Photo: Bravo

Aloha, New Orleans

The whole gang reunites to say farewell to the season, but is it worth the trip?

Previously and Intro

It's finale time! Has it really been seventeen weeks? How to compress that into a little tiny recap montage? Well, best to start with Nina Compton, strong from the start with her world cuisine, while Nicholas Elmi crawls his way back into the hearts and minds of the judges until he is her remaining competition to be Top Chef, New Orleans (or Maui? BECAUSE IT ISN'T CLEAR). We start wtih the judges talking about how Nicholas and Nina both had amazing dishes, although Nick made duck that was so undercooked for Emeril that he could barely eat it. But apparently it's really close! So while the two contestants await final judgement, let's cut back to forty-eight hours earlier and see what happened! HOW SUSPENSEFUL!

The Tom explains to Nina and Nicholas that they will each be taking over a restaurant for a night, creating a four-course menu. The judges will be splitting into two groups and eating at the restaurants at different times, so consistency is key. No tailoring dishes for the judges this time! It's all got to be good.

The crew enjoys their last night in Maui, and then cut to what was surely an inevitable shot of Padma in a bikini ["Thank you, God." — Mike] and then across to the two chefs eating and pretending to be friends over breakfast. But hark! The chefs are joined by a selection of their previous competitors, and they're given the chance to pick three sous chefs for the big final cook-off.

Nicholas has the advantage, as the winner of the previous challenge, and so he gets to hand-pick all three of his chefs first. He goes for the testosterone-centric choices of his buddy Jason (the male model, oh how we didn't miss him), followed by Louis (SWOON), and Brian. Nina picks next, and shows a bit of love for the ladies by picking Shirley, followed by Stephanie/Hawkman, and the truest Gossip Girl of all, Honorary Asian Travis.

Planning

Nicholas and his boys focus on classic French technique, with full flavors that will resonate with the judges. He bases some of the dishes on what he knows are classics that his sous are known for, like a shrimp noodle (but made with scallops) that is totally in Jason's wheelhouse.

Meanwhile, Nina opts for local flavours with the French and Italian techniques that she is known for, in honour of the show and in appreciation of her father. She will be making a crudo, something "unctuous" (NOTE: there is no more misused word in all of cooking and we would love if it were never used again) and WHOA, an extra two (2!) surprise courses, which she thinks will be what push her to the top. It's a risky strategy if there ever was one, and we'll see what the judges think of her working outside of the challenge.

Nicholas makes a joke to his team: "Let's see if we can steal this away from Nina!" We couldn't agree more with the sentiment, and genuinely hope he can't.

Brian and Nicholas go to WhoFo along with Nina and Shirley. Nina has an awesome ice cream recipe in her pocket, while Nicholas has plans to redeem the terrible panna cotta disaster that should have sent him home, at least according to the always-correct Jacques Pepin.

Just in time for the chefs to leave WhoFo, Travis calls Nina to inform her that there is no ice cream machine at their restaurant. Uh oh! So much for ice cream! But she's locked in now, so the most important thing she may cook up today is a Plan B.

Prep and Forced Fun

Back in the kitchen, Nick's team starts work on a crudo, scallop noodle, and duck. Jason jokes that whatever he makes, The Tom won't like it. But really, there are plenty of people anticipating Jason's failure, so he shoudln't feel singled out.

On Nina's side, we see that Hawkman will make zeppoli "for the first time." Aww, we miss our nauseated, anxious Hawkman!. While she's making an orechiette appetizer, Shirley gets all girl-power, and in the background Travis is doing something with swordfish.

Over in the Boys' Kitchen, The Tom enters to express his evident, completely cringeworthy surprise and disdain that Nicholas chose Jason first. HA HA! The Tom also tries to rattle Nicholas by recalling how utterly awful Nick's first panna cotta was, and making him question whether Nina's food will have bolder flavours.

The Tom then appears in Nina's kitchen, to try pulling the same mind games with her — but she calls him out on it with a laugh instead of a shudder, and as The Tom leaves, it's Hawkman, the quintessential wingman (of course, she loves to flock!), who comes to Nina's aid in support of a beautiful menu.

As the prep winds down, Nina is most worried about the pasta dish with braised goat that Hawkman is making, because there really wasn't a lot of time to get the dish tender.

But you know what relieves tension? Having to spend the ensuing evening with your competitor, during a meal served by your judges! It is exactly like a hot stone massage, if those stones were descending on your back from orbit.

How surprising, then, that as Nina and Nicholas travel by car to have dinner with Emeril and The Tom, the tension between them is like a sheet of Saran Wrap, dangling awkardly down the middle of the car, forbidding even the most insincere of eye contact. Nick jokes that Nina is going to win, and Nina tries to feign a bit of false modesty before grandiosly proclaiming to the camera that the entire island of Saint Lucia is behind her. They might even name a national holiday in her honour! Oh, Nina...just because you're better than Nicholas, honey, that's not enough to make you good.

