'Top Chef': Season 4 Finale: Put a Fork In It

Top ChefWe're still in Puerto Rico, having just witnessed the departure of Antonia last week. The three remaining chefs—Richard, Lisa, and Stephanie—are brought before Tom and Padma where they find three famous New York chefs—Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, Dan Barber of Blue Hill, and April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig—each standing by a separate table of proteins and ingredients.

Tom announces that the final challenge will be simple: Create a four-course tasting menu for nine diners, starting with fish, moving to poultry, then red meat, and finishing with dessert. As the challenge is outlined, both Lisa and Stephanie express some concern about being forced to produce a dessert. One senses that a storyline is unfolding, even with just this one small hint.

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The "sous chefs": Eric Ripert, Dan Barber, and April Bloomfield.

Furthermore, Tom tells the contestants that they'll have Ripert, Barber, and Bloomfield as their sous chefs for the competition. Who gets whom? And, perhaps more important, who gets the smorgasbord of proteins arrayed in front of each one of them? [A table full of spoilers, after the jump.]

Padma says the first choice would go to whomever had the most Elimination wins, but since Stephanie and Richard are tied with four each, they'll select knifes from the Top Chef block to determine the draft order.

Stephanie wins the knife pull and chooses Top Chef staple Eric Ripert and his supply of Snapper, Hamachi, Caviar, Clams, Lobster, Veal Tenderloin, Chorizo, Rack of Lamb, Quail, Quail Eggs, and, mmmmmmmmmm, Bacon. (Score!)

Richard takes Dan Barber and the table full of Scallops, Halibut, Calamari, Abalone, Duck, Foie Gras, Guinea Hen, Prosciutto, Pork Belly, Venison, and Rabbit.

Lisa is left paired with the formidable skills of April Bloomfield and these proteins: Oysters, Prawns, Crab, Mahi-Mahi, Chicken, Squab, Pancetta, Sweetbreads, Beef Tongue, Wagyu Strip Steak, and Ostrich Steak.

Day One allows for three hours of prep. Day Two ups that to four hours for cooking, after which the courses will be served head-to-head-to-head to the assembled black-tie-wearing judges and guests.

Day One

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The chefs and "sous chefs" at work.

In the kitchen, work proceeds smoothly. Stephanie teaches Ripert how to fillet Snapper, or, at least, how she likes it done. Lisa and April seem to be getting along well. No one seems hard-pressed or out of control or nervous working with such culinary superstars.

Near the end of Day One, we learn that each chef was allowed to request a single special supply or ingredient for the Top Chef pantry, and Richard trots out a keg of liquid nitrogen. Everyone in the kitchen says, "Oh boy, here comes the molecular gastronomy!" Lisa is unimpressed, but the guest chefs seem fascinated by Richard's crazy canister of cloud-billowing liquid.

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Richard: "I think I just showed Eric Ripert something he hasn't seen before. That's f*cking cool."

Both Bloomfield and Ripert come over and watch him make some kind of frozen Tabasco ice cream concoction, which he ultimately decides not to repeat for the actual meal. It's cool that Richard gets to show Ripert something new, but one senses that there's also a little bit of hubris on display, which might not cast such a kind light on Richard's final creations.

Day Two

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Tom Colicchio announces the dreaded "curveball."

At the beginning of Day Two, Colicchio comes in and announces the dreaded "curveball"—the sous chefs are getting the day off. Ruh roh. Suddenly everyone is in the weeds.

For the second time, Stephanie worries about having to make dessert. She is planning a Ricotta Poundcake that she's only made once before. After Colicchio's kitchen inspection, he adds his concern about Stephanie's dessert course. Finally, after tasting her own cake and pronouncing it a failure, Stephanie looks to have a big hurdle to overcome in order to get back on even footing with Richard, who seems confident, ambitious, and, in his own words, out to prove that he's "the only one who is a craftsman and an artist."

And then, dinner is served. All three chefs' courses come out simultaneously, so the panel can compare them side by side.

First Course: Fish

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Lisa: Grilled Prawns with Chili Basil Sauce and Crab, Homemade Potato Chips

Stephanie: Red Snapper, Truffled Clam and Asparagus Broth, Asparagus Salad

Richard: Scallop with Mango and Pineapple Vinegar

The judges seem to prefer Stephanie's dish to Richard's and Lisa's, but not by a wide margin.

Second Course: Poultry

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Lisa: Tom Kha Gai Soup with Dumpling

Stephanie: Seared Quail Breast over Lobster Ravioli with Mango-Lobster Sauce and Quail Egg

Richard: Guinea Hen, Chicken Egg, Foie Gras and Spring Vegetables. He even has a cutesy name for it, "Which Came First?"

