Last night was the final episode of Top Chef Tex-Anada, and it played out like a culinary version of the walk-off scene in Zoolander set to symphony music -- a fierce and almost perfectly orchestrated parade of dishes, as we have come to expect from the two remaining chefs.
Paul Qui, executive chef at Uchiko in Austin, and Sarah Grueneberg, executive chef of Spiaggia in Chicago, brought their best games as they faced the challenge of cooking a four-course meal aided by very familiar sous chefs chosen through a tasting competition.
Previously eliminated chefs filed into the kitchen, along with two heavy-hitters: Barbara Lynch of No. 9 Park in Boston and Marco Canora of Hearth in New York. All 11 had to cook a dish, and the two competitors each chose four.
"I made an Asian-inspired dish to try and lure Paul into choosing me," eliminated heartthrob cheftestant Chris Crary said. Proving anyone would buy anything that guy is selling, Paul chose him as part of his dream team, along with Barbara Lynch, Ty-Lor Boring and Keith Rhodes. Sarah chose Nyesha Arrington, Tyler Stone (the former cheftestant who didn't make it into the original 16 because of his horrific butchering skills), Heather Terhune and Grayson Schmitz.
Then it was onto the meat (or fish and eggs, in Paul's case) of the competition as the two chefs banged out some seriously mind-expanding dishes, pushing the boundaries of their personal styles -- Sarah's innovative homey dishes of comfort and Paul's simple and delicately executed plates of precision.
Our highlights ...
Sous chef who had stunning potential to ruin the competition: Tyler Stone Last night's episode felt like the time when he almost ruined the competition for Grayson by selfishly hacking away his piece of meat at the expense of hers. Tyler pushed back and asked questions as though he were a 5-year-old who had never cut a vegetable before in his life. "I cannot believe the balls on Tyler," Sarah said, flustered.
Tyler: "How thick do you want the wedges? How much celery do you want me to do? Is there a vacuum machine?" ... and on and on and on.
Sara: "Just chop the celerrry!!!"
... and then he showed up to cook in dress pants and dress shoes.
Moment that could have been terrible if Paul wasn't absolutely awesome, which he is: The crab Sous chef Keith gave the crab for one of Paul's dishes the sniff test. It was funky. "We have to change the game plan," Keith said.
"I've got to go to plan B ... let's find the spot prawns," Paul said. "You don't flinch at these problems. When they come, they come and you find a solution for them." He bought the prawns for no apparent reason, and boom, just like that, they find a happy home and provide a bandage for a problem that healed instantly and perfectly.
We missed Grayson's quotes since she's been gone, so here's her best from last night: "Tyler is definitely moving at his own pace, which I think is highly inappropriate, so we're gonna jam out with our clams out and Tyler's gonna do what he does." Git it, girl.
Apples and oranges: Paul and Sarah's first courses (and the entire meal, for that matter) How do you compare Paul's pure, simple chawanmushi: steamed egg custard, prawns and pea shoots, and Sarah's squid-ink tagliatelle with spot prawns and fresh coconut? They were both incredibly beautiful and perfectly plated dishes, but they're from different universes. Judges toggled. We'd happily eat either.
Most emotional moment: Paul and his dad crying Paul revealed that he dropped out of college and began cooking, to his parents' despair. Seeing his dad cry out of pride made Paul's eyes well up. "Are you crying? Are you crying?" his mom asked repeatedly. Paul was. We were too. In fact, every time Paul cries, we cry. It's Pavlovian, or something. When his mentor chef showed up several weeks ago, we cried, and now his parents and girlfriend are here. Get the Kleenex.
Best final courses, maybe ever: Both desserts Historically, dessert is the fatal flaw of many otherwise accomplished and amazing chefs in seasons past. Last night went against the grain, with both desserts appearing delectable and memorable. Sarah's hazelnut cake with kumquat and roasted white chocolate ganache gained highest praise from Hugh Acheson, who called it "just brilliant and something I'm sure we're going to have fun ripping off of for the next few years."
Once again, in case you missed it ... roasted white chocolate ganache. Television is so mean in that you can't taste what's on the screen.
Paul answered that with coconut ice cream with puffed wild rice, kumquats, mangosteen, Thai chili foam and jasmine gelee. Tom was delighted: "Paul really knocked it out of the park." It's a tart dessert with some kick, and it's appealing in its detailed daintiness and exactness. This is some damn thoughtful cooking.
Judges' kudos: It's happened for weeks on end. The judges LOVE it all. It's incredible how few screw-ups have occurred this season. "I think in nine seasons, including All Stars, this is the best food we've ever seen at a finale," Tom said. "The food was exciting, so, thanks."
"This brilliant broth lifted the whole dish and all of the components to the moon," Emeril said of Paul's grilled sea bass with clam dashi.
They nitpicked a little -- Sarah's beets could have used more pickling; Paul's puffed rice may have been a little too crispy.
But in the end, they had to choose.
Top Chef winner who seems like the nicest guy in the world and absolutely deserves it: PAUL Paul quietly rose to the top, never talked shit or got involved in the pettiness, and cooked some damn fine food. Once, he even stopped to chip away at an ice block for Bev, remember that? He's a chef and a gentleman. Paul, God love ya!
With that, I'm planning a trip to Austin, especially to eat dinner at Uchiko.