Last week on “Top Chef,” the four remaining All-Stars – Stephanie Cmar, Kevin Gillespie, Melissa King and Bryan Voltaggio – had to prepare two courses that showcased the city of Parma’s edible specialties, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma ham. Bryan got a harsh critique from one chef, who groused that his dishes lacked soul, but in the end Kevin was eliminated for his poorly cooked pork and overly salty brodo. That left three chefs going into the show’s supersized finale, so who took the $250,000 prize and the title of Top Chef? Read on for our minute-by-minute takes on the 14th and last episode of Season 17, “Finito!”
10:02 p.m. Bryan says, “I have unfinished business. I’ve been so close to this title twice now. I want to win this time.” But “this has been a lot harder than I expected to be. I’ve cooked in both finales, so do I know how to do this? Absolutely!”
10:04 p.m. Padma Lakshmi points out that Melissa “now has more wins than any other competitor in the history of ‘Top Chef.'” Melissa says, “The first part of this competition, I certainly started off strong.” But right after “Restaurant Wars,” when her team led by Kevin lost, “I just sort of lost focus.” After getting three low scores in a row, though, “I reset my focus to not second-guess myself. I want people to see all of me.”
10:06 p.m. Stephanie remembers, “When we first got to L.A., I was in the bottom for everything.” Cut to one of her low points when she served Padma, who is of Indian descent, something she dubbed an “Indian taco.” But once her Restaurant Wars team led by Gregory Gourdet won that challenge, she gained confidence and cooked better food.
10:08 p.m. The three finalists get back to their Italian hotel and find a note from Padma: “Congratulations on making it to the finale! Enjoy your breakfast and let that sink in – you’ve earned it!” Before they meet Padma on the terrace, Bryan ruminates about his last critique when Padma told him the Italian chefs who were guest judges thought his dishes didn’t have “heart or soul.” He acknowledges his food is more progressive and modern, but he stands up for himself, adding that his “innovation does come from a place like that. She will see it in the next cook. I will slap them in the face full of heart and soul.”
10:11 p.m. It’s a foggy and damp day as Padma and head judge Tom Colicchio greet the chefs. Tom asks if they have learned anything about themselves. For Stephanie, her lesson comes down to not giving up. For Bryan, this time he tried to have more fun after being the runner-up to his brother Michael on Season 6 and also being the runner-up on Season 5 of “Top Chef Masters.” Melissa says the season has been about finding her inner strength: “Once I found that, I could be really unstoppable.”
THE ELIMINATION CHALLENGE
10:13 p.m. Each chef will make the best progressive four-course meal of their lives, so declares Padma: “That’s it, no twists.” Among the guest judges will be acclaimed chefs from all over the world including Marcus Samuelsson, eighth-generation Italian butcher Dario Cecchini, Clare Smyth – who has been named the best female chef in the world — and French restaurateur Mauro Colagreco. Tom tells the trio that they will be getting reinforcements: fellow All-Stars Kevin, Lee Anne Wong and Brian Malarkey will be their sous chefs. Gregory would have been there, but he had some issues with his back, so Lee Anne agreed to step in for him.
10:14 p.m. The chefs draw knives to determine the pick order. Stephanie gets first choice and she picks Malarkey after falling in love with him during Restaurant Wars. Kevin basically walks towards his Season 6 buddy Bryan before he even speaks. That means Melissa will have Lee Anne backing her up. Wait a minute! Lee Anne is wearing a knitted scarf that features fried eggs and bacon. I want one!
10:16 p.m. The chefs will shop for their ingredients at a special market that Padma says “is the food hub of Florence with everything from meat, seafood and produce. Tomorrow, you and your sous chefs will have five hours to prep and cook at the Renaissance Tuscany. Then you will have an additional three hours the next day before service begins.”
10:18 p.m. Melissa informs Lee Anne that she won the last two challenges and will continue to fuse her Chinese heritage with Italian cuisine. For her first course, she wants to do an octopus. Lee Anne says she is all in with Melissa because she has such focus. But Melissa is also an admitted “control freak.” Let’s see if the ladies butt heads during this process.
10:20 p.m. Brian tells Stephanie, “I’m not going to lie. I am so proud and excited and I didn’t know you would make it this far.” She laughs and says, “I didn’t either.” Her first course: Prawns and katafi. Next: a Tallagio agnolotti. For her main course: milk-braised veal breast. Dessert: a sticky toffee pudding with a praline and creme fraiche ice cream. Brian is positively giddy, saying, “This is going to be the best f*cking upset ever!” He may be right for once.
10:22 p.m. Bryan and Kevin are bro-ing out. Kevin confesses it has been a long time since he has been a sous chef. But he vows, “I’ll do whatever you want.” The menu will include lasagna, which Bryan admits might be a little clichéd in Italy. But he explains, “Something that goes back to my childhood table would be appropriate for here.” He remembers how his mother put food on the table every night and always from scratch. Sounds as if that might be food from the heart. Kevin then offers, “If you need to break someone’s knees, let me know.”
TO MARKET, TO MARKET
10:25 p.m. The chefs get one hour to shop at the Florence market and 1,000 euros to spend. Melissa is looking for duck. “Growing up, I ate so much duck,” she says. Her family even ate it Thanksgiving. “But then I learned how to make turkey and ruined Thanksgiving for my entire family.” She changes her mind, though, when she spies some cute little squabs. She also scoops up some persimmons, which are native to Italy. Her menu is coming to life. And she then finds her octopus.
10:27 p.m. Bryan picks up octopus as well while Malarkey lets out a squawk while gazing upon chunky porcini mushrooms. Steph is determined to find the veal of her dreams and — there it is! Bryan’s first dish is going to be vittello tonnato, a veal dish that has a mayonnaise-based sauce flavored with tuna, lemon and capers. Lee Anne asks Melissa if she wants any micro chives? Melissa says no. How about cilantro? No again. Melissa notices that Lee Anne has more than a few opinions.
10:30 p.m. They head back to Tuscany and wake up bright and early the next morning. Stephanie is on cappuccino number-three. Melissa is concerned about keeping her octopus tender, and Bryan reveals he’s making octopus too. She’s a little worried because “octopus can be very fussy and Bryan knows techniques I don’t know.” But Bryan doesn’t care what anyone else is doing and wants to stay focused on his own meal. He is counting on sharing the stories behind his dishes, and it is important that the stories come through.
10:32 p.m. They grab their aprons and the race is on. Malarkey, of course, loudly announces his entrance. Steph asks him to set up their pantry. Melissa pours two bottles of red wine into her pots of octopus. She grew up eating a lot of Hong Kong style barbecue, so for an antipasti, she is making octopus with fennel and char sui sauce, which is sweet and salty and usually used with BBQ pork.
10:33 p.m. Stephanie orders Brian to get going on her shrimp and kataifi first dish. She also needs to get her veal braising and do a test case for her sticky toffee pudding. Brian will make the base for the ice cream, which seems to be a theme for him this season. Her menu tells a story and “we’re going to put that story together,” he says. We know Malarkey knows how to tell a story as well, so that bodes well for her.
10:34 p.m. Melissa is cranking out the pasta for her squash agnolotti with Szechuan chili oil. She tells us, “A big bulk of my career was cooking in Michelin-star French kitchens,” and she was a butcher and pasta-maker for a few years. “I want to tie that all back to my heritage.” Despite cooking in a foreign land, all three chefs are bent on making this last challenge a very personal one.
10:35 p.m. Bryan’s second course is his lasagna. He asks Kevin to break down boar and the guinea hen, and Kevin senses his buddy is on “pins and needles”; the lasagna has a lot of components such as the pasta dough, the Bolognese, the béchamel and the porcini duck — a lot of details to get right. Melissa’s squab is so fresh, the feathers are on them. And Stephanie gets to work on the pasta dough for her second course, taleggio-stuffed cappelletti. She tells Brian it was the first pasta dish she made “that wasn’t red sauce. It made me super excited about what pasta could do.”
10:37 p.m. Lee Anne is whisking custard on a stove top for Melissa’s fourth dish: Hong Kong milk tea, which she grew up drinking and is making it into a tiramisu, again bringing a Chinese flavor to a traditional Italian dessert. Stephanie’s third course is milk-braised veal with Parisian gnocchi, but Brian is worried her meat isn’t fatty enough to get a good braise.
10:38 p.m. Tom walks in to find out what’s literally cooking. Bryan tells Tom about his cacciucco, an Italian fish stew native to Tuscany. Steph seems the calmest somehow as Tom peers over her shoulder. However, she gets rattled when the judge says he knows her veal dish very well, but usually makes it with pork. Then he tells Melissa, “I don’t know if anyone is doing Chinese Italian food.” She then admits in a confessional, “Tom, he makes me second guess things. But the word fusion gets a bad rap. I really want to change that.”
10:40 p.m. There are just 40 minutes left. Melissa doesn’t like that the cookie in her tiramisu is too crunchy, which means they might have to start over the next day if it doesn’t set. Tiramisu usually needs four hours to soak, so “if it doesn’t, there is no plan B.”
10:44 p.m. Time for the contestants to have their own dinner, but this time Tom, Gail Simmons and Padma are doing the cooking while Tom sports a cute knit toque. He is rolling out pasta with truffles in it and is tending something outdoors on a grill as well. There are red peppers and bread toasting, or as he calls it, “rustic farmhouse cooking.” The three finalists offer themselves as sous chefs for the judges. Padma has made a fig and ginger chutney with goat cheese ravioli. Gail’s contribution is a chicory salad with lettuce, fennel and orange as well as roasted artichokes. Tom has whipped up squab, fennel and squash as well as white truffle lasagna.
10:46 p.m. Padma asks the chefs how it was competing for the second time – or, for Bryan, the third. He says, “This has been a lot different because I had my third child now. You look at things differently. I wish I won a couple more challenges along the way.” Melissa says, “Compared to Boston, it felt like day one was the finale.” Now Melissa is second-guessing her squabs: getting inspiration from Tom’s cooking, she decides to grill them instead of pan-searing them.
10:48 p.m. Stephanie uses her tablet to talk to her best friend, Kristen Kish, who won Season 10 in Seattle. They met the day after Stephanie graduated culinary school. “She actually got ordained and married David and I. We always kind of considered ourselves the three amigos.” Melissa connects with her mom, Alice, who shouts, “Baby, I am proud of you.” Bryan connects with his brother, Season 6 winner Michael. He asks him for some pointers for the next day, and it means a lot to Bryan how proud of him Michael is.
10:52 p.m. The next morning the chefs just have three more hours in the kitchen until they learn their fates. A bit of bad news — Melissa’s tiramisu is still too dry. Lee Anne will have to remake it. Kevin will take care of all of the seafood that is part of Bryan’s octopus and monkfish third course. Stephanie introduces kataifi to Brian, which she describes as Greek angel hair that she wraps around her shrimp to give it the perfect crunch.
10:54 p.m. The judges gather to sip wine and enjoy a gorgeous rooftop view. Dario the butcher gives a shout out to Padma. Noted: His shirt is decorated with cows. They cheftestants finally arrive at the rather intimidating table. Bryan serves his beet dish, but when Stephanie talks about her shrimp, she starts to cry as it reminds her of her late brother — “I used to fry him coconut shrimp.” Then comes Melissa’s octopus.
10:56 p.m. Chef Clare liked the depth of flavor in the octopus and the caramelization. Tom, however, thought it was a bit too sweet and needed some acid. Food editor Nilou Motamed found it to be a little sticky and thinks she overdid it with the hoisin sauce. Tom declares Stephanie’s prawn to be “perfectly cooked” and Gail loves “that she gave us this single bite of crunch that was clearly very meaningful to her.” Chef Mauro says, “She cooked with her memories. We can feel, we can taste.” As for Bryan’s beets, Food and Wine magazine writer Hunter Lewis thought it was “beguiling.” In fact, the whole table was enamored with it. Off to a great start!
10:59 p.m. The second course pastas are served. James Beard Award winner Tony Mantano observes,”Pasta often is not made correctly, and every single one of these pasta dishes are beautifully made.” Claire describes Bryan’s lasagna as elegant, refined and light. Mauro calls it “the most balanced dish of the three.” Chef Alice Wong says, “This was one of the most elegant ones presented. The pasta was so thin.” Claire says of Melissa’s dish, “It was super complex. She has lots of flavors going on.” Marcus notes, “With Melissa, we are watching completely original food, which is very, very difficult. The agnolotti prepared with Chinese influences were incredible.” The chefs are all still on a roll.
11:03 p.m. Of the third course, Nilou says, “I do not like squab, and I have to say Melissa has made me a convert.” Alice knows persimmons are not easy to work with, “but I have never seen them so tiny and tender.” Tom says, “It’s just enough sweetness. You want richness, you go for the puree. When you want meatiness, you go to the roasted porcini and the black bean sauce brings the Chinese into it.” Marcus adds, “The porcini was almost like a foie gras reference.” Alas, Marcus says Stephanie’s veal is overcooked and her gnocchi isn’t crispy. Gail says, “Bryan’s cacciucco was beautiful and it showed that he was really pushing himself to really give us that all-encompassing experience the way he cooked his squid and his shrimp.” But his squid ink bread did not really work.
11:06 p.m. Will it all come down to the desserts? Bryan’s malted chocolate mousse? Stephanie’s sticky toffee pudding? Or Melissa’s tea-flavored tiramisu? Claire says Bryan’s chocolate shell is a touch too thick, but, overall nice, robust flavors. Nilou praises the sticky toffee pudding as moist and tender. Gail is more than pleased with Melissa’s tiramisu, adding that ‘the tea was a smart, thoughtful way to blend the two cultures.” Hunter thinks one extra layer of bitterness, maybe from a spice, was needed. Dario has the last word: “Melissa made an interpretation of one of our traditions and she made it from the heart. It makes me very emotional. ” After he wipes his eyes with his napkin, he says, “I know, a butcher who cries, how embarrassing.” Sounds like some pretty life-changing tiramisu
11:07 p.m. Tom begins by saying, “It’s almost a cliché now, ‘Cook the best meal of your life.’ But I have to say, I think all three of you did.” Padma adds, “We saw the story of your life on that plate.” As for their first courses, Nilou says Melissa’s octopus “looked beautiful” and “the crispiness of the tentacle was on point.” Tom thought the greens were a nice foil and it had nice texture. Gail starts weeping over Stephanie’s shrimp dish in honor of her brother and says, “The texture was absolutely perfect.” Tom agrees, “That dish is hard to cook” because of the dough, the oil and trying not to overcook everything, but “you nailed it.” Padma tells Bryan she loved his beet dish and that he made that dish better. Gail calls it “the perfect first course.”
11:08 p.m. As for the second course pasta dishes, Nilou tells Stephanie, “Your brodo was so dense and rich and intense, and you could tell those chicken feet had done their work.” Tom tells Bryan about his lasagna, “Sometimes you can’t get a presentation out of a dish. That’s just fine, because it tastes so damn good, it doesn’t matter. I thought it was a really bold statement.” He adds that Bryan proved he could cook with soul and heart. Gail thanks Melissa for showing them again in her second course how naturally two disparate cultures can go hand in hand.
11:10 p.m. Of the third course, Tom says most of Bryan’s dish was cooked perfectly, although the monkfish was a little dry. Nilou adds that his shrimp were perfect. But while his black bread was dramatic, it didn’t taste as good as it looked. Tom takes Stephanie to task, saying her dish wasn’t balanced enough. He thought the gnocchi was too much, although the flavor was great. Padma tells Melissa her squab, porcini mushrooms and chestnuts gave her such a deep feeling of being in Italy; Nilou says that was her favorite dish of the day.
11:12 p.m. Last but not least are the desserts. Nilou tells Stephanie that sticky toffee pudding happens to be her mother-in-law’s favorite dessert. She asks for the recipe so she can make it for her. Gail tells Bryan that dark chocolate is all she cares about and she says he played off that ganache and that richness and earthiness. Nilou declares she loved Melissa’s cloud of milk tea.
11:13 p.m. It is a hard decision as the judges deliberate since all three rose to the occasion and then some. Gail says Bryan’s first course set them up best for what was to come with its acid and earthiness. Nilou loved Stephanie’s cappelletti. Gail praises Bryan’s more traditional lasagna with its soulfulness, while Padma was won over by Melissa, who gave her something new and exciting with the combination of sweet creamy pumpkin with the crackle of chicken skin. As for course number-three, Nilou loved Melissa’s porcini. Gail hails Bryan’s delicate cacciucco. Stephanie’s gnocchi and veal was a flop, they all agree. And the desserts are basically a wash in that all were delicious.
11:15 p.m. The judgment has been made. Awaiting for the final verdict with the chefs are Melissa’s mom Alice, Stephanie’s husband David and Bryan’s wife Jennifer. Finally, Padma has the honor of saying, “Melisssa … you are Top Chef!” Hugs and tears all around!