wants the introduction to end so that they can get back to work. In addition, several other chefs from the season are frantically preparing meals as well. The first one I spot is CJ, who is hard to miss since he towers above the other former contestants.

Padma announces that the finalists have “assembled their teams and are hard at work”. I feel like I have started reading a book at chapter four. I quickly deduce that Stefan and Kuniko join CJ on Brooke’s team while Lizzie, Sheldon and Josh assist Kristen with her preparations. How did in the Blue Hell that happen? Kristen’s support staff includes the three most recently eliminated players, meaning that they are the top trio who failed to reach the climactic event.

Meanwhile, Brooke’s team includes the second and fifth worst performers of the year plus Stefan, who was rendered a non-factor this season. Yes, Kuniko and CJ performed quite well at Last Chance Kitchen. I still would not pick them over participants that the judges clearly favored. If nothing else, the combination of Sheldon and Josh were indescribably potent together during the season. How were they not separated? I reserve the right to change my opinion later but at first blush Brooke has lost the team-building exercise to Kristen.

The format is quickly revealed. 160 diners will be served five courses worth of food. The onlookers will not have a voice in the outcome, though. This is an interesting decision because one table in particular features a special compilation of players. All nine previous champions of Top Chef will sample the fare of the two contestants. In other words, there is additional undue pressure placed upon the finalists.

The only judges whose opinions matter tonight are Hugh Acheson (I’m planning on catching a Braves game and eating at your restaurant next month, buddy), Gail Simmons, Emeril Lagasse, Tom Colicchio and Padma. Once again, there is no Wolfgang Puck, which makes my world a sadder place. Also, the format is different from previous seasons in one key regard. The five judges will vote after each individual round. The overall quality of the meals will not be considered. Instead, the first player to earn a majority of the votes in three rounds will win the title of Top Chef. This aspect negates a lot of Tom Colicchio’s power as head judge and chief decider.

Rather than explain anything that has happened leading up to this moment in the finale, we are instead shown the backstories of Brooke and Kristen. We already knew all of this. How Lizzie, Sheldon and Josh wound up on the same team remains a mystery. There is now a fracturing of time (how very Steven Soderbergh). We go back to the moment that Brooke and Kristen entered Legally Different Than Kitchen Stadium for the first time.

Brooke is aggravated over this turn of events, clearly not expecting a giant set. This entire season has become an odd trial for Brooke as she overcomes all of her worst fears including boats, helicopters and now massive public cooking engagements. The always low key Kristen handles the situation as one would expect, effectively shrugging her shoulders and saying “Whatever” before starting to cook. Kristen has more serenity than the cast of Firefly.

“Team L.A.” is evaluated by their leader, Brooke. She starts by providing Stefan what I guess she considers a compliment by saying, “Stefan might be a little scatterbrained but he’s really quick.” Nothing aids in winning Top Chef like having a scatterbrained sous chef. CJ was apparently selected due to his amazing palate while Kuniko “adds a level of precision." Brooke has been dominant during the second half of the season. Still, I question her decision to select chefs based on their convenient ability to go see a movie together at Mann’s Chinese Theatre together. If/when the group does go to a movie, I would suggest A Place at the Table, though.

As always, Kristen is more straightforward with her thinking. She states that Lizzie, Sheldon and Josh are “good people” with “no egos." I am vaguely disappointed that there is no shot of Stefan immediately after she mentions that Kristen’s chefs all are humble. I am also surprised that Kristen did not choose Stefan as one of her assistants. She will let him smell her feet but he cannot cook for her. That’s messed up.

The courses will be assessed individually, of course. A new aspect is revealed by Brooke as both chefs announce their intentions. Scallops are the key (secret?) ingredient in the second round while snapper will be featured in the fourth round. Brooke notes that she and Kristen regularly utilize the same ingredients in very different ways. Right on cue, each competitor reveals that they will be finishing with a cake dessert. I am amused when Kristen reveals her menu, which is chicken scratch on wadded legal paper. I guess there was no room in the lavish production set budget for a computer capable of Power Point presentations.

The first course must be complicated because CJ has to ask for instructions multiple times. Brooke confidently states that she features this dish on the menu at her restaurants. The editing includes a shot of Brooke asking CJ not to fry pig’s ears – I am told they are delicious, but it sounds like a type of food humans prepare only to keep the pigs in a constant state of fear – to the point of being burned. We all know what will happen next. When the editing says, “Don’t do that”, it’s always done. As Brooke states, “Something’s burning!” Tom Colicchio and Emeril Lagasse watch in horror as CJ scorches the pig’s ears. I’m fairly certain that both judges have made up their minds about this dish before it is even plated.

