Sarah Grueneberg on "Top Chef" (Bravo photo )
The final showdown on "Top Chef: Texas" pitted a Texan against a Chicagoan raised in Texas.
And sorry to disappoint, y'all, but it was Austin-based chef Paul Qui who won the title on Wednesday's finale over Chicagoan chef Sarah Grueneberg of award-winning Gold Coast restaurantSpiaggia.
"I think in nine seasons and 'All-Stars,' this was the best food we've seen in the finale," judge Tom Colicchio said. "In the end, this was about as close as it can get."
The chef's final challenge was to prepare a four-course meal for their dream restaurant, with not just judges but also their families in attendance.
"I thought for a second it was going to be me and it wasn't," Grueneberg tearfully said on the show after Qui's win was announced. "I think I deserve to be Top Chef, but it wasn't my day."
The popular Bravo show gathers chefs from around the country in one namesake city (or, in the case of this season, state) to compete in culinary challenges. In past seasons, two Chicago chefs have taken top honors: Season 4's Stephanie Izard of Girl & the Goat fame and Rick Bayless, who won "Top Chef: Masters," a spinoff for well-established chefs.
This season was especially Chicago-heavy. Six of the 16 cast members—or cheftestants—represented Chicago restaurants, and in addition to Grueneberg's runner-up status, it was Chicagoans who provided much of the season's drama.
We had the underdog (Aria chef Beverly Kim, who surprised everyone by cooking her way back on to the show), the villainess (Heather Terhune of Sable, who tossed insults and orders around freely), and two chefs from the same restaurant (Chris Jones and Richie Farina of Moto), a "Top Chef" first. Not to mention class clown Chuy Valencia of Chilam Balam, whose random comments and antics likely had the producers patting themselves on the back for their casting prowess.
In addition to memorable celebrity guest judges such as Charlize Theron, Patti LaBelle and Pee-wee Herman, a handful of Chicago-area chefs, including Tony Mantuano, Sarah Stegner and Takashi Yagihashi, scored screen time too.
Qui, who was awarded $125,000 for winning the season, had the leading record heading into the finale, having won more challenges than any other chef. His nice-guy persona also drew more support from fans than Grueneberg, whose less-than-kind words were caught on camera again and again.
In one moment especially edited for contrast, she said her goal heading into one of the final episodes was to "be a really nice person," only to later be shown rudely interrupting another chef in the middle of a thoughtful moment.
Earlier in the season, challenges such as a barbecue pit war and firing a gun at labeled targets to choose ingredients gave Grueneberg the opportunity to tell stories about her Texas upbringing, including how her father "used to take me practicing shotgun with tin cans in the country."
But her background didn't translate into an advantage; hours tending a hot grill in the Texas sun landed her in a hospital with heat exhaustion, and she didn't fare any better at target practice than fellow competitor Kim, who had never fired a gun.
Grueneberg did excel with what Spiaggia is known for—flavorful Italian fare—and impressed the judges with made-from-scratch sausage and hand-made pasta such as cannelloni and egg yolk-filled ravioli. It just wasn't enough to wrangle the title from her Texan challenger.
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