From the beginning of competition during this season of Top Chef, Nina Compton had been the one to beat.
Strong from the start, Compton wowed the judges with bold flavors derived from her Caribbean roots, formal training, and tenure in the kitchen at Miami Beach's Scarpetta.
Now, after a long season, judges Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse, Hugh Acheson, Gail Simmons, and Padma Lakshmi were heatedly debating who would claim the title and $100,000 prize. At 1 a.m., the judges were still at it after contestants Nicholas Elmi and Nina Compton's kitchen prowess proved to be pretty much even after the final challenge, in which each chef had to prepare a four-course dinner.
Earlier that evening, the cheftestants had their own challenges and victories.
Nick's duck dish was inconsistent, and his crudo was underseasoned, but his sweet shrimp bisque was a winner with Colicchio, who said it was the best plate he'd had all season.
Nina's orecchiette with baby goat, which a few hours earlier was deemed "chewy as f--k," proved to be a favorite, while her swordfish was overpowered by the kale it rested on and her zeppole was unmemorable.
Having reached a decision, the judges called in the finalists, and Padma announced the winner: "Nick, you are Top Chef."
That announcement came as a blow to many viewers, who thought the title was Compton's to lose. But, as head judge Colicchio explained to host Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live: "Nick clearly cooked better that night, but Nina clearly cooked better all season," before adding he'll never again be welcome in St. Lucia, the small Caribbean island from which Compton hails.
Both Compton and Elmi were guests on Cohen's late-night show. When the host mentioned to Compton that she didn't look surprised when she lost, she replied, "I knew I made a few mistakes, and as a chef, there was a gut feeling. You know when you didn't make the cut." Elmi quipped he had the same gut feeling during every elimination round.
The evening ended on a sweet note for both chefs, with Nina winning both the fan favorite competition (and the $10,000 that goes with the popularity title) and that evening's poll, which asked viewers to vote on who they wanted to win. Compton won that by a landslide 80 percent.
Cohen then reminded fans that they could visit Elmi at his newly opened 20-seat restaurant, Laurel, in Philadelphia and could sample Compton's food at Scarpetta in Miami Beach. When Cohen asked the Scarpetta chef if she was planning to open her own restaurant, she simply replied, "I'm just going with the flow right now." Let's hope that flow keeps her in Miami.
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Here's Nina explaining how it feels to come that close to winning: