'Top Chef' Season 5, Finale: All Bets Are Off

20081119-topchef-season5.jpgFinally the finale. We've soldiered through the last 12 episodes, hoping for a glimpse of genius, passion, or inspiration to hook us. The closest we've gotten is Carla's lovin', soulful take on things, but even that was slow to emerge. Can't say that we're all that surprised by the outcome of the finale, but it was the first (and last) episode this season that really got us to pay attention.

[Warning, spoilers ahead.]

Final Challenge: The Meal of Your Life

The final challenge is issued by Tom: "Cook us the best 3 course meal of your life." The cheftestants can choose any protein, and they don't have to make dessert. They will be cooking at Commander's Palace and serving a table of twelve judges and distinguished guests. They have two hours to prep that night, and three hours to cook the day of. And there will be help! In walk Richard, Casey, Marcel—all previous Top Chef contestants who made it to the finale. Knives are drawn to determine the order they will choose sous chefs. Carla draws first, and draws three. Hosea draws next and draws one. Hosea chooses Richard. Stefan chooses Marcel, so Carla gets Casey. Everyone is happy with their picks, and they are off to start prepping.

Hosea immediately tries to take the upperhand in the kitchen by bogarting the foie gras and caviar. Stefan is PISSED and it shows. Let the games begin! Meanwhile, Casey has talked Carla into doing a sous vide steak. Carla has never sous vide. Uh oh. This does not bode well. Don't listen to Casey! She lost! You're a winner! They can't hear me, can they. A few minutes later we watch as Casey talks Carla into doing a souffle. We're getting a bad feeling about this.

The next day, Tom is waiting for them at Commander's Palace. Surprise! They'll be doing one more course—an appetizer to be passed before the guests are seated. They'll be looking for the baby in the King Cake to determine who gets to choose their protein first, and then assign proteins to the other cheftestants. Hosea gets the baby. Stefan is screwed. Hosea takes the red fish, gives Carla the crab, and Stefan is stuck with the alligator. The alligator doesn't trip up Stefan, and he ends up making a lovely alligator soup with celeriac, parsley leaves and puff pastry.

Everyone is working together like real pros, and the dishes are coming out beautifully with a few exceptions. Stefan's Halibut and Salmon Carpaccio is watery and bland because he's frozen the fish in order to slice it thinly, and his dessert doesn't win anyone over. Carla's sous vide steak is tough and un-Carla like, and her souffles never see the light of day after she forgets to turn down the over and they begin to curdle. Hosea's sashimi "didn't pop" and was missing seasoning.

Sitting at the table for the finale: Susan Spicer, John Besh, Rocco Dispirito, Hubert Keller, Branford Marsalis, Tory McPhail (Executive Chef, Commander's Palace), Ti Martin (Proprietor, Commander's Palace) and the judges: Toby, Tom, Padma, and Gail. The only surprise at the table is Fabio, who, with little hesitation, weighs in in favor of Hosea and his menu thanks to his strong close with the vension.

The Final Verdict

Time for Judges' Table. It's clear now that Carla is out of the running. When asked why she should be Top Chef, Carla breaks down and begins to cry. She knows she didn't do her food, and if she had, she could have won. Hosea put together a nice meal, "steady across the board." Stefan had some highs and some lows.

In the end, it comes down to how the meal tasted from start to finish. Hosea wins Top Chef. Who called it? Not us.