This finale was unlike anything we've ever seen, and clearly produced by some kind of fill-in crew.
The entire episode was done in Iron Chef style "live" from a Kitchen Stadium-esque set with a hooting and hollering audience. This episode was also edited in a frenetic, choppy way that left me edgy and confused. The challenges and dishes were not clearly introduced, so much so that I was pretty sure at one point that I had missed the first 30 minutes of the show. But enough griping ... on with the finale.
Padma is all smiles in her fetching red ensemble as she introduces Chef Kristen Kish and Chef Brooke Williamson. There is a riled-up live studio audience of friends and family, screaming for each chef, as well as one table made up of the past nine "Top Chef" winners. Brooke and Kristen apparently didn't know this was all going down this way, as they walk into the studio a bit overwhelmed.
"I did not expect a f---ing stadium," Brooke whispers.
The finale will consist of five courses. Each course will be ranked by the judges (Padma, Tom, Gail, Hugh and Emeril) and the first chef to win three courses will be named this season's Top Chef. I am not sure how each course was decided (again, did I miss something?) but some have matching ingredients and some don't.
Each chef has a table of family members watching (and dining on) each dish — pressure! That is a level of nerves that neither chef predicted. As Gail interviews Brooke's husband, her adorable towhead son has already conked out asleep on his lap. My heart is melting.
Brooke and Kristen have each selected their sous chefs from the pool of Season 10 contestants. Kristen takes Josh, Sheldon and Lizzie; Brooke has Stefan, Kuniko and CJ.
As they get underway, there is the requisite montage of each chef's "road to the finale," which features highlights and hijinx.
The live audience is riled up. The past "Top Chef" winners table immediately appears drunk and disorderly, while the crowd is on their feet, counting down with the clock as the chefs finish the first course.
Course One Kristen: Chicken liver mousse with frisee, mustard, prune, hazelnuts and pumpernickel Brooke: Crispy pig ear and chicory salad, six-minute egg, apricot jam and candied cumquats
Judges' comments: Brooke's pig ears were a little burned (which was CJ's fault) and all of the judges agreed that Kristen's dish was clean, earthy and perfectly prepared.
Course Two (aka "It's not 'Top Scallop!'") Brooke: Seared scallop with salt cod puree, speck, black currant abd mustard seed vinaigrette Kristen: Citrus and lavender cured scallop with bitter orange, meyer lemon and apple
Judges' comments: Brooke's dish gets Gail's and Emeril's votes. Kristen gets Tom's and Padma's. Hugh Acheson is the decider and sides with Brooke for her superior wintry flavors.
We're all tied up as go into round three. "This is intense," Brooke mutters to Kristen.
Round Three Brooke: Vadouvan fried chicken wing with sumac yogurt-tahini and pickled kohlrabi fattoush Kristen: Celery root puree with bone marrow, mushrooms, bitter greens and radishes
Judges' comments: The judges are all licking their fingers over Brooke's sticky chicken wings. "I forgot the wet naps, sorry!" she said. Tom questions Brooke's sauteed mushrooms (over roasted) but seems pleased with her confident answer (that she wanted the marrow to shine).
It's Kristen — 2, Brooke — 1 as we head into round four. If Kristen takes the next round, she wins. Cue dramatic music and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" lighting!
Round Four Brooke: Braised pork cheek and red snapper with collard green slaw & sorrel puree Kristen: Red snapper with leeks, little gem lettuce, tarragon, uni & shellfish nage
Judges' comments: Gail took issue with Kristen's leeks for being long, stringy and hard to eat. Emeril really loved Brooke's pop of sorrel that "woke up" her dish.
Tom grills each chef before the winner is decided. He points out to Brooke that she's won more challenges than any other competitor this season.
"I did," she responds, "but I feel like I want to win this to prove I wasn't winning because Kristen wasn't there." Which is one of the most honest, sincere compliments I've heard on this show. Kristen looks rightfully flattered.
The vote for round four? Gail: Kristen. Emeril: Kristen. Tom (after a dramatic pause): Kristen.
And with that, Kristen Kish is named Top Chef. Applause, tears, hooray! As much as I wanted Brooke to win, it's clear Kristen was the superior chef. She fought her way back with five "Last Chance Kitchen" victories and impressed everyone with her skill, poise and precision.
Yes, Brooke's tearful wrap-up interview had me choked up. She was such a class act all season and I so wanted her to take home the prize. But even in runner-up status, Brooke held her head high and impressed with her humbleness.
Kristen will be taking her prize money to pay for a trip to Korea to visit her homeland. She was adopted to a U.S. family at four months old, and has never been back to see where she came from. It's a trip she most certainly deserves and has earned.
Congratulations to both chefs for an amazing season, and hooray for the second female winner of "Top Chef."