The chefs loved Lisa's soup, all around. The were luke-warm on Richard's. They liked Stephanie's, but had a huge problem with some undercooked leeks that didn't contribute anything to the dish—except disappointment.

Third Course: Red Meat

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Lisa: Wagyu Beef with Chayote and Cucumber Salad, Hot Sauce and Garlic Chips

Stephanie: Lamb with Maitaike Mushrooms, Braised Pistachios, Blackberry and Olive Tapenade

Richard: Pickled Radishes, Mirin Broth and Pork Belly

Richard gets accused of underseasoning and using oddball cooking techniques. At this point, it seems like he's going down in flames. Lisa's Wagyu was deemed average. Here, Stephanie knocks hers out of the park. Everyone is surprised and thrilled. Seems like if she can survive dessert, she's in really good shape.

Fourth Course: Dessert

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Lisa: Black Thai Rice Pudding with Lime and Mango Creme, Taro and Coconut

Stephanie: Ricotta Poundcake with Tropical Fruit and Banana Creme

Richard: Banana "Scallop" with Bacon Ice Cream

The judges liked Lisa's pudding. And while some folks didn't love the taro chip, it was a minor critique. Finally, with dessert, Richard's precociousness was seen as a plus. The judges agreed that his concept was matched by great flavor. Who doesn't like bacon? Who doesn't like ice cream? No one, that's who.

Lastly, Stephanie, as everyone feared, delivered a hum-drum dessert that was certainly damned by the faintest of praise. Even her own sous chef, Ripert, was forced to concede that it was "unrefined and a little heavy."

After the reactions, it looks like we've got a two-way race again, just not the two chefs we suspected when this episode began. It's between Stephanie and Lisa.

Judges Table

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Padma, Tom, Gail Simmons, and Ted Allen all take turns questioning the choices the chefs made and complimenting them on the dishes the diners found most enjoyable. Lisa got high marks in two of the four courses, as did Stephanie. Richard didn't really stumble terribly in any of his dishes, but none of them, save his dessert, really got through judging with more praise than criticism.

As the contestants got ready to head back into the kitchen to await judgment, they each had a parting shot for the panel. Stephanie said she second-guessed herself with her dessert, which presumably caused her to add unnecessary ingredients that further muddled the dish. An upbeat, smiling Lisa came across as pleased with her performance and confident that she'd delivered great food. And finally, Richard said that he "choked," and that his past performances definitely reflected his talent better than this final meal.

In the deliberations, Colicchio says they'll go course by course.

Course One: Lisa and Stephanie both got props. It seemed to be a tie. Back in kitchen, Lisa conceded that Stephanie did a better dish, but that wasn't really clear from the panel's discussion.

Lisa's soup won Course Two, hands down.

Course Three: Stephanie won with her lamb dish, which seemed to be the standout dish of the night, mostly in that it defied that judges' expectations. No one thought lamb plus olives plus blackberries plus pistachios would be edible, much less delightful. It was a triumph camouflaged as a train wreck.

Lastly, for Course Four, Richard and Lisa both got credit for dessert, while Stephanie was unanimously named runner-up.

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Deliberation at the Judges Table.

So, when the judges agree on a winner, as the morning birds begin to chirp, there's only one question left: Is it Lisa or is it Stephanie? It was pretty clear that Richard was out of the running, judging by both the discussion and his hangdog expression back in the kitchen.

Live Television Poll Results

Before we get the judges' verdict, we see the results of the live telephone poll. It's pretty much a landslide. The totals are: 4 percent for Lisa, 36 percent for Richard, 60 percent for Stephanie. Lisa really did achieve a kind of universal animosity with her run on Top Chef. It's a feat that may be hard to duplicate in future seasons, although I'm sure the canny video editors will give us another cheftestant we all love to hate.

I, for one, think that Lisa really did redeem herself in this episode. She worked smart. She didn't give up, when she certainly could have. She didn't look to make excuses. (Sabotage!) And, in the end, she is right there, neck-and-neck with Stephanie as the judges prepare to announce the winner. Just before the reveal, it occurs to me that Lisa has a very real shot at being named Top Chef, and as distasteful as that would've been a week ago, I'm actually OK with that being the outcome.

Season Four's Top Chef

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Padma breaks the news.

That said, it's not the outcome. The fans get their wish. Stephanie is named the winner of Top Chef, Season Four.

As the contestants and judges mingle and exchange hugs, we get a nice trio of closing interviews. Lisa is all smiles, rightfully proud of her strong showing. Richard is tearful, with a nice touch of humor, sad that he came so close but couldn't claim the prize. And Stephanie is tearful as well, as unassuming as ever, happy that she survived the experience, and still clearly a little surprised that she won the whole enchilada.

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Closing interviews.

Related

Serious Eats' Top Chef Season 4 coverage

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