Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sweet Victory for a Summer Night: Dispatches from The Top Chef Chicago Finale

It was a big night for Chicago... and a big night for women chefs everywhere as Stephanie Izard won the Top Chef Season Four crown in a fierce battle against runners-up Blais and Lisa, and thereby made history as the first woman to win the title of Top Chef in the television series' four season run.
As an invitee to the "exclusive" Top Chef Chicago Finale viewing party last evening at Room 21 in Chicago, I got a coveted front row seat to all the drama and excitement -- not even Steph's parents knew the outcome of the show! I also got to catch up with Chicago's other season four cheftestant, Valerie, as well as Season Three's Dale Levitski and Sara Nguyen who were also in attendance.

First off, let me say that Room 21 is an impressive restaurant space... I imagine the only reason I haven't been down there is that it is SO far down south... 2110 Wabash, which is practically ON Cermak. It starts getting sketchy this far south. But nevertheless, it was a beautiful place to have the party and the perfect evening weather only added to the vibrant atmosphere. Smartly dressed guests sipped on champagne and Grey Goose cocktails, and were treated to hors devours including crispy duck rolls, wasabi crusted lamb chops, seared scallops, rice-filled crostinis, savory fried chicken drumsticks, and melt-in-your-mouth himachi. Later on, the passed desserts included assorted candied popcorns, chocolate dipped strawberries, nut-rolled fruit-filled chocolate truffles, and mini red velvet cupcakes. I CLEARLY had to sample one of everything. Mmmm!

I ran into Steph shortly after I arrived. She looked great, and had a fantastic poker face on - her cheery, but impressively calm demeanor gave nothing away. "I'm just ready for it to be over" she said with a breathy laugh. Steph was joined by her parents and sister, as well as a few friends, who all seemed more nervous than her! I wished her luck and headed to the bar to pick up an orange martini - I decided that a classy night deserved a classy drink. And I do love the taste of good vodka. Yum.

After hobnobbing with a few people from Bravo and their contributing media partners, I caught up with Valarie a little later on. Pint-sized and packed with energy, Val shared that she's been keeping busy since the show going the Art Smith route as a private chef in Chicago. She has one main client who she spends most of her time with, and isn't planning on getting back into the restaurant world anytime soon - even as her pal Steph is planning to open a new place of her own. Like the other cheftestants in attendance, she had just returned from the filming of Bravo's A-List Awards (hosted by Kathy Griffin and airing tonight). She said it was a pretty crazy show but that it was fun to catch up with her fellow TC castmates.

With the time of the show drawing close, I found a few minutes to catch up with Season 3 cheftestant and Chicago resident Dale Levitski on his new restaurant and his take on the current season. (Here's me and Dale!)Preparations for Dale's new Chicago restaurant, Town and Country, are well underway, and he's got fellow season three cheftestants Sara Nguyen and CJ on board as sous chefs. Sara's also Dale's new roommate - they recently moved into a new place in the Lakeview / Lincoln Park area. When I later asked if they were settled and decorated, Sara laughed and remarked that no, the place still looks like a college dorm room. Oh well, I guess chefs are not necessarily designers! Dale shared that CJ wasn't out in Chicago yet, but was planning to move out in August. He giddily explained that the concept and design for Town and Country are complete, the space is purchased (in the west loop on Monroe & Canal), and he's already working out the details of the "contemporary diner" menu, which will include variations on his favorite dishes from his time on the show (which are also included in the new Top Chef cookbook) - rack of lamb, seared scallops, seared elk loin, turkey & pork meatballs, and more. "I want to have a fun, relaxed, professional kitchen" he explained, and having Sara and CJ there will help keep this philosophy alive. He said that being on the show and finishing in the final two gave him new confidence and direction in his career as a chef. "As a chef, this is the happiest I've ever been. I know this is what I was meant to do."

When he got to meet the season four cast earlier this week at the Bravo A-List Awards in NYC, he said he really didn't want to like them, but ended up being won over. "I think we were the season that all loved each other and got along" he noted, commenting that the editing of this season definitely exposed more conflicts between cast members. While he was happy with the way he was portrayed, he did add that "some people walk away from the show with regrets. You just have to be yourself" and hope the editors are kind. "One thing Bravo did do a good job of this season", Dale added, "was showing how beautiful Chicago is". We agreed that we did have an exceptionally beautiful fall, but nonetheless - they did get some great shots of the bean, the skyline, and all those other little parts that makes Chicago the gem it is. So cheers to Bravo on that.

But lest we forget, Stephanie was the star of tonight's party. "I'm nervous for her. I'm sweating!" Dale exclaimed as we discussed Chicago's chef-darling of the evening. Dale also revealed a startling connection that I hadn't heard of before tonight: Stephanie used to be Dale's sous chef at Andersonville eatery La Tache. Dale says he encouraged Stephanie to try out when auditions came back around, and as luck would have it - she made it! Dale was out of a sous chef, but as we know, he soon moved on to bigger and better things. I can't wait until his restaurant opens in September!

But back to the main event of the evening: the Finale! As nine o'clock rolls around, the guests of the party gather on the outdoor patio, where the show is being projected on a large screen. Stephanie and Valarie sit flanked by their families and friends in front row seats to the show. It's a perfectly warm summer night - the kind that feels like there's a little magic in the soft breeze - like something extraordinary might happen. The anticipation in the air is palpable.

The show opens and immediately we go into the final challenge which is, predictably, "cook us the meal of your life". It must be a four course meal with seafood, poultry, meat, and dessert (yes, dessert!) courses. In a recycled move from last season, the cheftestants are also met with three prestigeous "sous" chefs for the challenge: Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin, April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig, and Dan Barber of Blue Hill (a 2008 James Beard Outstanding Chef nominee!). Stephanie gets to choose first and goes for Ripert. Blais goes for Barber, which leaves Lisa with Bloomfield.

Each cheftestant gets to choose from a long list of fine proteins from each of their chefs. They'll have a few hours to prep, and then five or so hours to cook the next day.

They get to work prepping and Eric Ripert is a bit miffed that Stephanie's giving him direction on how to filet a fish. The "studio" audience at Room 21 lets out a presumptive giggle and Steph cracks up at herself.

All too soon, prep time is over, and the chefs must retire for the evening. When they return the next day, it's only half surprising that POOF! they'll have no sous chefs for the remainder of the challenge. "We need to know that you lived and died by your own hands" comments Tom, after he's shared the twist in the rules.

"It's like your sous chef called in sick" Blais remarked. You just have to keep going and pick up the slack. Heads down, they get back into it. Blais is visibly frazzled and scrambling to pull his menu together. When Tom stops by, he remarks "I'm really in the shit right now". Yikes.

Stephanie's feeling the pressure too when Tom stops by. She sounds like she has a solid menu, but she's really worried about her dessert, a ricotta pound cake with salted banana cream. She's delivered (and indeed won) on other desserts, but she's starting to doubt herself. Bad news!

At this point I stole a glance over to Steph and her family, and her poker face was still on. Her family, however, was really sweating it out. But her quiet stoicism gave away nothing!

Lisa's surprisingly the only one in the kitchen who's calm, collected, and focused when Tom stops by. She's laid out a thoughtful menu of her favorite asian flavors, and she's feeling good about her timing and her ability to deliver. Well Lisa, you got this far. Let's see what you can show us tonight.

It's finally time for service - a black tie affair for nine, including Padma, Gail and Tom, Ted Allen, the three former sous chefs, Tom Zagat (yes, of THAT Zagat), and noted Puerto Rican chef (that we've never heard of) Alfredo Ayala.

First Courses (seafood):
Lisa: Grilled prawns with crab, chili-basil sauce, and homemade potato chips
Blais: Barely seared scallops with mango and pineapple vinegar
Steph: Seared Red Snapper with truffled clam and asparagus sauce elegantly served in a teacup.
*Lisa's prawns are excellently prepared, but some of the diners wonder if the chili kick is too intense for a first course. Blais's dish, on the contrary, apparently has no flavor at all. Steph's red snapper is a hit for flavor and elegant presentation.

Second Courses (poultry):
L: Tom Kha Gai (coconut chicken) soup and a dumpling
B: "Which Came First?" Guinea hen with an egg and foie gras
S: Quail breast over lobster ravioli with mango-lobster sauce and a quail egg
*The judges are marveled by the concept of Blais's dish, but feel like each individual component gets lost in the execution. They love everything about Steph's dish except the leeks - they're undercooked (crunchy!) and have no purpose on the plate. Lisa's soup however, is a home run. The judges are practically licking their bowls.

Third Courses (red meat):
L: Wagyu beef with chayote and cucumber salad
B: Pork belly with pickled rasdishes and mirin broth
S: Lamb Medallions with maitake mushrooms, braised pistachios, blackberry and olive tapenade
*The judges LOOOVE the lamb and are pleasantly surprised to see that the seemingly random assortment of ingredients work brilliantly together. Score one for Steph! Blais's pork belly is a flop for being underseasoned. Lisa's beef is cooked well, but the sauce is a little too sweet and the garlic doesn't come through enough.

Fourth Courses (dessert):
L: Thai Black Rice Pudding with coconut and lime and mango cream
B: Banana Scallops with Bacon Ice Cream (really Blais? AGAIN?)
S: Ricotta Poundcake with Salted Banana Cream
*The judges like the texture and flavor of Lisa's pudding, and find Steph's poundcake "average" - the like the cake but feel she came up short on the cream. Somehow they are wowed by Blais's banana-scallop-threepeat. They're acting like Blais invented bacon ice cream. Really guys? You've never heard of this concept before? BEEN done!

All in all, it was a pretty strong performance by Lisa and Steph, and not so much for Blais. For being the "risk taker" of this season, I've got to say that he's played it really safe, especially compared to some of the stuff Marcel was pumping out two seasons ago. Some foam there, some smoke here, a little bit of liquid nitrogen... it didn't really add up to anything ground breaking in the end.

We go next into the judges table, and now people are physically gathering around Steph on the patio - holding her hands in rapt anticipation. She's still got that poker face on. The judges go course for course and point out the ups and downs as noted above. When they ask if there's anything else the chefs want to add, Blais blurts out "I think I choked tonight". The judges are initially shocked at this admission, but later agree with him - he didn't perform up to his potential. OH SHIT! With Steph's lackluster dessert and Lisa's stellar soup, it looks like Lisa might have the edge here. The judges send the contestants away to deliberate to the songs of morning birds chirping. I ask Dale if he thinks the judges are drunk right now. "No. Not this time" he tells me. "But probably most of the other ones!" It still sounds to me like Padma is slurring her words a little bit. Maybe she's just tired.

They finally call the contestants back and the silent hysteria on the patio of Room 21 is at fever pitch. Padma finally, slowly, dramatically utters the words "Stephanie.......... YOU ARE TOP CHEF!" AND the whole place goes nuts! Everyone's crowding around Stephanie. After hugging her parents she leans over a row of chairs to give Val a big hug. And she finally gets to break the poker face and bust out that big toothy grin. It's plastered on her face for the rest of the night.

After I gave Steph my congratulations and the crowd arond Steph began to wane, I caught up with Dale on my way out the door. "I'm so happy for her" he glowingly remarked. "It's so great to be there to watch someone's life change in a minute". And it was.

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