Moments later, the dishes are plated. Kristen presents a chicken liver mousse with frisée, mustard, prune, hazelnuts & pumpernickel. Despite all of the ingredients, the food takes up only a small portion of the plate. Kristen is a master of minimalism. The previous champions seem fairly nonplussed by the dishes. The judges, on the other hand, are on the cusp of orgasm. Only the nitpickiest of critiques is offered.

Brooke provides a fascinating looking dish of crispy pig ear & chicory salad, six-minute egg, apricot jam & candied kumquats. I hate to question Brooke’s usage of time but three-minute eggs would have left her with three more minutes to spend watching to make sure CJ did not burn the pig ears. Seriously, I have Googled the difference between three and six minute eggs and nobody on the entire internet seems to know what that is.

The judges start with kind words about the dish, but Emeril eventually reaches the moment of truth. He states that his crackling was overcooked. Brooke defends this preparation as a choice, stating that she wanted the dish to “have a little bite.” Padma mentions that her pig ears were not burned so the issue was not persistent. Hugh, always kind and thoughtful, mentions that Brooke has mastered the art of dressings and sauces.

There is no blind voting process. Each judge is provided the opportunity to look both contestants in the eye and select one as providing the better dish. Hugh quickly announces his support of Kristen. Gail follows with her consent and Emeril finishes with the third and final vote. Kristen wins the first course via unanimous decision and is now one third of the way toward the title of Top Chef. Whether CJ’s burning of the pig ears was the crucial issue is difficult to determine. Kristen’s dish may have been so exquisite that it could not have been beaten anyway.

An unintended but important aspect of the new judging format is revealed after the result. Padma firmly states, “Brooke, you need to catch up.” In announcing the results immediately, one player receives the adrenaline surge that stems from winning a round. The other one, in this case Brooke, is placed on tilt as they reel from the knowledge that their task just became that much more difficult. Brooke, the best player on Top Chef: Seattle, now has to win three out of the next four rounds in order to emerge victorious. The immediacy of the pressure is overwhelming.

Brooke’s secret weapon is old, bald and thumb-shaped. For no apparent reason, Stefan takes this opportunity to distract Kristen from the meal of her life. He tells her that he has chosen light blue. Predictably, she has no idea what this means since like so many of us, she doesn’t speak Creeper.

Stefan informs her that this will be the color of their baby’s bedroom. I would like to take this opportunity to state that the family and loved ones of both chefs are in the audience. Kristen, now is the time to profess your undying love for your neighbor/co-worker/not at all lesbian lover Stephanie. Your other option is breeding with Stefan. If you weren’t dabbling already, now is the time to go gay.

Already down a dish, I am worried about Brooke’s situation. My concern grows deeper when the next two minutes of a 42 minute show are spent demonstrating Brooke’s accomplishments this season. Why is there filler like this? I have been open about the fact that Brooke and Kristen are my favorite two players during Top Chef: Seattle. Even so, I watched all of these episodes already. I would much rather see the process that determined the sous chefs as well as some of the prep work prior to the official start of the finale. All of that is relevant to tonight’s events. Brooke riding on a dog sled, while entertaining, is not.

More filler occurs when Gail interviews Brooke’s husband, who is also the co-owner of their business. The first two things I note are that his cheeks are flushed beyond all reason and that their son is sound asleep in Daddy’s lap. What a strange experience this has to be for Nick Roberts. As a business owner, Brooke’s performance affects his bottom line. As a husband, he wants his wife to excel. As a father, he needs to nurture his son as 160 people eat, drink and be merry all around them.

The second course features a difference of opinion between the chefs. Kristen believes that a food as refined as scallops should be left largely untouched. All of the components should feature rather than detract from it. She believes Brooke has done too much and thereby taken focus away from the scallops. This is probably as catty as the two women will get as they are both classy and share a ton of mutual respect. It’s refreshing that Top Chef has focused on meal ingredients disagreements this season rather than pointless personal drama, The Josie Show and John Tesar notwithstanding.

Brooke kicks off the second course. She presents the judges with seared scallop with salt cod purée, speck, black currant & mustard seed vinaigrette. Her dish is measured and precise as well as magazine cover-friendly. Brooke is so nervous that she forgets to name a few of the ingredients. Her jitters are the result of announcing the first course results already. Brooke knows that if she loses this round, there is virtually no chance that she wins the title of Top Chef, at least not this season. The good news is that the judges love the dish.

Kristen counters with citrus & lavender cured scallop with bitter orange, Meyer lemon & apple. This too is a gorgeous-looking exercise in minimalism. I find myself wondering how many calories are delivered within Kristen’s modest portions. The judges are again impressed. Other than the burning of the pig ears, both players are doing exceptionally well.

The straw poll is much more engrossing this time. Gail sides with Brooke this time, and Emeril quickly confirms this opinion. Top Chef hosts Tom and Padma disagree with their peers. Tom agrees with Kristen philosophically, noting that her decision to let the scallop speak for itself was the correct one. Kristen is such a teacher’s pet with Tom.

The outcome of the second course rests on the opinion of Unibrow Hugh. If he favors Kristen, she will likely become Top Chef. Thankfully for Brooke, he evens the playing field by scoring the round for her. Kristen and Brooke are tied at one with three courses to go. I am amused to see that the judges seem to be feeling the pressure every bit as much as the players. This live finale is uncharted territory for them as well.

The third course of the evening proves to be a divisive topic. Having previously struggled on the fried chicken challenges, Brooke boldly goes where no chef has ever gone before or ever will again. She decides to create chicken wings for this, the course of her life. Brooke seeks to find redemption for her worst performance of the entire season. Meanwhile, Kristen calmly crafts a “super umami” dish that is much more standard fare for the judges. This course clearly defines the difference between regular cuisine and Top Chef. People have chicken wings every day yet half the North American population (statistic made up on the spot) has never tried umami. Somehow, Brooke is the odd one for her choice.

The next two minutes contain filler about Kristen. What I largely take from this footage is how difficult this situation must be for Kristen’s BFF for the past few years, Stephanie Cmar. She was one of the other contestants who qualified for the show, but she failed to earn her jacket. Now, her neighbor, co-worker and friend (not with benefits, she swears) is the toast of Top Chef while she can only watch from the audience. My heart bleeds for her. I sincerely hope that the producers of Top Chef acknowledge that they probably made a mistake and provide her with another opportunity to compete in a couple of seasons. I have complete confidence that the difference between Stephanie and Kristen is marginal at best. Talent tends to cluster.

There is one shining moment during the Kristen filler. Due to the scheduling of the finale and the radio silence about results, her family did not realize Kristen had the opportunity to return to the game. After watching the Restaurant Wars episode where she was eliminated, her father came up huge. He recounts to Gail that he immediately texted his daughter, “Kristen, you’re my Top Chef.” Somebody buy that man a World’s Greatest Dad mug!

The third course judging is effectively over before a bite is taken. I have a tremendous amount of respect bordering on reverence for Tom Colicchio, but that does not change the fact that he is against the chicken wing concept before he tastes the food. Brooke presents Vadouvan fried chicken with sumac yogurt-tahini & pickled kohlrabi fattoush. I did not know that any of those things was a thing. Fattoush sounds like a Polynesian pro wrestler.

To his credit, Emeril acknowledges the bravado of the choice and firmly states that it is delicious. Tom is kind and smiles as he talks. His micro-expressions are not positive, though. I will note that several of the other champions, particularly Kevin from season 7, are deeply impressed by Brooke’s choice. I suspect that even if she loses tonight, they will remember this meal more than any other from the finale. Tom will not speak kindly of it, though.

Stating the obvious, Kristen is going to win the third course. She presents celery root purée with bone marrow, mushrooms, bitter greens & radishes. The best news for the judges is that they can eat this meal with their utensils. The other aspects of it are lacking. Padma points out that the dish is cold. Tom does not like that she stewed rather than roasted the mushrooms. Despite their criticisms, the two hosts both vote for her as does Emeril. She again wins a round via unanimous decision. If the judging had occurred at any local tavern, Brooke would have won this round in a walk. I strongly suspect that had Brooke served any other dish in her repertoire, she would have won the round and been well positioned to win Top Chef. Instead, she must win both remaining rounds to claim the title.

CJ greets Brooke upon her return to the kitchen. She delivers the news that they are now losing two to one. I give Stefan and CJ tremendous credit for what happens next. Both of them lock in at the news that their backs are against the wall. These seasoned pros now have their competitor fires stoked. CJ bluntly states, “We’ll kill this one.” That’s a great teammate.

Brooke’s situation grows more perilous when Kristen discusses her fourth course. Unlike the first three, she has practiced this one in anticipation of the finale. Kristen is a single vote away from a three round sweep of her opponent. She has been that dominant thus far. In fact, if Tom had gotten to lead the vote the way he usually does, the title of Top Chef would already be determined. Despite all of this, the fourth dish is the one that provides Kristen with confidence. I do NOT like Brooke’s chances.

My concern grows when the finale features another several minutes of filler. There is a limited amount of time left in the episode. If the cooking is not being featured and we are not already seeing the judging for round four, there is a solid chance there will not be a round five. Well, I say that but I guess it is possible that this episode my TiVo also named Finale could be a two-parter. I’m still a little bitter about what happened last week.

