June 12, 2008

Top Chef Chicago Finale Part 2

**beware winner revealed**
The end is here, the final episode of Top Chef Season 4: Chicago. The finalists: Richard, Stephanie and Lisa are in San Juan, Puerto Rico awaiting the final challenge. Stephanie mentions once again how she wants to be the first female Top Chef. Richard says he's putting everything on the line. Lisa brings up the fact that she has only won one elimination challenge but is confident she's going to win anyway. The contestants are brought before Padma and three guest chefs: Eric Ripert, April Bloomfield, and Dan Barber. The three guest chefs each have tables in front of then laden with various proteins. Since Stephanie and Richard are tied for the most elimination wins they draw knives to decide who has first pick for the proteins and guest chef to serve as their sous chef. Stephanie wins the knife pull and chooses Ripert. Richard picks Barber and Lisa gets Bloomfield. The chefs are told they are to cook a four course meal for 9 guests and that the final course must be a dessert. There will be 3 hours of prep on the first day and 4 more hours before service the following day.

The chefs and their assistants head to the kitchens. Stephanie plans to show off her style, which she says is balanced cooking. Richard says he wants to marry his classical training with molecular gastronomy. Lisa will focus on the flavors of Thailand and Vietnam. We get footage of Stephanie instructing the four star chef Ripert on how exactly she wants her fish trimmed. Lisa gets along quite well with Bloomfield to every one's surprise. Richard seems a bit unfocused but manages to attract attention when he pulls out liquid nitrogen to make a Tabasco ice cream. The prep time ends and the chefs head home for the evening.

When the finalists arrive the next day, Tom Colicchio is waiting for them with some news. Their sous chefs won't be helping them today. None of the contestants look surprised and they talk about how someone not showing up for work is part of the normal business of restaurants. All around this is an expected catch. Each contestant goes over a rough outline of their dishes. Stephanie has red snapper (1st course), quail with lobster ravioli and quail egg (2nd course), lamb medallions (3rd course) and a ricotta pound cake (dessert). Lisa is making grilled prawns (1st course), tom kha gai soup with dumplings (2nd course), wagyu beef (3rd course) and Thai rice pudding (dessert). Richard has chosen scallops (1st course), guinea hen, foie gras and chicken eggs (2nd course), pork belly (3rd course), and bacon ice cream with his banana "scallop" (dessert). I'm really interested in Stephanie's 2nd and 3rd courses, Lisa's soup and rice pudding, and Richard's 2nd course. I think it's a little strange that Richard is pulling out that banana "scallop" again. Richard is using his liquid nitrogen for the bacon ice cream. He elaborates on how this technique freezes the ice cream so quickly and prevents ice crystals from forming. He should have said it prevents large ice crystals from forming but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt, since who knows how Bravo edits. While I like the ideas behind Lisa's dishes I'm still not convinced she's shown us she can pull it all off perfectly. Stephanie frets about her ricotta cake. Lisa gives her the "you have to be confident" speech. I think we're a little tired of Lisa's "confidence".

The diners arrive. Ripert, Bloomfield and Barber are joined by Padma, Alfredo Ayala and Tim Zagat. Ayala is the chef owner of Delirio restaurant. Zagat is the CEO and co-founder of the company that makes the Zagat Survey guides. The judges Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and Ted Allen make up the final three diners. The finalists enter to talk about their inspiration for the meal. Richard believes his meal is a reflective journey. Lisa mentions her Thai and Vietnamese influences. Stephanie says she tried to keep things simple and clean with multiple proteins on each plate while hitting all of the flavor points. The finalists return to the kitchen and the meal begins.

The 1st courses
Lisa: Grilled prawns with chili basil sauce and crab and a homemade potato chip
Stephanie: Seared red snapper, truffled cream and white asparagus broth with green asparagus salad
Richard: Scallop with mango and pineapple vinaigrette
Diners' comments:
The texture of Lisa's dish is great, maybe the spice is too strong. Stephanie's flavors are delicate. Richard's dish needs to be simplified.
My thoughts: Stephanie's dish looks beautiful.

The 2nd courses
Tom kha gai soup with dumplings
Stephanie: Seared quail breast over lobster ravioli with mango lobster sauce and quail egg
Richard: Guinea hen breast, sous vide chicken egg, foie gras and spring vegetables
Diners' comments:
Lisa's soup was delicious and balanced. They would love to have more. Stephanie's leeks weren't cooked enough. Richard's dish had good complexity but it was hard to distinguish between the components.
My thoughts: The coconut broth for Lisa's soup looks divine. Stephanie's dish seems to have too much going on. Richard's dish seems incredibly rich and I really want to try a sous vide egg.

The 3rd courses
Lisa: Wagyu beef with coriander, garlic, oyster marinade, chayote and cucumber salad, hot sauce and garlic chips
Stephanie: Medallion of lamb with maitake mushrooms, braised pistachios, blackberries and olive tapenade
Richard: Pickled radishes, mirin broth and pork belly
Diner's comments: Lisa's beef wasn't tender enough and the sauce too sweet. The salad was good. Stephanie's lamb surprised and delighted all. Richard's pork belly wasn't seasoned properly and needed to be crisped. The radishes were good.
My thoughts: Lamb with mushrooms sounds good but I would have been very skeptical of the blackberries and olives with it. All soft pork belly doesn't sound appealing.

The dessert courses
Lisa: Black Thai rice pudding with lime and mango creme, crisp taro and caramelized coconut
Stephanie: Ricotta pound cake with tropical fruit and banana creme
Richard: Bacon ice cream with banana "scallop"
Diner's comments: Lisa's pudding was "exciting" and they wanted more. Stephanie's cake was OK but too unrefined. Richard's dessert was good. Tom agrees with me that every ice cream manufacturer is thinking about putting out a bacon ice cream.
My thoughts: The rice pudding looks great and I love the crisp taro and coconut on it. The ricotta cake looks a little sad. Bacon ice cream is overdone and I hate typing the quotation marks on that "scallop". It's just a chunk of caramelized banana!

Dinner is finished and judging begins. The three contestants are brought forth to answer questions and defend their choices. Richard admits to having "choked". From what we've seen all season he could have done better than his performance tonight. Stephanie believes she makes mistakes when she second guesses herself. Her example is the ricotta cake. Lisa is straightforward and believes she gave food that represents herself and the food she likes to cook and eat. The finalists leave and the judges deliberate on who had the best dish for each course. Lisa and Stephanie both get high marks for the first course. Lisa aced the second course, with only a slight nod to Richard. Everyone is still wowed by Stephanie's creative third course. Lisa and Richard both get credit for good desserts. Then shockingly, Bravo does not torture the viewers with any more discussion...Stephanie WINS!!

I loved this episode! It really focused on the food. I'm happy to see Lisa do well, just to see the great ideas she came up with. Her soup and rice pudding both looked great. It was also nice to see her get along with another chef. I was sad to see Richard not at the top of his game but at least he made a solid effort. I loved that Stephanie amazed the guests with her creative lamb dish and the beautiful looking first course.

Stephanie's Winning Dishes: Red Snapper and Asparagus, Seared Quail Breast, Roasted Lamb Medallions, Ricotta Pound Cake

More food TV:
I suffered through my taped copy of the Next Food Network Star this week and it was pretty unmemorable. We didn't even get Lisa in a cute outfit! She was wearing a olive green sack for half the episode. Maybe it'll become interesting enough to write about as the competition thins out.