Top Chef Season 17: Finale Recap
By Jason Lee
June 23, 2020
We started with fifteen. We’re down to three. Among the chefs remaining to vie for the title, we have Bryan Voltaggio, the pre-season favorite. This is already his third appearance in a Top Chef finale after Top Chef: Las Vegas and the first season of Top Chef Masters. He wants to take that final step.
We also have the record breaker, Melissa King, who has won EIGHT elimination challenges—the most ever on Top Chef. Perhaps most importantly, she comes to the finale with momentum, having won the last three elimination challenges in dominating fashion.
Finally, we have the party crasher, Stephanie Cmar. I doubt many, if anyone, would have bet on Stephanie making it this far against such a talented cast. But she has persevered and, more important, found herself. We talk about certain chefs who “won” by making it to the finale, regardless of the outcome (Shirley from Top Chef: New Orleans pretty quickly jumps to mind), and Stephanie is one of them. But she wants more.
After breakfast, the chefs join Padma and Tom out on their hotel terrace for the final instructions, which will shock no one: make the best four-course progressive menu of your life (NBD). The diners—again, as to be expected—is a star-studded bunch, with a notable lean towards Europe, which is nice to see.
Of course, our finalists will need help. Cue the entrance of Kevin, Brian, and Lee Anne, who’s stepping in for Gregory due to his back injury. The chefs draw knives to decide on the order of selection, though there’s an obvious fit for each chef. Luckily, the pairings work out as they deserve to, with Stephanie going with Brian Malarkey (due to their chemistry during Restaurant Wars), Bryan picks his boy, Kevin, and Melissa happily teams up with Lee Anne.
Or, so she thinks. Lee Anne is a strong-minded chef (one of the traits that her fans love so much about her), and she’s happy to contribute suggestions as Melissa describes the outline for her menu. You could cook octopus in a pressure cooker, you could try a certain sauce . . . “domineering” is not a word you necessarily associate with Melissa, and this fan feared for her independent judgment as Lee Anne peppers her with options (thank god she wasn’t teamed up with Malarkey).
This continues as the chefs traverse an amazing food market in Florence. Nuts? Cilantro? Veal? Melissa admirably learns how to wield the word “no” as deftly as she wields her knife. She’s gonna stick to her guns.
And those guns will combine Chinese flavors and Italian cooking. She wants to take inspiration from where she is, while bringing everything back to her heritage. It’s a smart strategy, and one that has worked brilliantly for her during the last two episodes.
Stephanie seems to be leaning Italian, as well, with her menu. She’s doing riffs on dishes that she’s made before in order to highlight her evolution as a chef.
Finally, Bryan is still smarting from the feedback he received from the Italian chefs in the last challenge—the criticism that his food has no soul. He knows that he excels at modernist cooking, which can come off as distant and intellectual. He’s going to break with that tradition and make something no one would ever expect him to make in a Top Chef finale: lasagna.
After the market, the chefs had to the kitchen where they have five hours to prep with their sous chef. The camera again focuses on Melissa, as she seems to have the biggest challenge in terms of reeling in Lee Anne. To her credit, Lee Anne is receptive. She recognizes that she likes to put a lot of ingredients on a plate—a point emphasized by the judges over and over again this season—and she says that she’s learning a lot working with Melissa. That’s such a huge compliment.
Meanwhile, Stephanie is braising veal for her third course. Malarkey has concerns with doing this the day before, but Stephanie says that she’s done this before. Her confidence can’t help but be shaken, though, when Tom comes in and says that he’s familiar with the veal dish she’s riffing on. In fact, he’s made the dish himself.
So Stephanie has now made Indian food for Padma, pasta for the Italians, and a veal dish that Tom himself has made. What a record.
Bryan and Kevin continue cooking with little drama. In fact, the drama is again over with Melissa. She wants to do a Chinese spin on tiramisu, replacing the coffee with Hong Kong tea, a flavor from her childhood. The cookies in the tiramisu, though, are too crunchy and are light on the tea flavor. Melissa muses that they may need to remake the dish tomorrow.
After a long day of cooking, the chefs are brought to a big Italian manor where Tom is outside roasting squab, Gail is making some dessert, and Padma is making pasta. I’ve said it before (even last week, I think) but the reward for making it far into a season of Top Chef is not the glory, but the accumulation of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and this is one of them: a big meal made by the Top Chef judges, including white truffle lasagna, bruschetta with figs and goat cheese, roasted artichokes, grilled squab . . . amazing.
The chefs get in a little personal time before they head to bed. Stephanie calls one of her best friends, Top Chef winner, Kristen Kish, who expresses pride and happiness to learn that Stephanie has made it all the way to the finale. Melissa talks to her mom, who exclaims, “Baby, I’m so proud of you!” Melissa tells her that she hopes to call again tomorrow with more good news. Bryan calls his brother, Michael Voltaggio, who knows a thing or two about winning Top Chef.
When morning hits, the chefs have three additional hours to prep before service. Melissa knows what she’ll be doing—redoing the tiramisu and adding more tea flavor.
