This is it. After 14 episodes and what seems like a lifetime, we're left with the two best chefs ready to duke it out for the title of "Top Chef."
With Gregory and Mei winning, respectively, the first QuickFire and Elimination Challenge, they have been the odds-on favorites since the beginning. No matter what happens, I think we can all agree that the right two chefs made it to the finale.
Since the title of this episode is "Mano a Mano," let's take a quick look at the Tale of the Tape. Out of the 14 total Elimination Challenges, Gregory has finished 9 times, winning four of those challenges. Similarly, Mei also has finished 9 times, but she's only won three.
Although Gregory has gotten the better of Mei in head-to-head competitions, according to GoldDerby.com, a website that figures out odds for things like this, Mei is given an 8-to-11 advantage to win the finale.
After a grandiose hot-air balloon ride, Gregory and Mei are taken to Viñedos Azteca in Querétaro, where Tom and Padma are waiting to announce the final Elimination Challenge. It's simple and always the same for the finale -- cook the best meal of your life.
Tomorrow, the two chefs will have five hours to cook four courses for the judges and some of the biggest names in the food world, including Sean Brock and Traci Des Jardins. And as always, they'll get to pick their sous chefs from the eliminated chefs.
Naturally, Gregory picks Doug and George, arguably the two "best of the rest." Mei goes with her BFF Melissa and then, strategically, picks Rebecca for her pastry skills. Unlike the rest of us, Mei remembered that Rebecca earned both culinary and pastry degrees from the C.I.A.
Looks like it's boys versus girls.
"Cook your heart out" is the advice Tom offers. "You don't want to wake up the following day and think about what you might have done." (That's pretty good advice for everything else in life as well.)
Mei is doing what she's been doing all season long: cooking her style of food and showcasing a high level of technique while incorporating local flavors.
It's almost like she's treating this as a "Mexican" challenge. Her menu is a combination of both Asian and Mexican flavors and ingredients. On her menu are dishes like congee with carnitas and duck with kimchi jicama.
Mei is definitely doing a dessert. In fact, during the "off-season," she went and worked the dessert station at Bryan Voltaggio's restaurant in Maryland just to bone up on that skill.
All season long, Gregory has been playing with Asian flavor profiles. But for the finale, he's changing it up. Inspired by the locale and the array of new ingredients, his menu is full-out Mexican. We're talking octopus with passion fruit and bass with tomatillo sauce. He's even making mole, which apparently contains over 30 ingredients.
What he's not doing though, is dessert. I'm not sure if he knew this, but of the 14 previous winning chefs, 9 of them did a dessert course for the finale.
Two chefs, two different approaches.
As with past finales, the judges inevitably compare the dishes course by course, and the winner is determined by how many rounds they won. So let's break it down as they do.
Both chefs make octopus. Mei prepares hers with a fish-sauce vinaigrette, avocado-coconut puree and herbs. Perhaps because it's the first thing they taste, her goal of bringing bold flavors works. The only problem is the octopus is over-cooked. Instead of finishing the octopus on the grill, as Tom thought she was going to do, she decides to fry it. Big mistake.
When Tom Colicchio says something like "look at the grill over there I hope you're grilling it," that means you probably should grill it. And that's how Gregory does it. His grilled octopus with prickly pear, xoconostle, passion fruit and cashew milk trumps Mei's. Padma says it is "sublime."
Mei follows up with congee with carnitas, scallion puree, hot sauce, peanuts and yolk. Mei won the very first Elimination Challenge with a bowl of congee. So, in a way, you can almost see the evolution of her cooking since then. "Perfect balance," says Tom.
Gregory counters with his own bowl of comfort: a shrimp broth with green chorizo, pickled nopales and crispy shrimp heads. Though Sean Brock (who, in that suit and tie, is looking more like a substitute math teacher than the bad ass chef he is) compares it to gumbo, the dish has some problems.
The crispy shrimp heads with the shell on are too rough for people to eat. Tom points out that this is where using ingredients you're not super-experienced with can hurt you. The dish is not balanced. While Gregory might have won the first course, this one ss clearly a dud.
Mei's third course is duck with braised lettuce, kimchi jicama and huitlacoche, the black fungus that grows on crow that is so popular in Mexico. Though judges are intrigued by the combination of kimchi and huitlacoche, the duck fat isn't rendered correctly and the fungus puree is off texture-wise.
Gregory runs into some problem of his own during this course. In the most important meal of his life, dude screws up and forgets to put vinegar and sugar into his carrot sauce. So he's adding more sugar at the last minute in hopes of saving it. Nope. Tom says this dish is sweeter than Mei's dessert. It's an across-the-board fail.
Time for Mei's dessert. Right before this is served, Tom says that if someone's a savory chef, they shouldn't do a dessert course. I guess Tom also is unaware of the dessert statistic. However, he takes it all back after tasting Mei's dessert. Her strawberry lime curd with toasted yogurt, milk crumble and yogurt-lime ice is the best dessert Tom has ever tasted, both on "Top Chef" and perhaps in life!
Gregory's last dish is his red mole with short ribs & agave sweet potato. As much as everyone raves about Mei's dessert, the same can be said about this short rib dish. When Hugh Acheson says your dish is "spectacular" you're doing something right.
At Judge's Table, it starts to become pretty obvious how this one is going to turn out. Although Gregory made a mole to rival that of an 80-year-old Mexican grandmother and won the octopus battle in Round 1, his third course of overly sweet fish did him in. That, and the fact that his shrimp broth soup was also unbalanced.
Sure Mei's octopus was slightly chewy and the judges didn't particularly love her duck course. However, the one-two punch of that flawless congee combined with serving Tom the best dessert he's possibly ever had earn her the title of Top Chef.
Mei Lin takes the crown and the $125,000, becoming only the third woman to hold the title of Top Chef! Afterward, they have Michael Voltaggio on the phone congratulating her and telling her to stop calling him chef because she's the chef now!
Gregory has proved himself a formidable chef, someone who can create really unique flavors with perfect balance. He just committed the ultimate "Top Chef" mistake during the finale by pushing too far out of his comfort zone and doing something too different. Remember the time when he did goose? Exactly.
There you have it, folks! Though it was a relatively tame season, I'm glad they kept the focus on the food instead of unnecessary product placements, forced drama between cheftestants and celebrity tie-ins. Well, expect for the Bravo Andy episode.