This second season of Bravo's Top Chef was certainly an interesting one, filled with lots of confrontations, characters and - of course - some exceptional food. The season finale aired last night, showing the last meals of both Ilan Hall and Marcel Vigneron, the two chefs with the rockiest relationship and the greatest desire to win.
As with last week's episode, the two chefs were facing off in Hawaii. They took a walk along the beach (possibly a forced walk) while the show opened and clips of them discussing their expectations were aired. As they walked, they picked some sea urchins out of the ocean and ate raw uni for breakfast. Marcel was stabbed by one of the urchins and informed by Ilan that he needed to pee on the wound to disinfect it. Ilan offered to do so for him ("I would have loved to pee on Marcel"), though Marcel politely declined. When they returned to the hotel, Chef Tom Colicchio told them what their final challenge would be.
To win, all they had to do was to cook the best meal that they had ever prepared.
Each dinner was to be a five course meal served to a group of 8 diners, made up of the judges and several famous chefs. Ilan was to prepare the first meal and Marcel would have second service. As with last season's finale, the chefs had their choice of former cast members as sous chefs. Ilan chose to work with Elia and Betty, while Marcel chose Sam and Michael.
Ilan's dinner was, as expected, Spanish. When asked by his sous chefs whether he was bringing enough of the flavor of their island setting into his food, he replied that the fact that the produce (selected from the local farmers' market with an unlimited budget) was grown in Hawaii was more than enough. His five courses were:
- Pincho of Pan Con Tomate with Angulas, Osetra Caviar & Tomatillos
- Macadamia Nut Gazpacho with Pan Roasted Moi
- Seared Squab with Foie Gras, Shrimp, Braised Leeks & Lobster Sauce
- Braised and Grilled Beef Short Ribs with Mushrooms & Romesco Sauce
- Tangelo Soup with Hawaiian Fruit, Surinam Cherry Sorbet & Bay Leaf Fritter
Marcel went with a more innovative approach to his dishes and, unlike Ilan, was very inspired by the island setting. He came up with his menu while he browsed at the farmers market and, as Michael mentioned, was very well organized during prep, coming up with lists so that everyone knew exactly what to work on. Marcel's courses were:
- Sea Urchin & Meyer Lemon Gelee with Fennel Cream, Caviar & Kalamata Oil
- Cucumber and Radish Salad with a Citrus Yuzu Vinaigrette
- Hearts of Palm & Maitake Mushrooms with Kaffir Lime Sauce & Sea Beans
- North Shore Strip Loin with Garlic Puree, Crispy Taro Ball & Micro-Greens
- Blini with Kona Coffee Caviar & Hawaiian Chocolate Mousse
The guest judges included Michelle Berenstein, Scott Conant, Wylie Dufresne, Roy Yamaguchi and Hubert Keller - an illustrious panel that, as Michelle pointed out, had tasted almost every combination of food, flavors and techniques that there were. They found Ilan's food to be a bit heavy, but well-executed overall. No one tasted anything that they hadn't before, and they even noted that it seemed like the dishes had been prepared many times by the chef before, but Ilan's strategy of playing to his strength (Spanish food) seemed to serve him well. The judges particularly enjoyed his Mac Nut Gazpacho, Seared Squab and Tangelo Soup.
Marcel's food, on the other hand, was described as being light and innovative. Almost every dish he put out, with the exception of his second course, was praised - and his success was in spite of the fact that Michael forgot to retrieve several key ingredients from the prep kitchen for the team. The beach-inspired first course was extremely well received, as was the Hearts of Palm dish, the Strip Loin (described as "perfect") and the whimsical dessert blini.
After everyone ate their fill, the judges called in the sous chefs to get their impressions of working for both Marcel and Ilan. Very predictably, they praised Ilan and slammed Marcel. Betty even went on a rant insisting that Marcel's food must have been horrible, in spite of the fact that she had neither seen nor tasted it. Needless to say, the judges didn't seem to take her (or any of them) all that seriously. They knew before they called them in how each o the other chefs felt about Marcel.
In their own deliberations, it came down to the fact that both chefs were outstanding. Marcel was a risk-taker and continually pushed the envelope. He said himself that it didn't matter if the meal he put out for judging was the best that he had cooked up to this point because he would always be aiming higher and pushing himself further. Ilan, on the other hand, took few risks and steadfastly stuck to his single area of expertise: Spanish cuisine. They seemed more impressed with Marcel and said that he would be the superior chef in the long run, but then turned around and named Ilan as Top Chef.
You can listen in on an interview with Ilan from Chow about his plans for the future. He says that he doesn't intend to open a restaurant with his $100, 000 any time soon and admitted that he expected them to give the title to Marcel.
Nothing to do but wait for season three and review the recaps of this past season: