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Top Chef Finale: Missteps Lead to a Squeaker Ending

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The fourth season of Top Chef came to its stirring conclusion last nght. The final meals have been plated, the last knives packed, Padma's outfits framed, and a new Top Chef has been named. Bravo ditched the cheesy "live finale" idea from last year, and instead, the final threesome took to their Puerto Rican kitchen in a fairly straightforward final challenge. A woman was rumored to win this year, and with last week's Antonia departure, all we had were Lisa and Stephanie.

In the endless amount of recaps and interviews (yes, we get the irony), people say it was a boring finale, which just goes to show TC is damned if they do, damned if they don't. When it's all catering, block parties or team challenges, we complain. Without such crazy antics, the final three were relegated to actual cooking, which doesn't make for the most compelling TV. These weren't the personality chefs, and only one (Gorgon Lisa) was controversial; they take what they do seriously, there wasn't much chatter in the kitchen, it was all cheffing. The real deal. So who took top honor? On to the recap, courtesy Eater SF!

The Challenge: Each got to pick a celebrity chef to help with prep and the ingredients that came with them: Stephanie had the first pick, and tabbed Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert as her sous. Richard picked Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Lisa was paired with the Spotted Pig's April Bloomfield. In the kitchen, Ripert was transfixed by Richard's liquid nitrogen hijinks, making for one of the more enjoyable moments of the slightly-snoozy episode. Elsewhere in the kitchen, the editors tried their darndest to make Lisa appear somewhat pleasant by stressing how much she "bonded" with Bloomfield.

The twist, of course, was that the celebrity sous chefs "called in sick" on the day of service, forcing our trio, as Tom dramatically put it, to "live and die by their own hand." Lisa's confidence was unwavering throughout the challenge, while a flustered Richard and an insecure Stephanie both experienced bouts of panic in the kitchen. Lisa put together her usual Asian menu, winning the judges over with a solid meal. Stephanie hit a stumbling block with her dessert, while Richard just completely overthought his menu, which was supposed to follow a theme of "his culinary journey."

Judges Table: Joining Tom, Pads, Gail, Ted and the three aforementioned celebrity chefs at the dinner were Alfredo Ayala and very grumpy Tim "Get off my lawn!" Zagat, who was simply not having any of Richard's clever molecular games. Winning dishes included Lisa's soup, Stephanie's lamb, Lisa's black rice pudding and Richard's played-out banana scallops. Richard—who became more and more likable as the season progressed—choked last night, as he admitted later. Although the editing made the decision seem like a squeaker (c'mon, was Lisa really going to win?), especially after the judges' unenthusiastic take on Richard's dishes, Stephanie was the obvious choice. She became the first female contestant to win Top Chef. Then, everyone cried and drank Champagne.

Quote of the Episode: "I know who all three of these chefs are." --Lisa, on the celebrity sous chefs.

Editing Moment of the Episode: Right after Lisa says how stupid Richard's liquid nitrogen and molecular tricks are, cut to Chef Ripert saying something to this effect: "As a chef, the day you stop trying to learn is the day you go blind."

Other Highlights: Richard's "shocking" comments to the judges, Tom's stubble, Dan Barber's bowtie, Stephanie's braised pistachio revelations, Stephanie's cute little winner's jig-dance; first person out to hug winner Stephanie---Antonia.

Final Thoughts: If it couldn't be the Los Angeles female chef, we're glad it was the hometown hero of Top Chef Chicago.
· Full Top Chef Coverage [~ELA~]

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