So it’s come to this: Nina Compton, an Italian chef with a mastery of Caribbean cooking; and Nick Elmi, French-trained, intensely focused, and endlessly inventive, vying for the title of Top Chef.
The episode began with flash-forward of the judges letting them know that this was the hardest decision they’d had to make. The final challenge: take over a restaurant each, and make a four-course menu. They could cook whatever they wanted, as long as it was the best they had to offer. In the past it’s usually come down to a single perfect dish, but this was a lot more balanced as well as a lot more difficult to judge.
Some eliminated chefs came in (along with Padma in a gratuitous bikini top), and Nick got to use his advantage from winning the previous challenge to choose his team first: Jason, Louis, and Brian. Nina then chose Shirley, Stephanie, and Travis. Both very solid teams.
The chefs strategized with their teams, headed to Whole Foods, then finally got to check out their restaurants and kitchens. Nina, who bought ice cream supplies, learned that there was no ice cream maker in her kitchen, screwing up her dessert plan. Nick seemed pretty pleased with his kitchen, although he was well aware that he was really pushing himself with his menu. Nina decided to scrap her ice cream and replace it with a zeppole, and Nick, who also decided to make a dessert, faced his fear by making a panna cotta, which he totally botched a couple episodes ago.
They finished their prep, then headed to the Andaz for what they thought would be a private dinner with Emeril and Colicchio before some of their loved ones showed up, which must have been an insanely emotional moment for the chefs. They had a nice al fresco meal, then got to bed and prepared for the big day ahead of them.
The next day the chefs debriefed their wait staff and had one hour to get everything perfect before service. Nina’s goat was chewy and two of Nick’s servers didn’t show up for a tasting, giving both of them some agita. But the clock kept ticking, and service began.
Two separate teams of judges showed up at both restaurants at different times to make sure that the meals were consistent, and while Nick seemed to have major issues with the servers (guests could hear him shouting at them from the dining room), but he pulled it off. Here’s what they served:
Amuse: Breadfruit with whipped foie gras butter
Course 1: Tuna and escolar tartare with tomato water and jalapeno
Course 2: Roasted goat sugo with orecchiette, cherry tomato confit, and goat cheese
Course 3: Spice-rubbed swordfish with squash puree, braised kale, and smoked onion jus
Intermezzo: Compressed dragon fruit and frozen papaya skewer
Course 4: Chocolate zeppole with macadamia nuts and passion fruit Anglaise
The ‘surprise’ amuse course was apparently delicious, and wasn’t even a part of the deal. You could taste every component of the tartare, which has a lot of Island flavor and the basil was a nice touch. The pasta and goat were perfectly cooked, but the bright swordfish fought with the kale and there was no real texture, leading to a dish that never really came together. The intermezzo was perfectly timed and delicious, but while the zeppoles were nice, it wasn’t a complete dessert and it wasn’t the best dessert she could have made by a long shot.
Course 1: Hamachi and tuna with meyer lemon wasabi, green apple, celery and Maui-meyer lemon
Course 2: Sweet shrimp bisque, scallop, and daikon noodles with Thai basil
Course 3: Kumbu-cured duck breast with kabocha squash, hijiki, and ginger
Course 4: Caramelized white choaolate panna cotta with almond cocoa crumble and tropical fruit
The fish was a bit underseasoned, but had well-balanced, if subtle, flavors. The bisque was tasty (Tom claimed it was the best dish he had all year), but the scallop noodles in it seemed a little odd and didn’t taste of scallop. The duck was well-rendered, well-balanced, and packed with flavor but unevenly cooked, and the panna cotta was just about perfect.
On to the Judges’ Table. Going into deliberations, it was easy to see why this was a really tough decision. First course went to Nina, the second third courses were split, and Nick’s dessert was stronger. Nick’s service was inferior to Nina’s, who didn’t need to waste her energy on the unnecessary extra courses. The deliberation dragged on for hours, as the judges really couldn’t agree on who the winner was. But they had to, and the chefs and their families were brought back out to learn their fate sometime after 1 am.
And the winner was… Nick Elmi, who worked with a level of intensity that no other chef had all season long. Nina could have easily taken the win (and very well might be a better overall chef), but in the end Nick served a better meal, and won the competition for it.
While the skill level of the chefs this season was about average for the show, overall this was a tough season to get into. All the drama seemed manufactured in the editing room (the little spats between Nick and Carlos were made to look like scenes out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but in reality probably lasted all of 30 seconds), and while there was plenty of skill at play, the Elimination Challenges really came across as slogs for the chefs, who seemed to be trying to just get through them as opposed to really jumping in headfirst and enjoying themselves. The city of New Orleans, which was featured front and center, was the real highlight of the season, along with the impressive lineup of judges. Out of all the competing chefs, however, Nick and Nina were the one that I can see opening world-class restaurants of their own someday. Honestly, I'd probably rather eat at Nina's.