Paul Cheney / Bravo

Top Chef Chooses Its Champion

On the finale of the show's best season yet, Shirley and Brooke go head-to-head one last time.

Finale Day One

Now that the gimmicks are all behind us, we're left with two great chefs, arguably the best two of the bunch. And all they have to do to win is make one last amazing meal. Simple, right? The finale usually is. Not simple in the sense that it's easy to do or to win, but simple in concept. After an either mock-tense or actual-tense breakfast in the house together, Shirley and Brooke meet Padma and Tom in some random outdoor location to find out what their final challenge is. I could tell you where the location was, were it not located in Secrets. As we all know, that place is full of, you guessed it, secrets. So many secrets. One of them: Half of the staff at Secrets has chlamydia, but which half? We won't tell! Ssssssseeeeeecretsssss!

Padma tells Brooke and Shirley, "You'll each serve a progressive four-course meal to a full dining room. It's as simple as that." Tom adds that they'll need some help, so he welcomes all the ousted chefs from the season back. "Not surprised," Shirley says. And no one who watches the show would be either. This is the normal way of things for the finale. Earlier in the run of the show, I think the producers liked creating drama with these sous chef choices, like having people who hated each other have to work together. But of late that hasn't really been the case. Each chef will get three sous chefs to help them out. They draw knives and Shirley gets to pick first. She uses that pick on Casey, strategically she claims, so that Brooke doesn't get her. But it's not much of a strategy, because it leaves Sheldon for Brooke to pick. And even though Casey was Brooke's drinking buddy, Sheldon is a better chef and a better friend. Shirley picks Katsuji, and Brooke gets Handsome Sam, the tallest Top Chef contestant ever.

Tom and Padma then pick the last two sous chefs…but not from the pool of ex-contestants. So sorry, Terrible Emily! Even though we saw your face briefly, you will not haunt this episode any longer. The final two sous chefs are chefs de cuisine from Brooke and Shirley's restaurants: a guy named Jay from Shirley's restaurant, and a guy named Chris from Brooke's restaurants. Don't even worry about committing their names to memory. They will not speak and will hardly be seen from this point forward. Despite adding almost nothing to the episode, I do like this twist, because it's something that shows the producers honestly want the two final chefs to make the best food possible. No better way to aid that than to give each chef a friendly face in the kitchen.

Shirley gathers her team and lays out her plan for her menu. She wants to start with a crudo. "I saw some beautiful snappers the past few days," Shirley says. Shirley! God! That was supposed to be a secret here at Secrets! Seriously, though, in the offseason, the thing I miss most about writing about this show is making all the dumb snapper and clam jokes. I am a simple man with simple needs. For her second course, Shirley wants to make the first thing she ever made when she was eight, her version of Top Ramen. The third course is for her father, a suckling pig. And her fourth course will be a sticky rice pudding with no rice. Every one of Shirley's courses tells a story, and the whole meal tells the bigger story, of who she is as a chef. This has been her secret weapon all season, and could very well be the difference that elevates her to Top Chef.

Brooke's plan is much simpler. She has a couple ideas, she says to her staff. She wants to start off with an oyster, then do charred octopus with braised radishes, then braised pork belly, and chamomile flan for dessert. "There's not a whole lot of rules here, in terms of instruction," Brooke says. "Normally that would freak me out a little bit. I tend to do better with direction. But since being in Mexico, I've become really inspired by what's around me." So Brooke employs local ingredients as her theme. And that's the extent of the story behind the food with Brooke, which is what was expected, I think.

While they shop, Shirley says, "Cooking is about expressing emotion. I want to trigger memories." And Brooke says, "There's a lot of Shirley yelling, and there has been for months now." These two statements juxtaposed against one another really illustrate the difference between the two finalists.

After Brooke and Shirley figured out their menus, they were allowed to order part of their food from the Secrets restaurant, mostly the big proteins and probably staples. The rest they purchased from a local market. Somehow, when placing the order with the restaurant, Brooke forgot to order pork belly for her third course. Seems like a strange mistake to make, especially with the title on the line. But Shirley, who ordered pork belly as a backup to her piglets, agrees to let Brooke have some pork belly if she has extra. Later, Brooke reveals that should she need to, she could make short ribs instead. Wait, Brooke has short ribs as a backup? How did she remember the backup but not the main dish? So bizarre. Something like this feels like it could imperil Brooke's chance at the title.

As Day One winds down, Brooke and Shirley chill out in their hotel. "Let's enjoy our last day, because tomorrow it's over," Brooke says. They head down to the neighboring resort, Dreams Tulum, to have dinner and relax as much as they can, though Brooke doubts that will be very much. And when they walk into the restaurant, they are surprised with their husbands and Brooke's son Hudson. It's a really sweet moment and another page Top Chef seems to have taken out of the Survivor playbook. While they eat, Shirley mentions that this is only the second time in fourteen seasons that two women have opposed each other on the Top Chef final. Brooke's husband adds that Brooke has been a part of both of those.

Finale Day Two

"Throughout this season of Top Chef, Brooke has been my biggest competition," Shirley says, before the two finalist head out from their hotel room. Brooke says, "Shirley is a force to be reckoned with. She's got tons of passion and it carries through in her food. So I'm gonna have to bring it to win." And with that, they wish each other luck and then head to the kitchen.

Brooke keeps complaining about the pork belly. Look, I love Brooke, but let it go. You were the one who forgot to order it. Also, you have short ribs as a backup. Maybe start figuring out what you might need to do to make that happen. Shirley picks Katsuji to butcher the piglet, because she needs to see the piglet broken down before she can decide if she'll stick with that or use the pork belly. Katsuji keeps dropping his knife while butchering the piglet. We never see him clean it after dropping it, but I'm sure he cleaned it off, right? He didn't just pick the knife up from the floor and keep butchering the piglet, right? Or is this a thing that ends up sinking Shirley -- Katsuji's sloppy knife? I hope that's not the case. You don't want the final to hinge on something that has nothing to do with the flavor of the dishes.

Brooke wants her first course to be spicy and tangy and punchy, like the oysters she had with her parents down in Baja, where they live. See? Brooke can draw inspiration from her memories and emotions. She just doesn't know it, or want to admit it. But this totally qualifies. Unlike Brooke's punchy beginning, Shirley wants her first course, the snapper crudo, to start the meal very delicately.

When talking about her second dish, the octopus, Brooke again digs into memory and emotion, without really acknowledging that that's what she's doing that. She tells the story of how, when she was little, she used to beg her parents to take her out for sushi. And so she tried octopus at a very young age and fell in love with it. She wants to make the octopus the star of the show, so she's basically serving it with several types of garlic: it's poached in garlic oil, and served with garlic chips and a garlic puree. "This dish shows creativity," Brooke says, "and at the same time restraint and confidence."

Over on her side of the kitchen, Shirley adds some tapioca flour to her ramen noodle recipe to make it chewier. "In my head, this method works," she says. But then Shirley starts having trouble with her pasta machine. It won't stay clamped to her work surface. The clamp part completely comes off of the pasta machine. Wisely, instead of wasting time trying to figure out how to fix that, she just has Katsuji hold the machine steady while she cranks out the noodles she needs.

Shirley judges the piglets to be high quality, making the pork belly somewhat expendable. So she sends the pork belly over to Brooke. "I really don't want to win, just because Brooke cannot get her proper ingredient," Shirley says. But she's also confident that the menu she has prepared tells her story the way she wants to tell it. Meanwhile, Brooke has a problem with her flan; it's not setting up the way it should. And that's a drag, because that's the last thing she'll be leaving the judges with before they go off to decide who the winner is.

Final Meal Service

The judges settle in to their table. It's Tom and Padma, with Gail and Graham, plus an assortment of food superstars: Daniel Boulud, Jonathan Waxman, Nilou Motamed, Martha Ortiz, and Jonathan Sawyer. At the top of the menu, Shirley has provided an introduction/explanation of sorts: "This is a menu filled with my favorite food memories I've made with my loved ones. I am cooking here today because of their unconditional love." Brooke has done nothing of the sort.

We already knew that Brooke and Shirley's husbands, and Brooke's son, were in Mexico for the finale. But when they walk into the dining room to describe their first courses, Brooke and Shirley discover that their parents are there too. Shirley sees her mom and her sister. Seeing her mom immediately makes her choke up, because she still feels like she has to prove to her mom that her choice to become a chef was the right choice.

Shirley has named all of her courses. So the first course pits her "Let Me Take You To Lijang" snapper crudo against Brooke's oyster. All of the judges seem pretty impressed with Brooke's oyster. But I think Brooke's own mom puts it best when she says, "The oysters were a surprise in my mouth." Shirley's crudo tastes fine but doesn't knock anyone's socks off. For the second course, it's Shirley's "When I Was Eight" ramen versus Brooke's charred octopus. And even though Shirley is very happy with her noodles, her dish doesn't inspire the judges much. Brooke's octopus, however, once again impresses. After two dishes, Brooke has knocked it out of the park twice, and Shirley has underwhelmed the judges with each.

It's easy to think this competition is already over, but we all know there's a problem with Brooke's flan, and if Shirley sticks the landing with this third course, she could make the decision very, very difficult for the judges. Before bringing the third course out, Shirley expresses her confidence in her pork shanks. "The skin is so perfectly gelatinous!" she says. As God is my witness, I would have never guessed that those words would convey a positive quality about food. Even though her pork looks tasty, that comment about it really makes me want to give up eating not just meat but all food, possibly forever.

They bring their dishes out to the judges and Shirley describes her "Dear Baba" piglet shank. Pork shanks were something her father really loved. So that's why she has prepared hers with mixed lentils, wild rice, and some blanched spinach. Then Brooke says, "I made for you pork and beans. We couldn't be more different." She's right, they couldn't be.

The judges dive into the shanks first, and one of the male judges asks, "Are we judging on size?" Padma laughs, smiles devilishly, as if she can't wait to add her entendre to the conversation and says, "Size doesn't matter, haven't you heard?" Then she laughs very hard. Too hard? I don't know. Should we ask Padma if there is such a thing as "too hard"? WAIT! DON'T DO IT!! It was a joke. Jesus. Don't give her the fucking opportunity, all right? Ugh. Get a room with your shank, Padma! Ultimately, the judges love both the pork dishes. So the third course could be too close to call.

For the final course, Shirley's "Mama Said 'Always Finish Your Rice'" goes up against Brooke's potentially too-dense flan. Both chefs introduce their desserts by dedicating them to their moms. The density of Brooke's flan does end up problematic for all of the judges, but even more damning, Tom isn't getting the chamomile or the rum flavor. Shirley's dessert blows them away. Joachim says, "It's one of the best desserts I've ever had." Gail finishes hers. And all the other judges can't stop talking about it.

Brooke and Shirley come out to applause from all the diners. Shirley's mom gives Shirley a hug and can't stop crying while she says, "Beautiful Shirley. I am happy, Shirley. I am proud." It's notable because, as Shirley points out, her mom doesn't speak a lot of English. It's a very touching moment, capped off by Shirley saying, "Today I feel like without talking, just through my cooking, my mom finally understood me."

No, Top Chef, YOU'RE crying. I'm not crying at all. Maybe I just jammed a pencil into my eye. Yeah, maybe that's totally what happened. Bravo, watch what happens…when a dumb cooking show makes me cry and want to call my mother.

Judges' Table

The judges start by asking how it felt to have their families in the dining room. Brooke says it was great and that she knows they're probably proud of her. Shirley doubles down on the emotional side, saying of her mom, "I hope that she finally understands that this is my calling. Not a doctor, but a chef." She says it with love, as an expression of her love for her mom, but wow. Probably worth mentioning now to parents everywhere: Please just tell your kids you're proud of them. No matter what they do. And yes, it does make a difference if you say it out loud. Okay? Great. Now, back to the cooking show.

The judges make quick work of the four courses with the chefs in front of them. Brooke explains that she wanted to start off her meal with a punch. Graham thinks it was maybe a little too much out of the gate. Tom disagrees. "If you want to start off with a smack in the face," Tom says, "I felt it." Tom gives Shirley credit for pulling off handmade noodles in a short amount of time, but tells her the dish ate "really plain and simple." Graham also felt the broth was lacking.

Tom tells Brooke how much he didn't want to stop eating her octopus dish. And Gail adds, "There was so much good cooking in this dish." And I have to admit that Brooke's octopus may be the first octopus dish on this show that I've ever thought, "I'd like to try that." Shirley winces a little at the heaping of praise on Brooke's octopus, but then she gets the royal treatment from them regarding her pork shank. Tom leads off the dessert discussion with his disappointment about not being able to taste the chamomile or the rum in the flan. And Brooke appears visibly bummed that her flan wasn't great and that Shirley's dessert killed it.

While the finalists stew, the judges go deeper into their critique. Gail liked the story that Shirley was telling with her crudo, but Tom says, "I think Shirley's story was better than her dish." When they move on to the second course, Gail says that Brooke's octopus was her favorite dish of the evening. "Hands down, no contest." Graham and Padma both agree. They spend almost no time discussing either pork dish, but instead jump right to the dessert. "Was that flan the dessert that's going to win you the finale?" Gail asks. "On top of that, Shirley's dessert is just amazing," Tom says. Padma agrees, calling Shirley's dessert her favorite favorite dish of the night. So she has a favorite, Brooke's octopus, and a favorite favorite, Shirley's dessert. Nice work, Padma.

After deliberation, Brooke and Shirley return for the verdict, with the fallen chefs and their families as witness. "There are no losers," Tom says, "but there will be only one winner for Top Chef." Then Padma announces that Brooke is Top Chef.

Even though it was a tough finale, this is the ending that this season demanded -- Brooke's redemption. Shirley shows an admirable amount of grace and class coming in second. As they all celebrate, Gail walks up to Brooke with two glasses of champagne. Brooke takes one and says, "Cheers." Gail says, "I was gonna give this to Shirley, but I'm just gonna drink it!"

The Verdict

An amazing finale to an amazing season. Brooke totally deserved the win. And the finale, like the episode before it, had moments of real emotion. Gonna be tough to top this season next time, but here's hoping the producers find a way.

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