It’s the end of the road for Adrienne Cheatham and Joe Flamm, one of whom becomes Top Chef.
We’ve reached the end of season fifteen of Top Chef and I’ve got to tell you I’m a little sad to be here. This season has been a roller coaster—surprise eliminations, an absolutely wild Last Chance Kitchen twist, altitude sickness and not even one single marijuana-related challenge. (What gives Top Chef producers?) It’s all come down to Adrienne Cheatham and Joe Flamm.
As all finales start, we get a peek into their journey on this season. Adrienne’s unparalleled training under Eric Ripert and Marcus Samuelsson endowed her with vast culinary knowledge, but not much of a chance to share her voice as a chef. We all saw her come out the gate fumbling to find her footing. After a couple mediocre dishes that landed her in the bottom, she started to have an uptick later in the season as the chefs left Denver for Telluride and Aspen and she began to let go of making other people’s dishes and started making dishes in her own style: upscale southern soul food. Joe Flamm had a very different path to the finale—a charming fan favorite from Top Chef winner-factory Spiaggia, he was consistently in the top during elimination challenges with multiple wins to boot until he was eliminated in a shocking sudden-death Quickfire for David Kinch. He fought his way back through Last Chance Kitchen, and took his winning attitude with him straight through to the finals, winning both the Quickfire and the elimination challenge leading up to the last meal.
So now we’re in real time with Joe and Adrienne in the now-empty suite the chefs have been living in. Joe has a touching phone call with his mentor Tony Mantuano where he gets a confidence boost and some interesting advice to “never change a dish once you’ve started it.” Adrienne finds a note from Padma congratulating the two of them for making it to the finale and to meet her and Tom at the top of Aspen mountain. Adrienne is feeling the weight that she might possibly be the first black female chef to ever win the competition and Joe is hoping that winning will give him the final push he needs to solidify a menu and his culinary point of view to catapult him to opening up his own restaurant.
At the top of the mountain, Padma welcomes them to Aspen Mountain Club's The Little Nell, which is sitting pretty at 11,000 feet above sea level. Tom tells them “this is where your journey on Top Chef will come to an end” and advises them to “just cook the best meal of your life.” The finale challenge is that the chefs must create the ultimate four-course progressive meal at Club The Little Nell. They’ll have to adjust their recipes for the altitude and they’ll have to impress a table of iconic chefs including Nancy Silverton and Top Chef favorite Jonathan Waxman as well as the judges. They will each get to choose two sous chefs, alternating picks complete with a knife draw to determine who will choose first. Adrienne wins the knife draw and her first choice is Chris because of his immense talent and knowledge of southern cuisine. Joe’s first pick is Mustache because his creative flair and strong background in Italian cuisine will save Joe a lot of time on the pasta preparation. Adrienne’s next pick is Carrie (which was a bit of a shock to me because of her lack of experience with soul food), but Adrienne believes that she’s creative and fun to work with in the kitchen and that’s the energy she wants to bring with her to the finale. Flamm’s last pick is Fatima because she’s got a background in Italian cooking and a proven beast with flavors and prep. They’ve got 30 minutes to menu plan and, in addition to their $500 Whole Foods budget, they’re given the opportunity to place orders for specialty items from The Little Nell.
The chefs go off to their separate corners to plan their menus, both of them already have an idea of what direction they want to go in. Adrienne wants to do a spoonbread with sea urchin topped with a tuile that she’s worried about executing at the altitude. Joe is focused on layering flavors and reinforcing them throughout the meal, taking food that looks simple and but requires heavy technique. The last Whole Foods trip goes as the first one did—with a scuffle at the meat counter. After grabbing all their food and heading back to The Little Nell they get to work on the specialty items. Joe Flamm is working with pigs head and marrow bones while Adrienne has uni and marrow bones as well.
Everyone begins executing their menus and tinkering with the recipes. Adrienne’s second course is an elevated take on the classic shrimp and grits where she wants to blacken octopus and serve it with squid ink grits, but she tasks Carrie with preparing the grits which causes Carrie anxiety because she has no experience cooking grits. She also tests out the tuile but it isn’t setting properly and she doesn’t know how to fix it.
