Your Top Chef: California Recap (OC Edition) – Week 12/Finale, Part Two

Disclaimer: While this is a Top Chef recap, this is also specific to OC. In other words, us Weeklings are rooting for Amar Santana!

Disclaimer #2: There are total spoilers in here. Do not read unless you want to know who won what this week it all, okay? Now, let’s DO this.

We admit to following social media around 7 p.m. last night for the East Coast feed. It was that or shut off our phone completely for three hours (not gonna happen). And by now, anybody who follows Top Chef, Amar Santana or your friend who loves to eat knows how it ends. But we are here to recap, and that we shall do.

Open to a friendly game of pool between Amar and Jeremy. The doorbell rings. It’s head judge Tom “Room Service” Colicchio, there to cook a four-course lunch for our finalists. Per Tom, he has never cooked on Top Chef before (Note: But he has on one of the Top Chef spin-offs). In other words, this was one hell of a treat! With his dress shirt sleeves rolled up, glasses and perfect plating, this may be one of our favorite non-Amar moment all season.

Crab and sea urchin with finger limes. Squab, honey-glazed onions, turnips and smoked peaches. Potato pasta with leeks and caviar. Wagyu beef, chanterelles, shishito peppers and Bordelaise. Each stunning course featured an ingredient that was one of Tom’s favorites. Our two remaining chefs are instructed to think of things they love to cook that get them excited. 

When the two draw knives, Amar has first pick for sous chefs. He ends up choosing Kwame and Marjorie. Kwame helped Jeremy in the previous episode, and Amar wanted a guaranteed dessert course. There was definite strategy involved. Jeremy took Carl and Angelina, both fierce in the kitchen. Padma provides the final instructions: Make a four-course meal highlighting one ingredient per course. Their venue: CraftSteak. Oh, and to throw a bonus/curve ball, they invited your mentors to assist in prep work. Yes, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Charlie Palmer are reporting for duty. Oh, it’s going down!

Cue to everyone shopping at Whole Paycheck for the next hour. A surreal grocery trip for both Amar and Jeremy, they are not used to telling these two culinary giants what to do. Per Santana, he spent 10 years saying, “Yes, Chef”. And how he’s telling Charlie Palmer what to purchase and prep. “That is crazy.” We also learn a great deal of where the two left off in their friendship, according to Palmer,

“There’s a difference between being very, you know, confident in what you do. And, you know, just being a complete asshole. Amar has crossed that line, for sure. We had a bit of a stepping back. I haven’t seen him in a couple of years, actually. I’m not the kind of guy that holds grudges. And Amar, hopefully, is the kind of guy that learns from missteps. And I think being here with him is a good thing for him. It’s a good thing for me, too.”

Amar then reminisces how Palmer was a father figure to him after his own father passed away. He even spent some weekends in Sonoma with Palmer’s family. It is then we realize that the intensity of this episode (at least from a psychological standpoint) must have been off the charts for Santana. From the age of 17, when he won a Cordon Bleu scholarship in London for preparing a proper omelette and vegetables, to today, he has come a long way. Simple, yet tasty flavors are his signature style— as Vaca and Broadway diners already know and appreciate.

Let’s go over those courses!

First course: 
Amar – Seared tuna tataki, habanero coconut dressing, compressed pineapple, toasted peanuts and crispy wild rice.
Jeremy – Foie gras two ways with chili, passion fruit and marshmallows.

Infused with Thai flavors, some may consider tuna “safe” to start with. However, Santana’s heat factor made it a bold start to the meal. While the flavor combos in Jeremy’s dish sounded odd, they worked well with the judges. Also, it was aggressive of him to serve a duo of foie. We felt Jeremy edged ahead this round.

Second course:
Amar – Sea urchin risotto with butter-poached lobster, finger limes, jicama and shellfish broth.
Jeremy – Slow-cooked branzini, herbal lime vinaigrette, squash and tomatoes.

It is a well-known fact that many a chef will fail when executing risotto on reality television. But Amar took the ‘Go big or go home’ mentality Jeremy had with his foie. Per judge Gail Simmons, it was one of the best they’ve had in all their seasons. Amar owned this course. 

Third course:
Amar – Harissa-rubbed rack of lamb with braised lamb pastilla, date ginger puree and yogurt emulsion.
Jeremy – Duck with roasted maitake mushrooms, smoked chili, buttermilk and lemon.

So the issue here was that both chefs were not consistent with how their proteins were cooked. Undercooked lamb and duck was prevalent. Yet all other components were spot on for both dishes. This was a draw.

Final course:
Amar – Coconut financier, mango sorbet, passion fruit curd, tropical fruit salad and brulee meringue.
Jeremy – Ricotta and mozzarella cheese cylinder with spiced fig jam, pumpernickel toast and honey.

This course was a delicate one, as each had a technical fault. Amar’s financier was too dense. Jeremy’s honey “ball” was watered down. Amar came full circle with his flavors, echoing the tropical fruit tastes accompanying his first course. Jeremy showcased a great deal of technique on one plate. This could go either way, but a final decision was made.

Jeremy Ford is the next Top Chef.

As we spoke to colleagues leading up to the finale, we all agreed that no matter how the season ended, Chef Amar Santana represented Orange County well. His restaurants are both highly regarded, and Vaca will be on everybody’s year-end lists, no doubt. He has accomplished a great deal in his career thus far, and we congratulate him for excelling in the competition. We are proud of you, Amar.

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