'Top Chef' All-Stars Los Angeles Season Finale Recap: Episode 14—'Finito'
After fourteen weeks of competition, we have arrived at the finale of Top Chef All-Stars and tonight we'll learn who wins the title. In one corner we have Bryan Voltaggio, a Top Chef alum who has now been in the finals three times including competing against his brother, Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio. In another corner, we have Melissa King, a front runner of the competition who has racked up more wins than any competitor in Top Chef history. And then we have Stephanie, an underdog who struggled in the beginning but has found her groove in these last few weeks of the competition.
We start the episode with the chefs relaxing in their Italian villa before they find a note to meet Padma Lakshmi on the terrace. Bryan is still smarting after hearing last week's critique that his cooking lacked "heart or soul." He's planning on "slapping them in the face with heart and soul" during this final cook. On the patio, the cheftestants find Padma and Tom Colicchio waiting for them and they have a chat about what they've learned about themselves over the course of the competition. Stephanie's learned that she has dedication and perseverance while Bryan has learned that it's okay to have a bit of fun. Melissa has learned that when she's dialed in, she's unstoppable.
With pleasantries out of the way, they get to the matter at hand: the final elimination challenge for Top Chef.
The chefs have to make the best four-course progressive meal of their lives for a table of world-famous chefs and writers including Mauro Colagreco, Clare Smyth, Marcus Samuelsson, Janice Wong, Tony Mantuano, legendary Italian butcher Dario Cecchini and Food & Wine editor-in-chief Hunter Lewis. (Hey Hunter!) "This table of guests is really impressive and we want you to impress them," Tom says. They'll have some help in the form of sous chefs: Kevin Gillespie, Brain Malarkey, and Lee Anne Wong. The chefs draw knives to determine their order. Stephanie goes first and picks Brian M., Bryan V. goes second and picks Kevin (duh.) and Melissa is with Lee Anne. But the surprises don't stop there because the chefs learn that they and their sous chefs are headed to Florence to shop at "the food hub of Florence," Mercato Centrale Firenze. They'll have an hour to shop, five hours tomorrow to prep and cook and then three hours on the day of service to finish their meals. "Remember it's a progressive meal so make it as cohesive as possible," Tom says. "And this is All-Stars so we expect nothing but the best." No pressure.
With that, the chefs are off to Florence to start shopping. Melissa and Lee Anne seem to be working together fine until Lee Anne starts interjecting with her opinions on how Melisa should cook her proteins. Brian M. straight up says he didn't expect Stephanie to get this far which she laughs at and then starts planning her menu. "I don't really care what people say because I did make it this far," she says. Boom. Bryan V. and Kevin are good friends so they're totally in sync as they plan the menu and shopping. Bryan is planning on making a lasagna as an ode to his mom which is really sweet and adds some heart to his menu which the judges said he was lacking last week.
The chefs are inspired by the cheese, seafood, poultry, fruits and vegetables they're seeing at the market. Bryan V. is making a play on vitello tonnato with beets. Lee Anne is inserting her opinions on ingredients into Melissa's shopping list but Melissa is tuning her out which doesn't bode well for their cooking. The chefs finish shopping and head home to rest before their cook time tomorrow.
The next morning Bryan, Melissa and Stephanie are up early before their cook time and enjoy some breakfast together before they head to the kitchen to get started cooking. Stephanie's menu is inspired by the dishes that made her want to be a chef like kataifi prawns, or shrimp wrapped in phyllo dough nests. Melissa is combining all of the things she's learned in Italy and adding the flavors of Hong Kong but keeping it really simple. She's making char siu style octopus and squash agnolotti in Szechuan chili oil. Bryan V.'s lasagna is complex: freshly made pasta, mushroom duxelles, bolognese, bechamel. Kevin is worried the number of components will obfuscate the story he's trying to tell. Stephanie's braised veal is worrying Brian M. because it's thin and might dry out.
The chefs finish their cook and part ways with their sous chefs to head home and rest before their big day. They walk into their home to find Tom, Padma, and Gail Simmons making them dinner. The chefs and the judges sit down to a beautiful spread of antipasti, soup, and pasta topped with an obscene amount of truffles. They get to chat about what the competition has been like, before the cheftestants head to bed and make calls to their loved ones.
The next day in the kitchen, Melissa checks her tiramisu and realizes the cookies didn't moisten so she and Lee Anne have to remake it. "It's going to be a push to get these dishes out," Melissa says. Bryan's lasagna looks amazing—layers of fresh yellow pasta, white bechamel cream sauce, and meat bolognese. He's feeling way more confident. Stephanie was planning on making her kataifi shrimp in the oven, but is worried the phyllo dough won't crisp up, so she makes the decision to pan-fry each portion which is time-consuming.