Finally at dinner, when the judges poke and tease the two contestants, asking Nina how her dessert is going, all of a sudden we see the other dinner guests arrive: Nina's husband and brother, and Nicholas's wife and mother. Awww! It is incredibly heartwarming, and enough to make up for The Tom making ridiculous comments like, "Nina is from a small island, but [Nick] has created a small island from his family!"

Final(e) Prep

On Team Bro, Brian feels confident in Nick's leadership and exciting menu. Nick names the restaurant "Kris," after his wife, and informs the staff, who are sitting classroom-style in front of him, that he will be intense, and will micro-manage to get things done.

On Team Gossip Girls, Nina is sampling the food and worries about the goat, which is chewy as fuck. She coaches her sous chefs, and then the camera cuts to Nina's collaborative staff meeting, where her service staff are tasting dishes and learning about how they should be served.

Meanwhile, Nick's staff meeting is tense, as he stresses about how some of his staff aren't there and the meeting must start immediately. He removes those two late servers from their headship and informs two others that they are now the heads, much to their alarm, before storming off after the meeting, yelling behind him to the remaining chefs that they're responsible for filling in the tardies on what they missed. And then swearing a bit about his staff.

We know which restaurant we would rather work in.

Service, Pt. 1

While Nick's outfit is named for his wife, Nina's restaurant is called Canouan, after the island her father hails from. Gail and the Tom are joined at Canouan by David Kinch, Chef/owner of Manresa, and Takashi Yagihashi (ZOMG WE LOVE HIM!), chef/owner of Takashi.

Elsewhere, Padma and Emeril are joined at Kris by Paul Bartolotta, Chef/owner of Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, as well as Hugh Acheson and Masaharu Morimoto (SQUEE!!).

Nina starts with an amuse bouche of crispy breadfruit with foie gras butter, and a bit of curried salt on top. It's a fun play on a bread course, and the judges love it. She moves on to her first course: a tuna and escolar tartare with tomato water, jalapeno, and lemon. It's refereshing, it looks divine, and the judges feel like they can "taste the island."

Meanwhile, Nicholas is counting the guests and panicking that his expediter either can't count as well as he can, or is messing up by not getting tickets. He appears flustered and frustrated, and the night has not yet begun. It's terrible and painful to watch him cluck over the poorly trained servers — "Fish goes on the left, FISH GOES ON THE LEFT!" — even as they are putting it down (note: the fish is not going on the left and Padma gets in on the "fish goes on the left!" chastisement). With a clipped "Pour please" to the waiters, Nick introduces his restaurant to the judges by saying that, despite his classical French training, this restaurant is more about having fun...not that there's evidence of that so far, as we're sure the staff would agree. The first course is a crudo of hamachi and tuna with green apple in three preparations, flavored with wasabi, celery, and Maui-Meyer lemon. The dish is underseasoned, as always. Carlos and Australia de Matteo are dinner guests, and comment on the underwhelming flavours.

Nick's second dish is his collaboration with Jason: a sweet shrimp bisque with scallop and daikon "noodles," shaved abalone, and Thai basil. Morimoto is confused about why Nick used scallops, but the other judges and diners seem to think it is acceptable.

Back at Nina's restaurant, the goat is finally cooked to perfection, and she serves the braised baby goat sugo with orecchiette, cherry tomato confit, and a whipped goat cheese. It's awesome, and the judges love it without reservation. Nina's third course is a spice-rubbed seared swordfish with squash puree, braised kale, and a smoked onion jus. The chefs and guests think it doesn't have enough brightness or texture, and that the swordfish is competing with the kale. Nina coaches Travis that maybe it has a bit too much spice.

In Nick's kitchen, the duck is a bit tough, so they make the decision to push the cook up to medium. That done, Nicholas serves his third course, a seared kombu-cured duck breast with compressed kabocha squash, hijiki, and ginger. It's packed with flavour, well-balanced, and delicious, but we see that Emeril is chewing and chewing and chewing. And chewing, always chewing, all the way through the criticism from the other judges.

At the judge's table (yes, AT the table), Nicholas chides his staff for not putting out the dessert spoons that he had asked for. Acheson smirkily asks how Nick's servers are, and Nicholas flatly intones that they're LOVELY, before introducing his dessert, which is a playful riff on his terrible panna cotta, the one that almost sent him home: a caramelized white chocolate panna cotta with almond cocoa crumble and tropical fruit including a papaya puree. It's not jiggling enough, but it's delicious, and the guests seem to like it, as do some of the judges.

Back to Nina, as she serves an intermezzo of compressed dragon fruit in a ginger simple syrup, with frozen papaya on a skewer. The judges like her little something extra, so good for her!

Rather than blustering at the servers as they're heading out the door (cough cough NICK), or, worse yet, humiliating them at the table (COUGH NICK COUGH SORRY JUST CHOKING LIKE SOMEONE WE KNOW), Nina coaches her servers in the kitchen about exactly how the plate should go down before she serves her final dish: a chocolate zeppole with macadamia nuts, toasted coconut, and a passion fruit angalise for dipping. The judges feel that the dish is tasty, but there's a cautionary comment that it is ending the meal with a whisper, and not a bang.

Service, Pt. 2

The judges swap restaurants, and we start at Nick's place, where he's still worried about the servers screwing up his night. The second set of judges agree that Nick's crudo has a lack of seasoning, but the Tom thinks that the bisque/scallop noodles are the best dish he has had all year. Man, we'd love to see his face when he finds out it was Jason's dish. Bwah ha ha, burrrrn!

Back at Nina's, her crudo is found to have punch and power as a nice crisp start to the meal. The orecchiette is mature, the goat is sublime, and the judges once again want another bowl.

Then we're at Nick's restaurant again, where the duck is cooked nicely and the Tom thinks it's a great dish. But back in the kitchen, there is some confusion about whether all the tables have had their first course, and then Nick Loses. His. Shit. His angry cursing is audible in the dining room. Awkward! Jason tries to talk him down, and Nick exclaims that he feels like he just lost the competition. Look, the thing is, it's not service that will lose Top Chef: it is cooking and behaviour. You can't lose your composure like that, to the point where it affects customer experience, and not expect repercussions.

On the other hand, the judges like Nick's panna cotta, so what the hell. It's a strong menu overall, and the Tom feels like Nick "peaked at the right time." But then we see Nicholas complaining to his MOM, that awkward moment when he goes in for a kiss and she backs away, and then her dismissive head shaking as he trudges back to the kitchen.

In Nina's kitchen, the swordfish dish ends up being "too much of everything" and overwhelms the palate; plus the judges are, once again, disappointed in her dessert. Nina worries to her brother that she did too much, but we fear that she may have done too little.

Judging

So here we are, at last arriving at the final verdict. Both chefs are congratulated on an excellent night, but Nick is first to go under the glaring light, and questioned about the loud crash followed by yelling. The judges criticize the lack of seasoning in his first dish. Padma gets no scallop flavour in the second course, but the Tom says it's his favourite overall (much to Padma's visible disgust). The Tom likes the duck too, though, even when Emeril's is undercooked. And it seems everyone feels that the panna cotta is missing a bit of wiggle in its walk.

Then Nina is questioned on why she opted for six courses when the challenge was four, and her response of "Why not?" — considering that she felt it improved the meal — is underwhelming to Acheson. The crudo is judged as pleasantly fresh, and the goat pasta is declared an awesome plate of food. Nina cops to the fact that the swordfish doesn't work, and says that her dessert is "a nice little bite." Gail agrees, but not in a good way; it doesn't feel like a full dessert.

(IMPORTANT FASHION NOTE: has anybody else noticed that The Tom and Hugh Acheson are wearing the same outfit? Because they are. And as soon as you see it, that will be ALL that you see)

Finally, the chefs leave and the judges begin to confer. The time gets flashed on the screen, as an omen of the lengthy deliberations to come. As the judges run through the options, it's Nina who wins the first course because it was well-seasoned. Despite The Tom's affection for Nick's bisque, everyone else prefers Nina's goat, and so second course goes to her. Nick's duck is cooked inconsistently, but nobody likes Nina's swordfish. As for the dessert, Nick definitely has the stronger dish.

Hugh asks what to do, because it's clear the judges are at a tie, but Tom disagrees. There is no tie to The Tom, and we know whom he is rooting for. Padma suggests that they need to take service into consideration, and Nick's disorganized service and subsequent lashing-out at waitstaff plays into the decision. The Tom feels that Nick's meal is better, and it's obvious that he's really advocating on Nick's behalf. Tom challenges the judge each to state their worst dish of the night, and when Acheson responds with a shrug and a question — "The zeppole?" — Tom looks vindicated. No, you sad fools! It is the swordfish! But then Emeril counters that no, actually, it is the inedible duck that Nicholas made. Oh dear. Chef against chef, and judge against judge! North vs. South! Cats vs. dogs! We thought we left all this ugliness behind in New Orleans!

Finally, the nervous chefs return, flanked by their cohorts from the season standing by, as we anticipate the final verdict. And the winner is...oh, God damn it, it's Nicholas.

Nick kisses his wife and his mother. The Tom looks delighted, and we get a shot of Hawkman, the true moral compass of the show, looking absolutely disgusted. So are we.

Nicholas gets draped in his traditional New Orleans lei (the costume department, along with EVERYONE ELSE APPARENTLY, having given up on the theme of this season) and everyone raises a glass to Nick. Hooray for Season 11! It started so well, and now it ends...like...this.

The Verdict

Man, what a load of horseshit. We were riveted to the end, we found our heroes and our villians, but we so hoped that all the signs and portents of Nick's victory could not come true. If emotional reaction is an indication of quality, then Top Chef 11 was certainly great, because we have LOTS OF FEELINGS right now.

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