The biggest question going into the finale of “Top Chef Duels,” besides who would win, was how exactly the show would go from 10 chefs to one in a single episode. The answer: very quickly.
“Top Chef Duels” has been the best “Top Chef” spin-off in part because it was friendly but tough competition between talented people, but also because each episode only had two contestants who served just five plates of food each. It was, for a show that has a countdown clock, very thoughtful and deliberate but never boring. Everything from the pacing to the slow-motion footage highlighted their technique and food. By comparison, the finale felt like fast food, quick and empty.
At the end of that super-fast, chaotic hour, only one chef remained standing: Chris “CJ” Jacobsen, who never made it to the finals on either of his previous two “Top Chef” appearances, won the $100,000. Tiffani Faison, the runner-up on season one, once again took second place on “Top Chef,” though she's previously been victorious on the show's one-off specials.
In order to get down to a final-two duel, the finale had to drop six chefs over two challenges. The chefs were asked to remove color from their food: the first dish had to be black, the second white. There was so much to taste and compare that the judges were taking notes as plates were thrown their way.
As a result of their black dishes, both CJ and Tiffany–who'd previously lost her duel but came back thanks to the second-chance competition–went on to the finals. CJ's chocolate and black cod was praised by a particularly exuberant Wolfgang Puck: “You fucking nailed it,” he told CJ.
The remaining eight chefs created white food, sending Kevin Gillespie and “Top Chef Masters” Takashi Yagihashi, who Wolfgang said created a “symphony in white,” to the final challenge.
The final four had to prepare three courses with themes related to duels: love, honor, and pride. The judges included Tom Colicchio, whose critiques are still feared by former “Top Chef” competitors. Kevin said, “You somehow know that Tom is going to rip you a new asshole. And I mean that in the best possible way.”
After each course, one of the chefs was eliminated while they were cooking the next course. Those brutal eliminations came from the show's host, Curtis Stone, who told CJ “you can keep cooking” before telling Takashi he was out.
Kevin was out after the next course because his duck was underdone and his peas were too salty, and he was not happy to leave in the middle of preparing his final dish. “The best was yet to come, unfortunately,” he said.
That was not true for “Top Chef Duels,” which would have been better served to continue to eliminate chefs tournament style over several additional episodes. But despite an annoying, overbearing host and that finale misfire, it was a worthy spin-off.