Coming into this season, I'd have never guessed that Mike Isabella could give Richard Blais such a run for his money. That Mike made it to the finale at all was a surprise, but his performance during the past few episodes has proved it's not just a fluke. Blais kicks off the finale of Top Chef All-Stars by saying that Mike has come back a different chef, and it's true—the dishes hold together conceptually, he's thinking more creatively (chocolate vinaigrette, pepperoni sauce), and he's executing well. He clearly worked his ass off in the time between seasons and arrived at the finale prepared and focused, and in the end, it was a pleasure to watch the two of them compete. The show might have hit us over the head with all the underdog talk, but if you strip away any idea that an underdog needs to be plucky and charismatic, he fits the bill well enough. He was pegged to go home quickly, performed consistently throughout the season, and emerged to really challenge the guy everyone bet on from day one.
Tonight's final challenge—asking the contestants to create the restaurant of their dreams—gave Richard and Mike the creative freedom to express themselves, uninhibited by the traditional, artificial constraints of the show. On a more subtle level, it also played into what these chefs hope to do beyond the show—both see the prize money as a means to open a restaurant. The finale episode gives them a concrete view of what's at stake.
But as Colicchio points out twice during the episode, it's not as straightforward a challenge as it might seem. The focus here is on the restaurant—that four-course meal, and the show plays with the same anxieties that make Restaurant Wars one of the better episodes of most seasons. It's not just about the execution of the dish; it's about the concept of the menu as a whole and their ability to manage a team. These teams can significantly help or hurt those they're working under. As we've talked about already this season, the previously eliminated chefs come back carrying plenty of baggage. Those eliminated recently are still feeling the sting of rejection, and they often come with varying skills and professionalism. Just think of what damage Marcel could have done, for example, by just showing up and being an uncooperative asshole. It might have been on par with Rhadika's extraordinarily poor performance in season five.
Mike and Richard are ready for this, speculating that they might have the pick of the entire cast. Meanwhile, in a nicely edited sequence, we see how it's really going down, which is brilliant—the returning chefs take part in a 30-minute quickfire, and Mike and Richard do a blind tasting to determine their team. The decision is merit-based, and despite their efforts to guess whose dish belongs to whom, both finalists appear to be surprised by their choices. (Not to mention the rest of the cast, some of whom had made jet-ski reservations.)
Another big risk that comes with the long-lost teammates is their tendency to over-help. We've seen them influence chefs, for better or worse, by being overly helpful. They introduce doubts and cause the chefs to second-guess their dishes or to otherwise stray from their comfort zone. Mike's lady friends set in with this, and he refuses the suggestions. He's a little bit of a dick about it—how can he not be?—but at this last stage, he's right to do so. Better to stick to the plan and be fully accountable for everything that goes on.
Neither of the teams causes its chef any real drama; I was surprised when, at only 20 minutes into the episode, the chefs placed their first courses in front of the judges. That's the beauty of tonight's finale. Everything went well, and both remaining chefs put forward some excellent-looking dishes. The neurotically calculated "whimsy" of Richard's restaurant arrives on point in his amuse bouche—a raw oyster with creme fraiche "pearls" and salsa verde. (I wonder if this was another trick from his brainstorming notebook, from which Mike borrowed another play on oysters.) The playfulness of that piece was clear, though less so in the remainder of his courses. Richard's precision and plating brought raving from the judges, though they did seem more critical while eating than at judge's table. That first round of foie gras ice cream certainly looked unappetizing, especially in that teaser shot of it crapping out of the ice cream machine. The judges also called his beef dish "safe," which is never good.
The praise for Mike's dishes seemed more effusive, and I spent most of the episode coming to grips with the realization that he really might win. Some of this fawning might have come from the judges having lower expectations of Mike as well; Tom all but admits that no one expected him to get that far, and the judges seem consistently surprised with his delivery. (Plus, Gail will never get over the pepperoni sauce.) Things really turned at judge's table, though, and when Gail says that Blais' restaurant would be her weekend choice, there was little hope left for poor Mikey. Blais might have been the favorite, but he didn't coast into the finale, and the TV was certainly better for it. Ultimately, Top Chef All-Stars ended almost as strongly as it began, with a tightly edited, competitive finale that managed to surprise—even as the obvious pick took the title.