After the celebration of previous Top Chef champions (my favorite is Richard Blais), a different type of fluff is aired. A random woman in the crowd hits on Stefan. Yes, I’m serious. During his cooking, he is forced to swivel his head as someone shouts, “Hey Stefan, is your restaurant in Malibu?” How broken would a woman have to be to hit on Stefan? Err, not counting Kristen…

At the 50 minute mark of a 60 minute show, the fourth course is presented. I already know that if the show cuts to commercial at any point, something I am frankly expecting, Kristen is the new champion of Top Chef. Brooke keeps hope alive by creating braised pork cheek & red snapper with collard green slaw & sorrel purée. I joke all the time about my lousy palate, so I rarely get to type these words. I would eat this dish. Well, the pork part of it anyway. The judges again relish the dish, and I remember that Brooke is better at desserts than Kristen. If Brooke can win the favor of three judges this round, she still has a solid shot at the championship.

Alas, Kristen stomps on any remaining hope with a breathtaking plate of food. The dish is red snapper with leeks, little gem lettuce, tarragon, uni & shellfish nage. Some of these things cannot be real foods. I think I played as Uni Nage in Final Fantasy IX. Gail provides one nitpick about the stringy nature of the dish, which causes CJ to speculate that they have Gail’s vote. Meanwhile, Hugh aggravates Gail by tweaking her about how easy it was for him to use a knife. Overall, the dish is very well received.

What happens next reveals the outcome without announcing anything. Tom takes this opportunity to reflect back on what both chefs have accomplished this season. What do we call this, class? Yes, it’s filler. Before the individual judges state their votes, we…cut to commercial. Top Chef returns at the 56 minute mark. Brooke has lost.

The judges notify the onlookers of what television viewers already know. Gail, Emeril and Tom unanimously support Kristen in what sounds like a close result. In fact, Emeril debates for a time after he is asked to decide. This leads me to an aspect of the new finale I will discuss in just a moment. For now, what is most important is that Kristen Kish is the winner of Top Chef: Seattle. In the process, she has become the second woman and third Asian-American to claim the title.

Most notably, she also becomes the first player ever to win Top Chef after being eliminated from the competition. This aspect of her victory justifies the existence of Last Chance Kitchen. Prior to its invention, a situation such as the Restaurant Wars fiasco with Josie would have summarily ended Kristen’s opportunity to win.

There are a couple of issues on this topic that suck for Brooke. The first is that she obviously was never eliminated. I mentioned earlier that Kristen, the loser’s bracket victor, should be required to do something more in order to claim the title. Maybe that should have been winning four out of five courses. Maybe there should have been a pair of challenges. If Brooke had won either one, she would be the champion. Whatever the choice, there is a slight imbalance created by Last Chance Kitchen. The players who make it to the end such as Sheldon and Brooke are not afforded the same opportunities as those eliminated previously.

To my mind, the worst part of the situation for Brooke is simple. Had last week’s episode been a three player season finale, Brooke would be the winner of Top Chef. She unquestionably outperformed her competitors. Because of the timing, however, all that performance provided her was a spot in the finale. In other words, since Kristen’s return, she has out-cooked Brooke once while Brooke has out-cooked her once.

The “semi-final” occurred in a regular kitchen and was similar in tone to the rest of the season. The finale was performed in a new setting in front of a live audience. There were also assistants for this portion who were a larger factor than the Craft staff had been during the previous challenge.

The second issue I have involves the timing of this season. The primary competition occurred last July and August. The finale was performed in late January, only a few days after the Restaurant Wars episode of Top Chef had aired. The judges were provided ample opportunity to appreciate how much Kristen had been wronged in being eliminated instead of Josie. This situation made her sympathetic to the judges. Brooke had “won” by dominating the second half of the season. Kristen had been wronged. I believe that this perception combined with the public voting process for each course created unavoidable, very human issues that favored one contestant over the other.

Nobody is crying for Brooke because she is now one of the most famous chefs in Los Angeles. Her career is on solid footing for the foreseeable future. Still, she got at least somewhat screwed, which means the format still needs some tweaking. There were improvements made from Season 9 to Season 10 with regards to Last Chance Kitchen and now some more enhancements need to be performed for Season 11. A returning chef simply has to do more when they return to correct the imbalance with the never-eliminated players in the winner’s bracket. These are the seasonal nit-picks like Gail had with the stringy umami that requires a knife. She still voted for Kristen. I still loved the finale.

Overall, Season 10 of Top Chef was spectacular. The group of contestants was not only exceptional chefs but also great people for the most part. As such, they were easy to celebrate and fun to watch. Dropping all of the home drama in exchange for actual cooking drama was absolutely the correct choice. Top Chef: Seattle was a win from the casting department all the way through to the finale…or at least the semi-finale. The new format for the finale features a previously unknown adrenaline rush and is only a few tweaks away from being a phenomenal addition. All in all, I am sad to see this season end and cannot wait for the next one. In the interim, Empire State South, here I come!