Meanwhile, Joes Flamm and Sasto are building the dough for the pasta course with a special element—grano arso flour. Grano arso is a burnt wheat flour with toasted grains that’s prepared by burning the wheat fields before the flour is milled, turning the flour and dough an ashy greenish grey. Although the pasta seems to be going well, Team Flamm hits a snag when the first batch of his cake comes out. Fati and Mustache agree that the cake itself doesn’t taste right and they’ll have to completely redo it the next day. At one minute and thirty seconds left in prep, Joe realizes they haven’t pressed the ricotta so they rush to do it and get it in the pantry within the second the buzzer sounds.
When Adrienne and Joe arrive back at the suite after a long day of prep they walk in to find Tom and Graham preparing a lavish meal for them to talk about the journey they’ve taken all season and give them advice for the day ahead. After downing a beautiful whole stuffed fish, lamb with asparagus, tomatoes, and sweet peas, they head off to bed and prepare for the battle the next morning.
Adrienne's morning begins with her calling her mentor, Eric Ripert, to help her center her mind so she can do her best work. He advises her to whisk the tuile as it boils to get it to set and tells her she has it in her to win. With that, the chefs head to The Little Nell for their final prep and service.
In the kitchen, Joe Flamm is happy with his fish head stock and decides that because there are so few people he can roll out his tortellini in brodo fato e mano (made by hand) so that each bite is toothy and special. Although his pasta is perfect, the second batch of the cake is all wrong and Fati sets out to make a third batch. With Ripet’s advice, Adrienne’s tuile come out perfectly. As the cook is winding down, the table outside fills up with the diners: Chefs Curtis Duffy, Nancy Silverton, and Jonathan Waxman, Food & Wine contributor Nilou Motamed, Graham, Tom, Padma and, of course, Gail. With that, the meal is served.
Each course is served side by side, starting with Adrienne’s spoon bread, sea urchin, buttermilk dashi, ham, and caviar covered in a sheet of wheat tuile that the diners break into to access the meal, and Joe Flamm’s “tonno vitellato”—raw tuna with veal demi aioli, smoked wagyu powder and capers. Both dishs are an immediate hit with Nancy saying “I could be eating at Le Bernardin, I could be eating at Spiaggia. I’m impressed.” Curtis thought the fish and clean taste of Joe’s dish were impressive and focused. Graham thought Adrienne’s dish was seductive visually, texturally and flavor-wise. Nilou commented that Adrienne put forth a flavor combination she’d never had before that she loved.
The second course is Joe’s “tortllini en brodo” grano arso tortellini, pig head, apple, black truffle and braising liquid broth, and Adrienne’s blackened octopus with squid ink grits and fennel chow chow. Tom called Joe’s dish “just amazing” and thought that Adrienne’s was delicious with a beautiful subtle heat but felt that it ate just a smidge too dry and wished that she had more grits on the plate. After they finish the second course Tom seems to blurt out “this is insane, this is the best food we’ve ever had in the finale.”
For the third course, Adrienne offered up Cheerwine braised short rib, black-eyed peas with ham hock and Cheerwine bone marrow bordelaise. In order to accomplish the black eyed peas texture she is used to without actually overcooking them, she mashed some of the peas to give them that broken down feel. Joe took a different approach with his “manzo di Colorado” roasted beef ribeye with asparagus cooked in their own juices (by juicing the asparagus stems) and smoked bone marrow sauce. When he returned to the kitchen post serving, his nerves took over, telling his sous that he saw the table struggling with the ribeye. Nilou admits that she’s “torturing the meat” and Tom points out that it’s just overrested. Gail finds the accompanying vegetables and sauce to be transcendent, but can also not ignore the failure on the cook of the meat. Adrienne’s dish fared better, but Tom didn’t like the way she treated the beans with the mush, however he found the ham flavor to be so good it made that mistake negligible and says “I think it’s so close” to being a perfect dish.