The judges arrive and prepare to eat the chefs' meals. Here's how it went:
Beets with tonatto, spicy arugula & bonito aioli
Byan's beet dish is beautiful with big chunks of red beets and arugula on top. Hunter says it's "beguiling" with a perfect undertone of the sea from the bonito.
Kataifi wrapped shrimp with tangerine syrup, pickled Calabrian chiles & spicy arugula
Stephanie's first course is in honor of her late brother who loved when she would fry coconut shrimp for him. She gets choked up telling the judges what the dish means to her. Tom says his prawn was perfectly cooked.
Char siu glazed octopus, fried shallots, fennel, pickled peppers and herbs
"Being here in Italy, I wanted to marry my Chinese heritage with some of the ingredients here," Melissa says to the judges. Clare praises the depth of flavor in the octopus but Tom finds it a touch too sweet.
Taleggio cappelletti, roasted chicken broth, pumpkin, apple, prosciutto & celery
Stephanie's pasta course is gorgeous with delicate dumplings sitting in a broth with lots of small diced vegetables. Mauro says the dish is balanced and Janice says it's elegant.
Squash agnolotti, chicken skin, agrodolce cipollinis, szechuan chili oil, shiso & squash blossoms
Melissa and Lee Anne barely make it to the plate on time with her second course, a bowl of filled agnolotti slick with chile oil and butter. Marcus says it's "complete original food" and Mario agrees saying he was blown away by the course.
Lasagna with wild boar bolognese, porcini duxelles, Tuscan kale & ricotta bechamel
Bryan's plate looks homey and more like Kevin's style of cooking than his own style which is usually modern and streamlined. The judges look kind of confused by his plate as they're eating. Clare says it's refined and light while Gail is impressed that he was able to marry story with technique.
Overall course note: Tony Mantuano is blown away by the pasta from each chef, saying each one is gorgeous.
Grilled squab with persimmon, porcini & fermented black bean sauce
Melissa is worried about her grilled squab drying out on the way to the table so she cooks it close to plating time on low heat, which is a gamble but it pays off. Nilou says that Melissa's dish has made her like squab and Janice is impressed by the use of persimmon. Marcus says the dish was brilliant.
Blackened monkfish with "cacciuto" broth, octopus, calamari & squid ink focaccia
Bryan's seafood stew looks delicious and his black focaccia is stunning. Gail says the fish is cooked beautifully but Hunter thinks the focaccia missed the mark.
Milk braised veal breast, parisienne gnocchi & lemon rosemary sauce
Stephanie is a little nervous about her veal because it's "eating dry" but there's no time to fix it because she has to plate. She decides to add more sauce to the plate to add some moisture. The judges notice. Mauro says the veal is overcooked and the gnocchi isn't crispy and Clare says the techniques used didn't really come through in the finished product.
Malted chocolate mousse, hazelnut ice cream, coffee & cardamom soil
Bryan's mousse is a bit too thick for the judges who say they were expecting more of a liquid center. Clare says the chocolate shell was too thick but the flavors were enjoyable.
Sticky toffee pudding, hazelnuts & yogurt ice cream
Nilou says Stephanie's sticky toffee pudding is moist and flavorful and the judges agree that it's a delicious, comforting end to her meal.
Gail praises the beautiful textures of Melissa's tiramisu and that the milk tea is a great way to blend both Italian and Chinese cultures. Hunter thinks the dessert is missing another bitter element. Dario is moved to tears by the way Melissa respected the traditions of Italy with her dessert and the entire meal while brining her own influence to the table.
So how did our cheftestants do? In Tom's eyes, they nailed the challenge, putting forth some of the best food he's had from them. Their final judge's table will be Padma, Tom, Gail, and Nilou. They recap their meal and the highlights of the evening to the chefs before sending them away to continue judging.
After heated discussion about who did the best, the sous chefs (Kevin, Brian M., and Lee Anne) and Bryan V.'s wife, Melissa's mom, and Stephanie's husband join the judges to hear the news. So, who is Top Chef?
It's ultimately Melissa who gets the title for combining Italian and Chinese flavors and techniques into a cohesive and elegant progressive meal. "I'm proud of myself," she says. "What's really special about this win, is that I was doing it for myself."
Get the recipe: Hong Kong Milk Tea Tiramisu