Word of Mouth

Top Chef DC, round 14: Kevin wins!

"Kevin, you are Top Chef," Padma announced, and a stunned Kevin responded, "I am?"

I was happy with the outcome of this seventh season of Top Chef -- but I would have been equally pleased had Angelo won. He irritates a lot of viewers, I know, but there's something about his vulnerability and passion for food, the odd humility coursing beneath his bravado, that touches me. And I'm irritated with Ed Cotton for his gloating over last episode's victories and all those paranoid mutterings about the nefarious schemes he's sure Angelo is hatching. (Incidentally, Ed's Plein Sud got stinging reviews recently from the Village Voice and Sam Sifton in the New York Times, which makes you wonder a bit about the Top Chef judges' raves. )

The two Singapore episodes have been far more interesting than those shot in DC. I hadn't thought much before about the influence of locale on cooking -- obviously, where a chef lives has influence, but I didn't think being temporarily in another city affected style or approach. Clearly, however, Singapore got everyone's blood rushing: Angelo's, alas, a little too hotly, as he came down with an ugly fever that threatened to prevent him from cooking that all-important final meal.

He was lucky. Three previous Top Chef winners had flown in to serve as sous chefs. Knives were drawn, and Angelo got speed demon and king of meticulous technique Hung Huynh. Huynh did all the first day prep by himself, following Angelo's phoned instructions to the letter. Kevin got Michael Voltaggio, and Ed was stuck with Ilan Hall -- who apparently nobody wanted. Ed and Ilan didn't get on particularly well: Ilan kept telling Ed to keep it simple and not take risks, while Ed is all about complexity and risk.

It was such a pleasure seeing Huynh and Voltaggio working in the kitchen again. Both these master chefs were completely willing to take on the role of sous, putting aside their own ideas to help realize the competitors' visions. There was a little friction when Huynh snagged the entire available foie gras lobe for Angelo's entree, and more dark muttering from Ed. "Do you remember when I got to filet and you had to take all the bones out of the fish?" Voltaggio teased Kevin, who had once worked under him and was now calling the shots.

The challenge was to prepare a four-course meal. All the contestants had to use the same proteins, which were selected in advance by Tom Colicchio and Eric Ripert: red mullet, cuttlefish, duck, pork belly, slipper lobsters. There was to be a vegetable starter, and one of the courses had to be dessert. Among the diners were Seetoh, Dana Cowin, Paul Bartolotta and Momofuku's David Chang.

The disappointments were Kevin's terrine of zucchini, eggplant and pepper -- a little too ordinary for this stage of Top Chef -- and Ed's dessert, a sticky toffee cake with salted creme chantilly. He'd left the preparation to Ilan, since he felt unsure of his pastry skills. Ed won high praise, though, for his elaborate duck two ways -- the second way being a neck stuffed with spinach (he'd wanted to use the foie) -- and also for his corn veloute. Kevin's duck with orange-coriander sauce and caramelized bok choy was a hit, too.

Angelo had a wonderful duck and foie gras course. (Once again, he mentioned marshmallow. What is duck or foie gras marshmallow? Later, Colicchio referred to the stuff as meringue. Can anyone out there enlighten me on this?) But the judges quibbled with the tart cherry shooter accompanying the duck. This was intended as a palate cleanser, but Padma complained that it coated every corner of her mouth. You were supposed to go from a sip of the shooter to the crisp salad, Angelo explained. Colicchio's acerbic response: "I don't think dishes should come with so much instruction."

There were raves for the tenderness of Kevin's duck, cooked sous vide, and for his Singapore sling with frozen fruit on top and coconut on the bottom. "He's just created our national dessert," enthused one of the diners. And Gail Simmons said this: "Kevin's dessert started very subtly andd built and built, and at the end ... this huge punch." And then she had to spoil it: "fruit punch." Much laughter.

Would Angelo have won if he'd been healthy? Quite possibly. Would Ed have triumphed if his sous chef had been as talented as Huynh and Voltaggio? I suspect his lack of pastry skills might have tripped him up anyway.

Kevin hadn't won many previous challenges, but it shouldn't have been a complete surprise that he took the title. He was often in the top three, and the other chefs, including Angelo, spoke of him several times as the one to beat. Kelly Liken raved about his approach and presentation, and he seemed to grow in quiet confidence as the season progressed. "It's not just about me," Kevin said early in this penultimate episode. "It's about my wife and my daughter and my son, and it's about my father and it's about my mother that passed away."

And after winning -- and noting that he's the first African-American Top Chef -- he said, "My dad, my sister, my friends, the guys at the barbershop -- they'd going to eat it up!"