On the other side of the kitchen, Stephanie is struggling with the kataifi (these pliable, thin noodles that she’s using to wrap her prawns), which isn’t getting crispy enough in the oven. She’ll have to pan fry each one by hand, which drastically reduces the margin for error.
Before we know it, the first courses have to go out. Bryan presents beets with tonnato, spicy arugula, and a bonito aioli. One diner calls the use of beets “beguiling,” a perfect marriage of earth and sea. Someone else compares use of the beet to beef tartare. The dish is a hit all around.
Stephanie has kataifi-wrapped shrimp with tangerine syrup, pickled Calabrian chiles and spicy arugula. This dish is an ode to her late brother, a thought that makes Stephanie immediately tear up. She used to fry him coconut shrimp, she explains. There’s barely a dry eye, even as the diners praise the prawns for being perfectly cooked and well balanced.
Finally, Melissa has char siu glazed octopus, fried shallots, fennel, pickled peppers, and herbs. Clare Smyth—a two-Michelin star chef in England—loves the depth of flavor in the dish, though Tom thinks that, overall, it’s a touch sweet. Nilou, the editor of Food & Wine Magazine, who’s also serving as the guest judge for the finale, thinks the sauce was a bit too sticky.
It’s a tale of opposites as the chefs prepare their second courses, with Stephanie cool as a cucumber and Melissa rushing to get everything on the plate. Interestingly, all three chefs have made a pasta for the second course.
Stephanie presents taleggio cappelletti, roasted chicken broth, pumpkin, apple, prosciutto, and celery. It has tons of umami, elegance, and great balance. Janice Wong, an acclaimed pastry chef from Singapore, marvels at the thinness of Stephanie’s pasta.
Melissa serves squash agnolotti, chicken skin, agrodolce cipollini, Szechuan chili oil, shiso, and squash blossoms. The flavors are complex, and Marcus Samuelsson (with whom most viewers will be familiar, as he’s been on Top Chef multiple times) notes the difficulty in presenting such completely original food. Another diner expresses adulation for how Melissa is able to incorporate so many Asian flavors into her dish.
Finally, Bryan has the lasagna everyone is waiting for, which has a wild boar bolognese, porcini duxelles, tuscan kale, and a ricotta bechamel. Like the other pastas, it’s refined, elegant, and beautiful. Gail notes that Bryan was able to marry his great technique with real soul in this dish.
Again, the drama is with Stephanie and Melissa as the third courses are prepared. Melissa takes her squabs outside to grill, covering her proteins to avoid the rain that has started. She worries that she won’t be able to get the skin crispy enough, but the flame is low enough that the fat is able to render. Meanwhile, Stephanie’s veal is “eating dry.” Brian suggests that she add more sauce to compensate. They sample the dish again, and while Stephanie is satisfied, hesitation is written all over Brian’s face.
The third courses are served and Tom ominously notes that “it’s really close right now.” Melissa is first up with grilled squab, persimmon, porcini mushrooms, and a fermented black bean sauce. Nilou says that she doesn’t like squab, but Melissa has made her a convert, calling it a “very strong” dish. Janice can’t get over the persimmons, which have been cut so tiny and made so tender—a hard thing to do. Tom offers the highest praise, noting that the dish hits every note you want it to. The other diners praise use of the porcini mushroom, which was ingenious and very respectful to the ingredient.
The other two chefs aren’t quite as successful with their third courses. Bryan has blackened monkfish with cacciucco broth, octopus, calamari, and a squid ink focaccia crouton. The squid and shrimp are fantastic, but the bread has a bit too much egg and butter in it.
As for Stephanie, she has her milk-braised veal breast, Parisian gnocchi, and lemon-rosemary sauce. Her veal, unfortunately, is overcooked and the gnocchi is not crispy enough. The diners all acknowledge how much work went into the dish, but it just didn’t quite come together.
It’s down to dessert. Bryan finishes with a malted chocolate mousse, hazelnut ice cream, coffee, and cardamom soil. It’s quintessential Bryan Voltaggio—striking in design, modernist in technique, and sparse in terms of ingredients. Nilou loves that Bryan started and ended with earthy flavors, and Tom loves the flavors. Janice, the pastry chef, laments that the chocolate shell surrounding the mousse was a bit too thick.
Stephanie brings a little home-cooking to her dessert with a sticky toffee pudding, hazelnuts, and yogurt ice cream. It’s a huge hit. The pudding is moist and tender, and the dish overall is very comforting.
Finally, Melissa brings us home with her Hong Kong milk tea tiramisu. It’s beautiful and smart in the way it blends the two cultures. One chef opines that Melissa needed one extra layer of bitterness, but the discussion is brought to a halt when Dario Cecchini begins to speak.
Fans may remember Dario as Italy’s most famous butcher, and he made an appearance earlier this season in episode 7 when he taught the chefs how to butcher a whole cow. He repeated the word that quickly became his catch-phrase for the chefs, “Carne!”
