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‘Top Chef’ Finale, Course-By-Course Breakdown: Did The Right Chef Win?

UPDATE: After the publication of this post, an article in the Austin-American Stateman surfaced sexual harassment allegations against winner Gabe Erales. ‘Top Chef ‘co-host Padma Lakshmi commented on these concerns in a tweet earlier today, writing:

‘Top Chef’ has not yet issued an official statement.

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Top Chef Portland had its finale last night, and I’m already distraught. All I can think about are the weeks and months of drudgery ahead, with no cooking competitions or Padma entendres or incredibly specific food criticisms from Tom Colicchio to leaven the load. I’ve just been sitting in the middle of my living room wearing my Ed Lee Replica Statement Hat™ rocking back and forth crying, muttering about gaper clams.

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I can’t believe they let him in wearing that thing. I would’ve been afraid that he’d flip a table over, claim the dinner for the country’s peasantry, and carve a Z on the wall with a saber. Even Gregory Gourdet looked glum.

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Poor guy, just sitting there thinking “I was led to believe that I would be the jauntiest one.”

Anyway, this was a three-way, four-course battle (that’s 12 course-ways!) between Shota Nakajima, Dawn Burrell, and Gabe Erales. It pitted Shota’s tasting menu experience against Dawn’s potential for transcendent greatness and Gabe’s steady consistency and elite sauce making. There’s a lot of room for error in four courses, so perhaps it was fitting that the win, in the end, went to the chef who throughout the competition just seemed to make the fewest errors — Gabe Erales, aka Big Fozzy, the Man of 1000 Moles.

Some of the readers gave me a hard time about not being moved by all the crying in episode 11. It all came back around this episode. I admit it, watching Maria shout “Que te dije, cabrón!” and hugging Gabe after the win had me legitimately moved. Maybe it’s being from the San Joaquin Valley, but I really relate to hearing “cabrón” used a term of endearment. “I love you, guey.” “I love you too, puto.”

The margin seemed razor thin. Dawn forgot a few components in dish one (shocker!) and had superfluous seafood in dish two. Shota had a slightly underwhelming vegetable dish and poorly plated (insufficiently cheffy!) dish three. In the end it was a pretty satisfying finale. It felt like the winner deserved it, even if either of the other chefs could’ve won on any given night. Next year we should make t-shirts of our favorite contestants. Sitting in my living with giant foam chicken legs and shit. Then Rob Lowe could show up in a hat that just says “FOOD.”

In lieu of a traditional ranking this week, I thought we could run through the contestants’ dinners dish by dish, reliving that magic.

1. Gabe Erales

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AKA: Good Gabe. Canelo. Fozzy. The Foz. The Masa Father. Jamón. Steady Eddie. Susan Lucci. The Winner.

The Menu:

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2. Dawn Burrell

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AKA: Legs. Breaking Dawn. Coco Chanel. Milk Carton. The Sphynx. Zeus. Flamethrower.

The Menu:

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3. Shota Nakajima

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AKA: Beavis. Big Gulps.

Menu:

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Viewer’s Verdict: Menu

Tough choice, but I have to go Dawn. If I saw gumbo, “jerk beef cheek,” and yam bread pudding on a menu, I’m ordering that one (even the tendon seems intriguing). Shota might be at a natural disadvantage here, since Japanese tends to sound much simpler than it tastes.

Dish 1

Shota: Sashimi 3-Ways

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Dawn: Lamb Tartare With Beef Tendon Puff

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Gabe: Fried Pibil Head Cheese

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Viewer’s Verdict, Dish 1:

Slight edge to Dawn. Again, everything looks amazing, and Shota might be at a slight disadvantage because it’s hard to judge something as simple as sashimi purely on looks. True, like the judges said, Dawn probably doesn’t need all that stuff on there — definitely could’ve gone honey bread OR tendon puff, not both. But it all sounds and looks so good… I guess it’s the maximalist in me, but I’m fine with “too much.”

In the end, she left her bread off two plates and a tendon off of one anyway, all but ensuring that she lost this round. Without that, I think she takes it.

Dish 2:

Gabe: Scallop Aguachile, etc.

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Shota: Octopus Karaage

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Dawn: Green Gumbo With Seafood and Rice Fritter

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Viewer’s Verdict:

Gabe in a walk. That looks amazing and I don’t even like scallops. Even based on looks alone, I have to agree with the judges that Dawn sabotaged a potential winning dish by adding too much stuff to it. With Shota’s, I have to plead ignorance on “water spinach.” That’s a real thing? Come on, you made that up. I kid, but it does look a little like a pile of garnishes.

Dish 3

Shota: Beef Tongue Curry With Braised Turnips

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Gabe: Shortrib with Chichilo Negro Mole

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Dawn: Braised Beef Cheek, Black-Eyed Peas, Buttered Turnips

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Viewer’s Verdict:

Holy hell, this course was a murderer’s row. I didn’t think anyone could top Shota’s fried-then-braised beef tongue curry, and then Gabe comes in with short rib and black mole (the best mole, imo). And then Dawn flies off the top rope with jerk beef cheek and buttered turnips. This is the strongest dish for all three, but I give the razor-thin edge to Dawn. “Buttered turnips?” I’ve never even had that but it sounds amazing. Every single syllable sounds sexual. You wouldn’t be allowed to serve that at a convent.

The judges ragged on Shota for his overly rustic plating, and even worse, his “crunchy” rice. How many times have people screwed up rice on this show? I think the secret is to never, ever cook rice on Top Chef.

Course 4

Dawn: Yam Bread Pudding

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Gabe: Candied Squash With Cafe Mexicano Ice Cream

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Shota: Hoji Tea Cheesecake with Cedar Smoked Gelato

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Viewer’s Verdict:

Dawn in a walk. Yam bread pudding? Yeah, no one’s beating that. Gabe loses for putting flowers on the plate — FOH with that. I also don’t really understand squash. You cook it and the texture barely changes, and it’s all spongey… I just never know quite what to do with it. Shota’s looks amazing, but again: yam bread pudding. You’re not going to beat it.

All in all, I have Dawn winning three rounds. I have to assume forgetting a component in the first dish and then following that with her weakest dish was just too deep a hole to climb out of with two dishes to go, especially when Gabe was right there with a solid, composed dish in every round. Shota’s crunchy rice in the round when the other two had their showstoppers was the nail in his coffin. No quibbles with the decision at all.

Congratulations to Big Fozzy, the Man Of A Thousand Moles. You done good, cabrón. You’re so good at conceptualizing dishes — can you tell me what to do with my life now that this show is over?

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

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