‘Top Chef’ finales tend to be among the most exciting episodes of the season, primarily because it’s unlike anything else on television: Two great chefs, challenged to cook the best four-course menu they can, battling for a grand prize of (in this season’s case) $125,000. And last night’s finale, which pitted two Chicago-born contestants, Joe Flamm and Adrienne Cheatham, against each other, was an hour of highly compelling television.
When we spoke with Flamm and Cheatham earlier this week, both chefs agreed that they did their best cooking of the season in the finale, and it was hard to disagree. Adrienne (who picked Chris and Carrie as her sous chefs) went all-in with her vision of Southern food kicked up to Michelin-worthy heights; and Flamm (who picked Joe Sasto and Fatima) stuck with his Italian guns, and the end results left judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, and Graham Elliot (and special guests Jonathan Waxman, Nancy Silverton, and Curtis Duffy) bowled over. Colicchio even went as far as to proclaim it the best finale meal they’ve ever had.
For the first course, Flamm served a topsy-turvy version of vitello tonatto, with raw tuna, veal aïoli, smoked wagyu powder, and capers; and Adrienne served spoonbread with sea urchin, buttermilk dashi, and a topping of ham, caviar, and a wheat tuile (a trick she picked up at Le Bernardin). Duffy deemed them both “stunning;” Flamm’s dish was simple and inspired, and Cheatham’s should be on every menu she ever writes, Gail later opined.
Up next was Flamm’s grano arso (burned wheat) tortellini filled with pig head, apple, and black truffle, and served with braising broth; and Adrienne’s blackened octopus with squid ink grits and fennel chow chow. The judges loved Flamm’s dish, and the only gripe against Adrienne’s was that it could have used more grits.
Flamm’s main course was roasted eye of beef ribeye with roasted asparagus and smoked bone marrow sauce; Cheatham served Cheerwine-braised short rib over black-eyed peas with ham hock and Cheerwine bone marrow bordelaise. Neither of these dishes were perfect; Flamm’s rib-eye was over-rested and tough (even though Simmons found the asparagus spears, which were braised in juice from the asparagus ends, “magic”), and Cheatham mashed half of the black-eyed peas, drying out the dish.
For dessert, Flamm made a cake (which took a couple attempts to get right) with an assist from sous chef Fatima, and served it with blueberry thyme sauce, chocolate shards, and whipped ricotta; and Adrienne served banana pudding with yuzu, banana spears, and vanilla wafers. Flamm’s dessert was good but weighed down a bit by the ricotta, and not enough banana came through in Adrienne’s.
Heading to the Judges’ Table it was still a tossup, but Joe Flamm ended up taking the crown.
If you’d like to try the finalists’ cooking for yourself, Cheatham will be launching a pop-up in Harlem to be called Sunday Best, and you can find Flamm at Chicago’s Spiaggia, one of America’s best Italian restaurants.