Here, he delivers one of many emotional—but perhaps the most memorable—moment of the finale. “My favorite is Melissa because she respected the tradition of Italy,” he says. “She made an interpretation of one of our traditions, and she made it from the heart.” Tears begin to fall as he says, “it makes me very emotional,” before noting, “I know, a butcher who cries, how embarrassing!”
It’s an incredibly moving moment.
With the eating done, Judges Table begins, and Tom has a few words before the critiques start: “all three of you cooked the meal of your life.” It was, in short, a very, very good finale.
The judges proceed course-by-course. Melissa’s octopus was beautiful and smartly incorporated different textures by crisping up some of the tentacles. Stephanie brought a very dear food memory to the table—one that makes Gail start crying, just by talking about it. She manages, though, to praise Stephanie for her great textures, use of citrus, and addition of bitter arugula. Tom, ever the craftsman, notes how hard it was for Stephanie to cook the prawns perfectly, and she nailed it. As for Bryan, it was the perfect start for his progressive menu, and was the one dish, above the other two, that told diners, “we’re just getting started.”
The second course saw three great pastas. Stephanie’s brodo was so dense and rich, reflecting smart use of chickens’ feet. Bryan prioritized flavor over appearance in his lasagna, and he succeeded in showing that he can combine technique with heart. As for Melissa, she again deftly combined Chinese and Italian cuisine, topping things off with great use of shiso.
Apart from Melissa’s dish, the third course was a bit of a mixed bag. Bryan’s monkfish was dry and the squid ink focaccia didn’t taste as good as it looked. And Stephanie’s dish wasn’t as balanced as it needed to be. But Melissa’s squab was exquisite, with Nilou heaping praise on her use of the porcini mushrooms, which she describes as “a revolution” and declaring the dish her favorite of the day.
Finally, in a rarity, all three of the desserts were great. Nilou wants the recipe for Stephanie’s sticky toffee pudding, which Tom calls “well done,” with just the right amount of toffee. Gail loved Bryan’s use of the ganache and found the richness of the dish to be great. As for Melissa’s tiramisu, Nilou loved the “clouds of milk tea” and says it was a beautiful ending to the meal. Padma and Tom describe for her how the dish made Dario cry, so moved by how beautifully she honored his country’s cuisine.
As the chefs head back into the Stew Room one last time, the judges deliberate on the winner. Bryan seems to have the edge in the first course, with his earthy flavors and smart beginning to the menu. Stephanie and Melissa seem to have the edge in the second course, with Stephanie showing the most deftness with her pasta and Melissa making something really exciting and new. In the third course, Melissa is the clear winner with perhaps the best dish of the day. And in dessert, it seems like a battle between Bryan and Melissa, with the judges loving his use of dark chocolate and the marriage of Chinese and Italian cultures in Melissa’s tiramisu.
When the judges reach their decision, the three finalists are brought back out, along with a few additional guests. We have the three sous chefs—Brian, Kevin, and Lee Anne—along with Bryan’s wife, Stephanie’s husband, and Melissa’s mom.
Tom says a few words praising the chefs for how deeply they dug to make their meals today, but all anyone wants to hear is the name of the winner. Capping off the most dominant showing on Top Chef in the history of the show, the winner is Melissa. Her mom instantly bursts into tears and is embraced in a bearhug from Lee Anne. Meanwhile, Melissa is stunned and can barely react.
The outcome is notable for a number of reasons. Please indulge me as I share some thoughts.
First, it’s so wonderful that Melissa’s mom is there to watch her win. The pride her mom feels for her daughter is so apparent and very moving. Additionally, it’s funny to think back to the call Melissa had with her mom the night before. Melissa had said that she hoped to call her mom with more good news after the finale. Little did she know that her mom was already in Italy and would be there in person to witness everything.
Second, I really think Dario’s emotional response to Melissa’s dessert sealed the win for her. What you had at Judges’ Table was four American chefs who are usually all too happy to discuss things like balance, textures, flavors, ingredients, and technique. What Dario demonstrated for them, however, is the value and respect that Melissa showed to the food of his country. He was able to appreciate how Melissa celebrated her culture and his culture. I’m not sure the judges would have been able to fully appreciate what she had accomplished without Dario making the point for them, both in his words and in his tears.
Finally, I honestly think Melissa has made a case for being the most successful chef ever on the show. Without a doubt, Stephanie made the greatest strides—in terms of confidence, skill, and execution—of all the chefs this season, and that’s something I hope she celebrates for a long, long time. I hope she never loses the sense of self-belief she found. And yes, Bryan deserves significant praise for making it to three finales—something no other chef can claim. It’s a huge accomplishment.
But eight elimination wins and two finales over two seasons on Top Chef, including a sweep of the last FOUR elimination challenges this season (including the finale). That’s simply mind-boggling. She won the title having cooked at a level, for a sustained amount of time, that we simply have never seen before on the show. Though the best chef over the course of a season is not always the chef who takes home the title, it happened here.
All hail the King.
(for those who don’t know, Melissa’s last name is “King”)