Top Chef: ‘If You Win, I’m Going to Feel Like Sh*t’


And finally, we have come to the end. If last night’s finale felt like a rote stampede toward the final outcome of what has been a very, very long season, it did at least deliver on its slightly beleaguered promise of emotional catharsis.

Picking up where last week went off, Mike and Richard sit in the stew lounge, grimacing and reflecting on their odds of success. “I’m gonna beat Richard,” Mike offers. “I’m a better cook than he is, period.” Richard doesn’t do much to counter this. “I would rather go up against Antonia,” he says, brow creased with woe. “Mikey came back a different chef creatively.” “Second place is first loser,” Mike says, proving that creativity aside, he’s still Mike Isabella.

Fortunately, Tom arrives and puts an end to the navel-gazing. The final challenge, he decrees, will be to “create for us the restaurant of your dreams” and serve a four-course meal to the judges. Somehow, this all feels familiar, as does pretty much everything after eight seasons of Top Chef. Fortunately, there’s a little twist: All of the season’s contestants have been rounded up for the purpose of auditioning to be Richard and Mike’s sous chefs.

They look thrilled to be there:

All of the chefs create an amuse bouche. Richard and Mike have to taste them blind to determine who will be their three sous chefs. Despite not wanting to get “Jamie, not just because she’s Jamie, but because she’s slow,” Mike gets Jamie, as well as Carla and Tiffani F. Richard, meanwhile, ends up with Spike, Angelo — “the guy’s just a thoroughbred!” — and Antonia, who at this point probably wants to shoot her agent. Everyone else is dispatched, and presumably wanders off to go jet-skiing.

The chefs are given one hour of menu planning. Mike announces that his place will be called Restaurant Iz, and Richard comes up with the too-cute Tongue & Cheek. As we cut to a commercial, Tom pops up to inform us that “the word ‘chef’ means ‘boss.'” Or, in this case, “person most likely to go home with an ulcer.”

Finally, the chefs arrive in their respective kitchens, and it’s time for a little introspection. “I’m trying to show I’m over creativity for creativity’s sake,” Richard says. “My failures have served me well.” As he prepares to court another ostensible failure by instructing Spike to churn foie gras ice cream, Mike runs around chopping things. “There is nothing safe about my menu,” he tells the camera. And then Tom appears in the role of the Underminer: “I don’t know if anybody picked you getting all the way here,” he tells Mike. “How do you deal with the pressure right now?” he asks Richard. Richard, of course, is already one facial tic away from a full-blown psychotic break. “I’ve been working for this for two and a half years. … I don’t know if I can do it,” he admits, wild-eyed. “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.”

Thankfully, Richard’s matrimonial misery is cut short by the arrival of the judges: Padma parks herself at a table with Alfred Portale, Hubert Keller, Lidia Bastianich, and the Terlato Winery guy. Richard starts them off with an amuse of raw oyster with crème fraîche pearls and salsa verde, and they love it. Ditto his first course of raw hamachi with fried veal sweetbreads, garlic mayonnaise, and pickled celery.

And then it’s over to Restaurant Iz, where Gail and Tom prepare to dine with Art Smith and Curtis Stone. His food, Mike tells the judges, is “re-inspired with an Italian flavor profile.” The judges fortunately don’t have too long to ponder what this means, exactly, because out comes a first course of spiced beets with mozzarella, truffle, and chocolate vinaigrette. They’re appreciative, and even more so when they’re served the second course of halibut with kumquat marmalade with cauliflower purée and pancetta crumbs. Tom pronounces this the best piece of fish he’s ever eaten on Top Chef, and though we feel like he’s said it before, he is clearly impressed.

Back at Tongue & Cheek, Richard serves a second course of pork belly and black cod cutlet with bone marrow, beets, Brussels sprouts, and kumquats. It’s followed by beef short rib with mushrooms, red cabbage, marmalade, and celery root and horseradish purée. Everyone eats a lot and seems happy.

Mike’s third course of braised pork shoulder with pepperoni sauce, roasted cabbage, and turnips also goes down well, but his fourth course of rosemary caramel custard and pine nuts with citrus, celery, and apple gets a mixed reception. As any dessert with celery in it should.

Richard’s fourth course of cornbread with whipped mango and the problematic foie gras ice cream is also a mixed bag. Alfred Portale is especially perplexed. “I wasn’t expecting this freeze-dried … whatever this is,” he says, more or less summing up the darker side of Richard’s dependence on the liquid-nitrogen canister.

Then all of the judges swap restaurants, and for a brief, horrible second it looks like we’ll be treated to all of this interminable sweating and analysis all over again, but fortunately we get an extended montage instead, with Richard rushing to fix his lumpy foie ice cream.

Finally, it’s back to the stew lounge, where Mike says he feels “awesome” and Richard looks like he’s about to perform hara-kiri. When they’re called before the judges, he tells them, somewhat redundantly, “I’m a sentence or two away from absolute emotional breakdown.” The judges’ praise seems to help a little: “I would venture to say it was the best food we had in any finale,” Tom says, and again, we feel like we’ve heard this before.

But no matter! The chefs are sent to the stew lounge, where they continue to fret. “There was some heavy petting going on for Mike Isabella,” Richard says. “If you win I’m going to feel like shit,” Mike offers. “If I win, I’m going to give you money,” Richard counters. Aww. And then their speculation is cut short by the surprise arrival of various family members: We get to see that Mike’s wife isn’t imaginary, and that Richard has an uncle. It’s kind of sweet.

Meanwhile, at the judges’ table, Gail observes that “they have given us two meals unlike we have ever had before.” Again, don’t they say that every season? After some extreme nitpicking, Tom says he’d give Richard the first course. Hubert gives Richard the second course. So does Tom, who loved Richard’s pork belly even more than he loved Mike’s steamed halibut. Gail praises Mike’s pork shoulder, and says she’d want to eat “at Mike’s during the week, and at Richard’s during the weekend.” And then they make their decision.

The chefs are called back before an audience of their family members and the season’s contestants. Both look like they’re throwing up in their mouths. So do Antonia and Spike:

And then, after treating us to this Mount Rushmore shot one … last … time …

This guy wins:

Yet somehow manages to make it look like he lost:

He’s crying more than Mike, who is now, by his own earlier admission, first loser. But Mike’s still cocky: “I feel like I beat him. I just didn’t get the prize.” And thus another season ends, and that makes us feel like we’ve won the biggest prize of all.