Credit: Justin Stephens/Bravo

For a season that pitted brothers against each other and James Beard nominees against chefs who worked with culinary masters, Wednesday’s Top Chef finale kept the drama relatively at bay, highlighting three talented chefs — Bryan and Michael Voltaggio and Kevin Gillespie — and their exceptional, interesting food.

That is until the show’s emotional final moments.

Only one could win, and up until the final courses were served for a who’s who of culinary professionals, it looked like fan favorite Kevin may go all the way. But the Atlanta-native fell short despite his strong start, paving the way for Michael to beat out his brother Bryan and become this year’s Top Chef.

But before they hit the kitchen to prep their final meal, the three got some help from former competitors. Drawing knives to determine their sous-chefs, Bryan picked Ashley and fourth-place finisher Jennifer Carroll, while his brother Michael enlisted Jesse and Eli. Kevin nabbed early loser Preeti and Ash, and fretted about their skill levels. In a twist, the finalists were given a mystery box containing Pacific rockfish, Dungeness crab, kabocha squash, Meyer lemon, matsutake mushrooms and anise hyssop, all of which they had to weave into a harmonious dish. “The ingredients seem a bit obscure to meld together,” Bryan said. “It’s not going to be easy to develop a dish.”

After planning, the top three returned to their homebase only to get — surprise! — a knock at the door. Rather than Padma Lakshmi or Tom Colicchio, their mothers walked in to offer support. They also inspired a last-minute challenge: The chefs were told they would now be serving a four-course dinner. For their first course, they would have to create something inspired by a favorite childhood dish which they would dedicate (and serve to) their mothers. Next, they would serve the “mystery box dish” followed by a third course that was entirely up to them. For the fourth course, everyone would make dessert.

At dinner, Kevin started strong, turning out a fried chicken skin and squash dish for his first course that revealed deeper levels of flavor with each bite. But things didn’t go as well for the rest of his meal. He undercooked his matsutake mushroom, didn’t cook his pork belly long enough and didn’t impress the judges with his caramelized banana dessert, though Gail Simmons did love his caramelized bacon “crunchies” that accompanied the sweet treat.

Michael’s fried broccoli was a highlight and his “mystery box” dish was considered the best of the evening. The younger Voltaggio brother also nailed his squab dish, though the judges didn’t love his reconstructed mushrooms nor the texture of his pistachio cassoulet. Worse, his dessert — a chocolate cake with a creamy caramel center — was overcooked, which he knew, and disappointed everyone with its dry texture. “It was almost a very good dessert,” Colicchio said, realizing its potential.

The diners thought Bryan’s early dishes were under-seasoned and uninteresting but all that changed when he served his third course — venison. The meat earned him almost universal love for his sophisticated flavors and skill and seemed to be the favorite dish of the night. Better still, Simmons called the fig sorbet he served with his cheesecake “heavenly.” “To me this was a pastry chef’s dish,” she said. “It showed a lot of skill.”

In the end, the judges’ tough decision came down to the two brothers after the panel determined that Kevin was an outstanding chef who simply had an off night. Their pick of Michael over Bryan was an emotional one, Colicchio told the brothers, but the Voltaggios vowed that they’d rather be up against each other than any other chef out there. –Brian Orloff

Tell us: Did the judges make the right decision? What did you think of the final dishes?Justin Stephens/Bravo