To wrap things up, Adrienne makes a banana pudding with yuzu, banana spears and vanilla wafers with a pinch of turmeric, and Joe makes a “torta della nonna” (that’s not exactly a traditional torta della nonna, he clarifies) brown sugar cake, whipped ricotta, blueberry thyme sauce and chocolate shards. The dense cake turned out great, with the chefs particularly enjoying the treatment of the blueberries on the dish, but Curtis found the ricotta to be heavy, a sentiment met with hearty agreement from the rest of the table. Nancy Silverton thought Adrienne’s approach was “very intellectual” but Nilou felt that it overpromised with the presentation and under delivered with the banana pudding. Jonathan Waxman pointed out that to critique these dishes they are truly nitpicking because of the strength of the meal they just had.
Some tender words are exchanged between southside Chicago natives Adrienne and Joe before they head off to the final judge’s table of the season. At judges table, they are told that it was “the best food of the season by a lot,” and the judges dive right in. Gail thought Joe’s take on tonno vitellato was “better than the original” and found the flavors really bright and fresh. Padma said Adrienne’s first course was “the best thing I’ve eaten all season from anybody” and insisted that it must go on a menu immediately as is—“don’t change a thing” Gail adds. For her second dish, Tom thought the concept was flawless and that it ate really well but just a small amount of fat, which could be accomplished with more grits, would make the dish as perfect as the concept behind it. Joe’s dish is up next for critique and Gail says that it’s another dish she’ll never forget, and the concept of the tortellini as river rocks was inspired and left her thinking about the dish long after she ate it. Tom called it perfectly seasoned, a compliment which we know from him to be the absolute pinnacle of perfection for a simple dish. The vegetables on Joe’s third course received similar praise but the meat was chewy and over-rested. Adrienne’s third course was delicious but the treatment of the peas was unnecessary because, in Tom’s words, they’re only that way because those people don’t know how to cook peas as well as she does! As for the dessert course, Joe’s cake was delicious but had a bad name and the ricotta was too heavy for the rest of the dish. Adrienne’s dish similarly suffered from poor naming, as Tom said that if she had called her dish a “yuzu meringue pie” that would have blown them away. It’s a very close race and the judges deliberate for what seems like hours before they call the two chefs back in to announce the results.
They’re standing before the judges flanked on either side by their former competitors who are there to see who will be crowned the winner. After a pause, Padma’s voice cracks through the deafening silence: "Joe Flamm, you are Top Chef."
Last Chance Comments
- Adrienne had such an incredible showing there at the end, I have never seen that kind of transformation of a contestant on Top Chef before. When you open your restaurant Adrienne, I will be first in line.
- Adrienne’s dad was a Black Panther! That’s why she’s so scrappy. Girl knows how to fight for what’s hers.
- “So I guess you’re giving us Italian.” “Actually we’re going Pakistani.” Well played.
- “I know for a fact Sasto is in love with Joe Flamm but I love Joe Flamm the most. If this is a competition of loving Joe Flamm, I win.” Sorry Fatima, but I believe if this is a competition of loving Joe Flamm, I win.
- Did anyone else hold his or her breath the entire time Carrie was working on those grits? That ediing had me gasping for life!
- I know one of y'all has the clip of Sasto saying “mama mia!” I need you to send it to me, for science.
- I really enjoyed Nancy Silverton as a judge and would love to see more of her in future seasons.
- If you haven’t had a chance to read our exit Interviews with the chefs after they leave the show, I would take a look at our interviews with Tanya, Mustache Joe, and Fatima to gain a little more insight into what it’s like to go on Top Chef and what happens after the final meal is served.
- I don’t know if they should bring back the same format for LCK next year but I do love incorporating Top Chef veterans into new seasons. The canon is vast and there’s a lot of room for them to do something interesting.
- What a season, right? I’ve loved every second of writing this column and I just want to thank everyone for coming back every week and reading the recaps, the previews, and the exit interviews. Top Chef is my favorite show on television and being able to be even a small part of the universe has been a privilege. The Olympic challenge, the altitude baking challenge, and the cauldron vegetable challenge were my favorites of the season and I hope some iteration of them comes back again for later seasons. I didn't love some of the changes they made this season, like the slow-motion steady camera, eliminating the stew room, and the general sense that everyone wanted to downplay the drama (even though we still got plenty). Also, if Gail isn’t in every single episode next season, so help me god...