This week on Top Chef, it was the grand finale, the whole emulsion, the battle for all… the, uh… marble ryes. Whatever. Anyway, it all came down to Joe Flamm aka Joey Cheeks aka Bob’s Big Boy, vs Adrienne Cheatham, aka Salon aka Halle Bearnaise — both hailing from the south side of Chicago. Flamm an Eye-talian specialist out of Spiaggia in Chicago, Cheatham recently of Red Rooster in Harlem.
The two chefs headed up Aspen Mountain to Little Nell at the Aspen Mountain Club, which sits at 11,000 feet. As in, another altitude cooking challenge! Only this time, they’d have to do it without advice from Paul Liebrand. Which is just as well. As we learned in episode 11, Paul Liebrand likes to inflate his altitude cred and speaks at a volume only British mice can hear. (Word from the producers on the altitude discrepancy was that someone screwed up the conversion from metric to American standard).
No, this time they’d be going at it alone. Okay, not really. The challenge was four courses, with two sous chefs. Adrienne chose the other southern chef, Chris and the other final four finishing woman, Carrie, while Joe chose the other Joe, Joe, and the fan favorite, Fati (really, she won!). That all made good sense, though you have to feel for all the chefs eliminated early in the competition, who kept having to do the perp walk every time the competitors needed a sous chef, only to be humiliated anew and have to trudge back to Top Chef purgatory when they’re inevitably passed over for their betters yet again. I assume they all sleep in an oversized dresser like the Japanese execs in that one episode of Seinfeld.
Before the big finale (directive: “Just cook the best meal of your life”) Tom Colicchio and Graham Eliot crashed the contestant condo to cook some food for the chefs. Two things about that: Tom seems so much more vulnerable and human when he’s wearing his old man reading glasses. It’s kind of adorable. Also, Graham Eliot is much more likable when he’s not using obnoxious clothes as a personality substitute. Maybe make this man wear an apron more often? You could put “trying too hard” on the front of the apron to make him feel more comfortable.
After that, most of the show was rightly dedicated to competition. Since a power ranking is kind of useless at this point, I thought we’d structure this like a head-to-head.
Joseph Flamm — AKA Joey Cheeks, aka C-Pap, aka Chicago Beef, aka Bob’s Big Boy, aka Flamm Bae, aka InFlammable, aka Cliff Clavin, aka Wham Flamm Thank You Flamm
Adrienne Cheatham — AKA Fish, aka Halle Bearnaise, aka Le Bernadin, aka Salt, aka Salon, aka The Sheriff Of Ballsville
THE COMPETITOR’S STATED FOOD PHILOSOPHY
Joey Cheeks: “Taking food that looks simple but at the same time eats in a way that’s really technique heavy and really has a lot of back behind it.”
I’ll be honest, that was one of the most impenetrably cheffy statements anyone’s ever given on this show. “What’d you think of the meatloaf, Dave?” “Oh, I dunno, I thought it was pretty technique-heavy, but I liked that it had a lot of back behind it. Back is best when it’s behind stuff, I feel.”
Adrienne: “Focus on the flavor. And everything else will kind of fall into place. Don’t overthink it.”
I don’t know if I would’ve gotten that from Adrienne’s technique heavy/name-drop approach this season, but I like where her head’s at. She also revealed that her dad was a Black Panther. Way to bury the lede again, Top Chef! Between Adrienne’s Black Panther dad and Brother Luck’s stripper dad… So much delicious backstory left rotting on the vine.
Joe Cheeks: Tony Mantuano (Beard award winner, Top Chef Masters, etc.).
Adrienne: Eric Ripert (He of Le Bernardin, Anthony Bourdain’s buddy, etc.)
“Use the force, Luke.” (aka Mentor’s Advice):
Tony to Joe: “You got it, you got everything it takes. Never change a dish once you’ve started it.”
Eric to Adrienne:: “Are you makeeng zee tuile? You have to wheesk eet.”
Advantage: Adrienne. I love a mentor who doesn’t give big philosophical advice, but very specific technique instructions. “You must wheesk zee tuile, and voilá.”
Tonno Vitellato, Raw Tuna With Veal Demi Aoili, Smoked Wagyu Powder & Capers
He said he wanted to do a veal with tuna dish but in reverse, to make it lighter.
REVIEWS: “I love the acidity of Joe’s dish.” “I love the simplicity.” “I think we’ve seen it before.” “I think it’s better than the original.”
Spoon Bread, Sea Urchin, Buttermilk Dashi, Ham Caviar, and Wheat Tuile
REVIEWS: “Much more provocative.” “It’s like we’re peeking under the dress.” “No, like the negligee.” “It’s very sensual.” “The Spoonbread was so tender.” “Better thing than I ate all season from anybody.” (Padma, who drops at least one crazy superlative per show)
Advantage: Adrienne. You know you’re winning when your dish gets called “sensual” and someone invokes a negligee. Ugh, why couldn’t they have had Eric Ripert there to say “negligee?” Anyway, it’s always a good sign when it sounds like the judges want to f*ck the food. (Buddy, they won’t even let me…)
Blackened octopus with squid ink grits and fennel chow chow.
REVIEWS: “Adrienne did a beautiful job, I did like that subtle heat of the blackening.”
“I think it eats dry.”
Tortellini en Brodo. Grano Arso, Pig Head Filling, Apple, Black Truffle, Braising Liquid Broth.
REVIEWS: “It’s the most magnificent color.” “This is the best food we’ve ever had at a finale.” “This is just… Joe’s dish is amazing. It’s just perfect.”
Manzo Di Colorado. Roasted Beef Ribeye with Roasted Asparagus And Bone Marrow Sauce
REVIEWS: “Overrested.” “Tortured.” “Chewy.” “Joe’s asparagus were magic.”
Cheerwine Braised Short Rib, Black Eyed Peas With Ham Hock and Cheerwine bone marrow Bordelaise
REVIEWS: “They all go together quite well, it’s just dry.”
Advantage: Even? I thought it was weird to criticize Adrienne for smushed beans. As a frequent bean eater, who the hell wants a bunch of perfectly whole beans? I say mash them shits. Team smush all the way.
Banana Pudding With Yuzu, Banana Spears, Vanilla Wafers
REVIEWS: “It is good. It’s just very intellectual.” “This is great eye candy, I just wish it tasted as good.”
Torta Della Nonna: Brown Sugar Cake, Whipped Ricotta, Blueberry Thyme Sauce, and Chocoalate Shards
REVIEWS: “My nonna never made cake like this.” “I liked the cake density, but the ricotta underneath it was too heavy.”
Graham Eliot added that, because, as Padma said, the dessert was good but the name was bad, this was “the Hoobastank of desserts.”
Oh, Graham, you fool. That’s a terrible analogy. The “Hoobastank of desserts” would be a dessert that sucks even worse than its dumb name.
Advantage: Joe. The reviews seemed about even, but looking at them now, Adrienne’s dessert does look like a trail of crumbs and puddles, whereas Joe’s looks more like actual food. What can I say, I’m a sucker for food that looks like food.
After that it was time for judge’s table. Graham was back on his bullshit:
The Overall Winner
Joe Flamm. Yep, they picked the white guy. But based on the food, I can kind of see why they did it. Adrienne dropped maybe one too many Asian ingredients for a Southern food concept — the yuzu ice cream, the dashi. Then again, Tom compared Joe’s pasta to a ramen. Either way, you could tell Adrienne was sunk when a chef called one of her dishes “intellectual.”
Everyone knows that’s a brutal diss. It’s like someone saying “That was great sex, it was just very intellectual.”
But even more so than usual, it seemed like a season where either of the finalists could’ve won, and at that point it’s not a crushing loss. “Top Chef winner” has slightly more cachet than “Top Chef finalist” but the second ain’t bad. On top of that, the winner gets $125,000, which, don’t get me wrong, would be totally awesome (what’s that after taxes, like $70k?), but it’s probably not enough to open a restaurant with, and if you’re a Top Chef finalist, why would you spend your own money on it anyway?
For his part, Joe said of his win “I am literally standing on a mountain right now.”
Which was technically true, they were cooking at 11,000 feet. Touché, Joe Flamm, touché. Anyway, cheers to another great season of the only reality competition show still worth watching. I mean, it was a great season, it was just very intellectual.