If you haven’t watched the season finale of Top Chef, stop reading now! Spoilers ahead!
Another pressure-cooked season of Top Chef has come to an end, and on Wednesday night’s finale, Kristen Kish came back from Last Chance Kitchen to take home the title. Her combination of French culinary skills and innovation edged out Brooke Williamson’s heartier fare, but it was close.
EW was on set for the finale and got to actually taste each of the chef’s master creations for the episode (if you squint you can see me at a table in the back). The live audience concept was fun and certainly added some tension to the evening, but unlike in Restaurant Wars, where the guests give their feedback on the food, we were more like trees with appetites during the filming on a set in Los Angeles. Not that I’m complaining — just being in the presence of these up-and-coming chefs was a treat.
It was no surprise to me (or the crowd) that Kish made a triumphant return to the kitchen. When she was asked to pack her knives and go in the now-infamous Josie Restaurant Wars fiasco, it was clear to both her fans and the other chefs that she’d be kicking some serious butt in Last Chance Kitchen, and she didn’t disappoint.
Judge Emeril Lagasse told EW at the finale that Kristen’s skills grew throughout the competition. “She shouldn’t have gone home, but she went home during Restaurant Wars, taking one for the team. It goes to show you how talented she is, because she has fought her way, all the way.”
Kish told EW the other chefs didn’t seem too shocked to see her back. “I think maybe it was semi-expected for me to come back. We all stay in contact. So I don’t think anyone was very surprised. But I like to think they were happily surprised, or happy that I was there.”
As the new winner, she has big shoes to fill. At the finale, the nine previous Top Chef winners joined the other diners to watch and taste as Kish and Williamson sweated it out in the live cook-off. “Of the past nine winners there are 16 restaurants that have opened since Harold first won Top Chef,” says judge Gail Simmons. “They’re not just little roadside joints, they are serious restaurants across the country, from New York to California.” Her advice for the Kristen? “I guess it’s just: Don’t forget to keep cooking.”
While Kristen and Brooke were cooking, we were eating. I may not be Top Chef material, but I cooked my way through Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food one summer, so that’s going to have to be qualification enough for giving some feedback on what we tasted at the finale.
The evening started out slowly – an audio issue delayed the taping by an hour, but fortunately the wine was flowing by that point. We watched Kristen and Brooke working with their former contestants as sous-chefs from afar; TV monitors behind the judges showed us what was going on in the kitchen.
The first dish to come out was Kristen’s chicken liver mousse. The perfect little dollop of hazelnut-sprinkled liver was a welcome pairing with our wine, and the mustard and prune complemented the salad beside it. The second course was one of the closest calls in the competition, but in the time that’s elapsed since the show was filmed, the standout dish for me of the entire night was Kristen’s citrus and lavender cured scallop with bitter orange, meyer lemon, and apple. The apple dice was perfect and tiny alongside the silky scallop. That said, we were pretty hungry by that point in the night and Brooke’s perfectly seared scallop with salt cod puree, speck, black current, and mustard seed vinaigrette was filling and delicious.
It was the third course where Kristen really won over those of us sitting at the tasting tables. The bone marrow and celery root puree was salty, crackly and delicious. The snapper face-off was a tougher call. Brooke’s unusual combination of pork cheek and snapper had a nice touch and was a cool twist on southern food, with the accompanying collard greens. She told EW after the finale, “I felt like it was a really perfect dish.” But the delicateness of Kristen’s snapper paired with salty uni (something I’d never eaten outside of a sushi restaurant) was unique.
In between each dish, as you saw on the show tonight, the judges declared the winner of each course. It was clear from the looks on Kristen and Brooke’s faces that they weren’t even concerned about the decision — they just wanted to get back to the kitchen.
“The most stressful part of that whole challenge was having to wait for judges to decide,” Brooke told EW.
It only took four courses for Padma, Tom, Emeril, Hugh, and Gail to make their call and declare Kristen the winner, which meant dessert was left lonely on the kitchen tables, plated and ready to go. We did get a quick bite of Kristen’s light and moist spice cake, which was a great way to end the evening.
In case you’re hoping to reenact the finale at home, here’s the full menu: